Strengthened ASEAN-Russian military links are a signal Russia is serious about its pivot to Asia

Asean National Flags in JakartaPhoto: Gunawan Kartapranata

ASEAN holds economic and diplomatic opportunities for Russia. After shoring up his power at home, Putin is turning his attention to Southeast Asia.


2018 has seen a string of high-profile defence collaborations between ASEAN and Russia. They are an indicator that Putin is serious about his pivot to Asia. But why now? What does the future look like for ASEAN-Russian relations?

There has been a marked increase in Russian collaboration among ASEAN nations

In April, Russia agreed a new deal with Vietnam for closer military ties between the two counties. The military roadmap will last until 2020. It will see Russian naval vessels based in Vietnam for use in search and rescue missions. The two countries will conduct joint training exercises. 176 Vietnamese soldiers will also travel to Moscow for training.

There have also been considerable developments in the Russia-Laos military relationship. In March, plans of a new Russian military facility in Laos surfaced. The facility in Vientiane will provide technical assistance to the Laotian military. The Laos military uses Russian-made equipment. The Russian government will base a team of staff in Vientiane to provide training and help.

Russian Defence Minister, Sergey Shoygu, visited Laos earlier this year. During his visit, the two countries discussed ways to deepen military cooperation.

The moves are part of Putin’s wider pivot to Asia

Putin has increasingly turned his attention to Asia. His pivot is in part due to the increasing tensions in the South China Sea. As tensions escalate, Russia will seek to exert its influence in the dispute.

It is unclear whether Putin will endorse Chinese claims. Chinese-Russian relations are strong. Two years ago the two navies conducted a joint military exercise in the South China Sea. In April, the Chinese Defence Minister, Wei Feng confirmed he would attend the Moscow conference this year. Either way, Putin will want Russia involved in the world’s largest diplomatic dispute. It is an opportunity to reinforce Russian relevance on the world stage. One that Putin will not want to miss.

Putin may also have plans for ASEAN in his Greater Eurasian Partnership

Putin secured a landslide victory in the Russian general election in March. He can now turn his attention to the resurrection of his Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) plans. The economic bloc was founded in 2015, but little progress has been made beyond its formation.

Putin could use closer ties with ASEAN to pursue an ASEAN-EEU free trade agreement (FTA). This would be a significant victory for the EEU. Although ASEAN-EEU trade is not significant in volume. An FTA would indicate the EEU is able to negotiate FTAs with developed economies.

Source: OEC

Oil underscores its ‘Look East’ strategy

Russia is also finding an unlikely market in ASEAN for Russian oil and gas. Tightening Western sanctions have left Russia looking for alternative export destinations. Thailand has seized the opportunity to diversify its energy sources.

Russian energy exports to ASEAN have increased fivefold since 2013. Thai state-owned energy company, PTT Public Co. Ltd. recently signed three memorandums of understanding (MOU) with Russia’s three leading oil and gas companies. The MOUs are currently limited to liquefied natural gas purchases. Once Thai businesses understand the Russian market, purchases will likely extend to oil.

CEO of PPT, Tevin Vongvanich, hinted at deeper Thai-Russian economic cooperation. He said, “we look at this as an opening of the door to a better understanding of Russia”. Last month, Tevin led a group of PTT executives and Thai journalists to Moscow. They met with the Minister for Energy and key players from Russia’s energy firms.

Where next for ASEAN-Russian relations?

With oil and natural gas as a platform, Thai-Russian relations are likely to deepen. The Russian Deputy Minister of Economic Development named several areas of interest. He listed transport, logistics, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, among others. The oil and gas deals could be a platform for Russian businesses to invest in Thailand. The development of the Eastern Economic Corridor will likely tempt Russian investors.

We may also see Putin attend the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2018 for the first time. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong invited his Russian counterpart to the event. Traditionally, Putin has overlooked the EAS. However, if an EEU-ASEAN FTA is on his agenda, he may make an effort to attend in November.

ASEAN represents a host of opportunities for Russia. The increasing military ties gas exports to the region are the beginning. Putin will likely use these successes to further Russian interests. Russian businesses will use the MOUs to gain valuable inroads into new markets.

ASEAN could hold the key to offsetting sanctions and preventing overreliance on China. Russia will find ASEAN a willing recipient of exports, investment and military equipment. This is the beginning of Russia’s push to become a committed player in Southeast Asia.