Over the past two decades, Russia has played a quiet yet consequential role in the South China Sea. Despite its intimate ties with Beijing, the Eurasian power has steadily armed rival claimant states such as Vietnam and, to a lesser degree, Malaysia, while actively courting robust defense ties with the Philippines and Indonesia.
Aside from being Southeast Asia’s top defense supplier, Russia has also been a major player in the development of offshore energy resources in the South China Sea as well as in the so-called “North Natuna Sea” off the coast of Indonesia. While Western energy companies have tried to avoid confrontation with China, often rolling back investments in contested areas, Russian counterparts opportunistically sought to fill in any major investment gaps.
Cognizant of Southeast Asian nations’ instinctive penchant for strategic diversification, an enterprising Russia has presented itself as a reliable “third force” to both the West and China. Eager to keep Moscow on its side, especially amid a raging New Cold War with the West, Beijing has largely tolerated its supposed ally’s strategic buccaneering in its own maritime backyard. But President Vladimir Putin’s brazen decision to invade Ukraine, which has turned Russia into the world’s most heavily sanctioned nation, could dramatically alter this tenuous state of affairs.
Not only will Moscow struggle to seal major defense and energy deals, thanks to a barrage of new Western sanctions, but its growing dependence on China may also precipitate a strategic retrenchment from the South China Sea. Echoing Moscow’s imperial policy, Beijing will be in a strong position to assert its own “sphere of influence” in Southeast Asia in general and the South China Sea in particular, at the expense of Russia.
Russia’s Quiet Pivot
Infinite ink has been spilled on analyzing the promise and shortcomings of the Obama administration’s much-vaunted “Pivot to Asia” policy in reasserting American leadership across the Indo-Pacific. The same can be said about China’s manifold initiatives, most notably the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to create a more Sino-centric order in the region and beyond.
In comparison, Russia’s own pivot to the East hasn’t generated as much buzz in the mainstream media or wonky circles. Though on a far humbler scale, Moscow’s strategic reorientation toward Asia has been relatively consequential. Beginning with Russia’s $21 billion investment blitz in Vladivostok in the lead-up to the 2012 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in that city, the Eurasian power has steadily sought major strategic deals across Asia.
The $400 billion, 30-year-long energy deal between Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom and Beijing’s China National Petroleum Corporation in 2014 marked the debut of Russia’s pivot to Asia. Eager to diversify its Euro-centric economic partnerships, Russia successfully expanded trade with much of Asia over the past decade.
In 2001, Russia’s trade with Europe ($106 billion) was almost three times larger than its trade with Asia ($38 billion). By 2019, Russia’s two-way trade with Asia ($273 billion) was almost as large as that with Europe ($322 billion). So just as Europe rolled back its trade and investment ties with Russia following the latter’s annexation of Crimea, Asia embraced warmer strategic ties with Moscow.
Southeast Asia in particular proved highly receptive to Russia’s overtures. Traditional allies in Indochina, namely Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, cranked up their defense ties with Moscow. Vietnam alone purchased $7.4 billion in Russian weaponry, including modern fighter jets and submarines, over the past two decades.
Crucially, the Philippines and Indonesia, the two largest Southeast Asian nations, also explored large-scale defense deals with Russia. In response, Moscow deployed a defense attaché to the Philippines for the first time in history, while Russian warships became regular visitors to Manila Bay. Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte became the first leader in the country’s history to visit Moscow on two occasions, actively courting major defense and energy deals with the Eurasian power.
Russian energy companies also expanded their footprint in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, while also aiding Indonesia’s own energy exploration initiatives off the coast of the Natuna Islands. Thus, in a bizarre twist of events, Moscow ended up arming and aiding China’s maritime rivals across Southeast Asia.
To be fair, Russia tried to soften the blow by regularly conducting joint military drills with China, from the Far East and Central Asia to the East China Sea. Moscow also largely echoed Beijing’s line on U.S. naval presence in the area as well as the 2016 arbitral tribunal award at The Hague, which nullified the bulk of China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea.
Nevertheless, Moscow successfully maintained relatively balanced relations with all major claimants in the area. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens to upend its expanding strategic footprint in Southeast Asia, thus preventing the Eurasian power from playing a more independent and decisive role in the South China Sea.
The vast majority of Southeast Asian nations have been horrified by Moscow’s brazen actions in Ukraine, thus their fateful decision to support the United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the invasion. Describing the crisis as an “existential issue”, Singapore, the region’s most developed nation, has imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia.
With a new round of Western sanctions now targeting even Russia’s central bank, and global financial and logistics entities boycotting Moscow, the Eurasian power is struggling to maintain trade and investment relations with even old allies such as Vietnam.
The impact on Russia’s relations with new strategic partners could be even catastrophic. The threat of U.S. sanctions already scuttled Indonesia’s multi-billion-dollar arms deals with Russia earlier this year. The expansion of sanctions, under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), on the Russian arms industry could complicate, if not torpedo, planned and future arms deals with other key regional states such as the Philippines.
It’s now highly doubtful whether the Pentagon would grant CAATSA sanctions waivers on Russian arms exports to treaty allies in the region. New barrages of sanctions could also undermine Russia’s energy investments in the region, especially as transaction costs and logistics transfers become increasingly prohibitive. Above all, an isolated Russia may end up increasingly dependent on China.
From Finance Minister Anton Siluanov to Kremlin adviser Sergey Karaganov, top Russian officials have openly admitted that China will be their ultimate fallback option. As Beijing becomes the more dominant partner in the Sino-Russian axis, it will likely pressure Moscow against arming and aiding its rivals in the South China Sea and beyond.
And with the crisis in Europe absorbing the world’s attention, China may also feel more emboldened to impose its will in the South China Sea through increasingly aggressive, expansive military and paramilitary activities. No wonder then, just weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China unilaterally cordoned off much of the Gulf of Tonkin for a week-long military drill, including in areas that fall within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. Overall, Russia’s disastrous war in Europe could reduce it to a marginal player in Asia’s maritime landscape, thus depriving a number of Southeast Asian states of a major strategic partner.