‘A leader of the world’: south-east Asian countries open to Putin pivot

Only Singapore has imposed sanctions, while others have been receptive to Moscow’s offers of friendship

The head of Myanmar’s military junta beamed with joy as he shook hands with Vladimir Putin this week. “We would call you not just the leader of Russia but a leader of the world because you control and organise stability around the whole world,” Min Aung Hlaing said.

His remarks came as Putin claimed in a defiant speech that European efforts to isolate Russia would fail: instead, he would pivot to Asia.

Myanmar’s military, which has also faced a series of sanctions by western countries in the aftermath of last year’s coup, has been especially receptive to such offers of friendship.

Russian aircraft have given the military an “asymmetrical advantage” as it struggles to control resistance to its rule, says Hunter Marston, a researcher and analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra. He says this is “one of the only things allowing them to keep [back] the PDFs [people’s defence forces, formed in opposition to the coup]. Otherwise they would be suffering more losses than they already are.”

Airstrikes have bombarded populated areas, according to the UN’s human rights office.

Myanmar plans to import Russian gas and fuel and has signed a roadmap for cooperation on nuclear energy with the Russian state-owned nuclear corporation, Rosatom.

Energy cooperation may deepen further, says Marston. “Russia has lost some of its drilling sites offshore in Vietnam due to Chinese pressure,” he says, adding that it is possible Moscow may look to Myanmar for exploration after firms including Total have withdrawn from the country.

Across south-east Asia, responses to Russia’s war in Ukraine vary, but it is largely seen as a regional war in Europe, says Frederick Kliem, a research fellow and lecturer at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“Countries in south-east Asia, and actually many countries around the world, are not buying into the notion that this is a sea change in international relations, and that Russia is the enemy,” Kliem says. “They say, look, if there is cheap oil and cheap gas and good trade deals to be made with Russia at this point in time then of course we’re going to do it, and who are you to tell us not to?”

Many point out that Russia does not have a monopoly on breaching international law, he adds.

Only Singapore has imposed sanctions on Russia – a decision possibly driven by its view that international law supports smaller states and that it should take a consistent stance in support of this, says Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. Singapore’s position as a financial hub and a belief that it needs to be particularly careful about secondary sanctions may also have been a factor, he adds.

Arms sales have traditionally been Russia’s strongest suit in south-east Asia, says Kliem, but there is a focus on energy as countries eye cheaper deals to protect consumers. Indonesia’s state-owned oil and gas company Pertamina is in talks to purchase crude oil from Russia at below the market rate.

Countries in the region are clearly worried about inflation, especially increasing energy and food prices, Chong says. “These are areas that Russia may be able to provide some assistance, although these governments are likely to be careful about secondary sanctions too. The fact that Russian financial organisations are restricted from using the Swift system may complicate transactions with Russia, however.”

Such barriers have affected trade. Tâm Sáng Huỳnh, a lecturer at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, says that despite talk of Russia seeking enhanced ties with Vietnam, there have been no significant developments. “Vietnam’s exports to Russia have been hampered by the ongoing war, with logistics and payments being impacted,” he says.

Meanwhile, US companies have shifted production to Vietnam, with Apple suppliers in talks to set up a production line in the country for the first time, he adds. Vietnam has sought to avoid taking sides on the war, in an attempt to balance relations with both powers.

It has relied heavily on Russia for crude oil and gas, and military equipment, but is seeking to diversify on the latter, Huỳnh says.

In a region dominated by competition between China and the US, Russia is considered by some to be a “helpful balancer”, says Kliem, even if its influence is smaller. Trade deals with Russia may be welcomed by leaders in the region who are conscious that Moscow, unlike others, will not impose sanctions in response to concerns over authoritarianism or other rights issues.

Thailand announced in May that it would boost bilateral trade with Russia, with the aim of reaching $10bn a year, as Moscow looks to buy more Thai rice, fruit, cars and car parts, as well as investing in technology. Thais have been invited to invest in Russia’s food industry, it was reported.

But these deals are not at all comparable with Russia’s losses elsewhere, says Kliem. He says it is likely that it is “diplomatic recognition” that Putin is seeking, rather than compensating for economic losses.


Rebecca Ratcliffe in Bangkok

The GuardianTramp

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