Russian arms sales in Southeast Asia: What does it mean for the region?

Photo: Needpix

Russia’s status as a major arms supplier in Southeast Asia will have a significant impact on the region’s geopolitical landscape.

By Umair Jamal

Over the past decade, Russia’s arms sales across Southeast Asia have increased sharply.

Since 2000, Russia has accounted for 25% of major arms sales in Southeast Asia. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia’s conventional arms sales to Southeast Asia totaled US$6.6 billion between 2010 and 2017, as much as the US and China combined.

A high demand for Russia’s weapons across Southeast Asia offers Moscow a valuable opportunity to strengthen its soft power and develop a sphere of influence across the region.

The expansion of arms sales to Southeast Asian states has raised eyebrows in many capitals, particularly Beijing and Washington. US sanctions against Russia, imposed in response to its invasion of Ukraine in 2014, also prohibit countries across the world from buying weapons from Russia. For China, Russia’s growing role in the South China Sea dispute is likely to become problematic, including Russia’s sales of arms to Southeast Asian states that have territorial disputes with Beijing.

Traditionally, Southeast Asia has relied on China and the US for its defense needs but a growing military threat from China, better and flexible payment options offered by Russia and other, terrorism-related challenges help explain why Moscow may have found an eager market in the region.

Is Russia strengthening its soft power with growing arms sales?

Russia’s hard power is well-known and understood globally. However, the country has not fully exploited its ability to spread influence through soft power resources. This has largely been due to Russia’s reliance on its military strength as the main tool to achieve foreign policy objectives.

The prospects of Russian exports of arms, technology shares and joint military ventures present excellent opportunities for Moscow to build strong and trusting relationships with many governments across Southeast Asia.

For instance, in addition to selling arms, Russia is increasingly involved in joint military exercises with Southeast Asian countries. Last year, Russia and Laos carried out a week-long joint military exercise. Russia and Indonesia are reportedly planning to hold their first joint naval exercise later this year. Russia also holds occasional joint military drills with Vietnam and is the country’s key arms supplier, accounting for 60% of its military imports. Last year, Vietnamese and Russian naval forces held their first major joint exercise. Moscow is also looking to make inroads into the Filipino market is seeking to increase sales to Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar.

Moscow has also been actively trying to deepen diplomatic ties with the Philippines and Thailand. These efforts reinforce Moscow’s soft power as they have the potential to bring the regional states into the country’s sphere of influence.

Why are Southeast Asian states buying Russian weapons?

Over the last few years, the rise in territorial disputes, terrorism and competition among rival states has increased the demand for Russian weaponry across Southeast Asia. In this regard, China’s growing military assertiveness in the South China Sea dispute has increased Southeast Asian states’ security worries. Beijing is increasingly viewed as a military threat rather than a positive player. Thus, China is losing its value as an arms supplier for Southeast Asian states.

Russia’s arms are also considerably cheaper than other weapons and come with flexible payment options, increasing their attractiveness of across Southeast Asia.

For many potential suppliers, issues such as democracy and human rights play a significant role in their decision to supply weapons to Southeast Asian countries. For instance, Myanmar cannot import arms from the European Union (EU) because the country has been under an arms embargo since 1990. The 2014 military coup in Thailand also led to restrictions by many EU suppliers. The Cambodian Government’s banning of the political opposition in 2016 and the war on drugs in the Philippines have brought intense criticism from Western states. Amid these restrictions and scrutiny, Southeast Asian countries have turned to Russia seeking a supplier that is willing to offer major arms deals without asking questions about politics and human rights.

With its arms sales in Southeast Asia, “Moscow’s motives appear to be a combination of commercial and the perhaps disruptive, in the sense that any erosion of US or European defense interests is a de facto win,”  Gavin Greenwood, an analyst with a Hong Kong-based security consultancy, A2 Global Risk, told VOA.

What does Russian involvement in Southeast Asia mean for China and the US?

Russia’s focus in Southeast Asia is not only on supplying arms, as Moscow has been pitching itself as a power with strong diplomatic muscle as well. Increased Russian involvement in Southeast Asia offers the region more diplomatic options when it comes to relying on international powers for military, political and other needs. With the South China Sea dispute fast becoming a major crisis between China and the US, Southeast Asian states are concerned that they will be forced to choose between the two. Russia “could become a negotiation chip for us with the US and China,” a source at the Indonesian Foreign Ministry told Nikkei Asian Review.

However, Russia’s growing involvement in the South China Sea dispute may complicate its bilateral relationship with China in the coming years.

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Photo: / CC BY

Last year, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte invited a Russian energy company to conduct oil and gas exploration in waters that the Philippines claims in the South China Sea. Beijing’s policy on gas and oil exploration projects in any disputed part of the South China Sea has been clear: “We urge relevant parties to earnestly respect China’s sovereign and jurisdictional rights and not do anything that could impact bilateral relations or this region’s peace and stability,” said China’s foreign ministry spokesman according to a Reuters story. Still, Russia’s state-owned oil company, Rosneft, has not halted its drilling operations in the disputed region. Similarly, the company is also working with the Vietnamese government on a number of gas exploration projects in the disputed maritime region.

So far, Beijing has not complained about Russia’s push into its traditional sphere of influence. “Although Russian diplomats have privately expressed concerns to their US counterparts that China may one day put pressure on Moscow to terminate those projects, so far Beijing has refrained from doing so because of the ever-closer strategic partnership between the two countries,” said Ian Storey, a regional security expert at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

“It would be a serious blow to the burgeoning Sino-Russian entente if Beijing asked Moscow to end its energy projects in Vietnam.”

Recently, Indonesia decided against executing a plan to procure 11 Russian Sukhoi Su-35 jets due to fears of American sanctions. Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the US has intensified sanctions on several major Russian state banks and corporations. These sanctions also target countries that sign major arms deals with Russia. On the part of the US, the move shows a “global effort to prevent its top adversaries from eroding the US’s military superiority,” noted Karlis Salna and Arys Aditya in an article for Bloomberg.

However, Washington has not been able to successfully deter all countries in Southeast Asia from buying Russian arms. For instance, the Philippines has stepped up its military relations with Russia despite a clear threat of sanctions from the United States. The Philippines is planning to sign a weapons deal with Russia, worth 400 million pesos, or US$7.48 million. However, the country “could find itself running afoul of US sanctions if it goes through with an arms purchase from a sanctioned Russian firm,” wrote Max Greenwood in The Hill.

Essentially, this means that Washington and Moscow are already competing in Southeast Asia and the ongoing power politics will significantly impact the region’s geopolitical landscape in the coming years.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at and on Twitter @UmairJamal15