On May 19, President Vladimir Putin plays host to a large Russia-ASEAN summit in Sochi that marks the twentieth anniversary of Russia’s partnership with the Asian trading organization. The meeting will be a test of the seriousness of Russia’s declared “pivot to the east” in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

The ten member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations present an enormous economic opportunity for Russia. With a current population of 600 million people, they are set to become the world’s fourth largest economy by 2050. But as of today, Russia’s relations with the ASEAN countries have not been very positive. This is due to a history of Cold War suspicions—with Vietnam being the major exception to this rule—and a lack of serious engagement in recent times.

Russia was granted dialogue partnership status at the 29th Annual Ministerial Meeting of ASEAN in July 1996. But for many years the relationship was weak and contacts were irregular. That only began to change with the start of Putin’s third presidential term in 2012. The president’s “Mау decrees” named the Asia-Pacific region Russia’s third international priority after the CIS and the EU.

The importance that the authorities in Moscow attached to the 2012 APEC Summit in Vladivostok also fueled expectations of a rapid improvement in the country’s relations with the Asia-Pacific region in general and Southeast Asia in particular. However, the interest of Russian political elites waned as soon as the summit was over. At the East Asia Summit, which took place in November of that year, Russia was the only country not represented by a head of state or government.

The disappointment deepened after the release of the new Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation in February 2013, which named the Asia-Pacific fourth on the list of Russia’s foreign policy priorities, yielding third place to the United States. Vietnam was the only Southeast Asian country mentioned there.

A strong partnership with Vietnam is central to Russia’s political and strategic presence in Southeast Asia—although even that may start to lose its relative importance as Vietnam’s relations with the United States, India, Japan, and the EU improve. Vietnamese-Russian relations are characterized as a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” making Russia the country’s only other strategic partner alongside China. Russian-Vietnamese summits or high-level meetings are held annually and generate plenty of positive rhetoric. Because of the high level of bilateral relations and significant arms sales to Vietnam, Russia gets preferential treatment when using the Cam Ranh deepwater port.

Unfortunately for Russia, it does not enjoy a relationship of this depth with any other Southeast Asian countries. Russia’s economic presence in the region is patchy. Russia-ASEAN trade appears to have grown at an impressive pace in the last decade—but only from a low starting point. The volume of trade increased fivefold from 2005 to 2014. However, even as of 2014 (the last year before Russia’s foreign trade sharply declined), Russia’s trade with Southeast Asian countries amounted to only $21.4 billion, making Russia ASEAN’s fourteenth trade partner. Russia receives less than 1 percent of total ASEAN exports, while ASEAN’s share in Russian trade is 2.7 percent. Russian exports mostly consist of minerals (60 percent), machinery and equipment (14.5 percent), and chemicals (13.8 percent).

Russian investments on the ASEAN markets are not substantial either. In 2012–2014, the economies of Southeast Asian countries received $698 million in Russian investments, or 0.2 percent of the total. Out of this sum, $420 million went to one country in a single year (Vietnam, 2013).

The strength of the Russian economic presence in Southeast Asia lies in oil and gas, nuclear energy, and military technology. Singapore and Malaysia currently buy Russian oil and Indonesia is also involved in several energy projects, but again it is Vietnam that is Russia’s chief oil and gas partner, with projects in both Vietnam and Russia. The same is true of nuclear energy. Russia has nuclear power construction projects in Myanmar and Thailand, but its main project is building the Ninh Thuan-1 nuclear power plant in southern Vietnam, where it is also providing related services and training personnel.

Russian weapons are still the hottest commodity on Southeast Asian markets. Again, Vietnam has historically been and still remains the region’s largest buyer of Russian arms. Its significant acquisitions include fighter jets, frigates, anti-ship missiles, missile defense systems, and Varshavyanka submarines (the last of these submarines will be delivered to Vietnam in late 2016). Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Myanmar have also purchased Russian weapons, although in smaller quantities.

Overall, the current level of cooperation between Russia and ASEAN countries can be described as fragmentary and insignificant. A number of factors explain why this relationship is still fairly weak.

First, Southeast Asian countries are not and have never been one of Russia’s foreign-policy priorities. Relations with European countries and the United States come first, while Russia’s immediate neighbors are obviously of great importance to it. That means the country’s foreign policy is still largely focused on these areas, as well as on the military and diplomatic involvement in the Middle East. In the framework of Russia’s renewed activity in the east, Southeast Asia appears to be at best secondary to China.

Secondly, relations with ASEAN countries are built on weak political and economic foundations. While Russia was gearing up for its “pivot to the east,” other players—primarily China and the United States—were able to gain a strong foothold in Southeast Asia. In competition with these two global powers, which have strong interests in the region, Russia is forced to play catch-up.

Thirdly, both Russian society and elites are poorly informed about this region because of its geographic remoteness and a lack of common historical background. Personal ties are even weaker than economic cooperation. In this regard, relations with Southeast Asian countries are much worse than even those with China.

When it comes to China, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and its neighbors also pose a serious challenge to Russia’s Southeast Asia policy. As of today, Russia formally maintains strict neutrality on this issue by not supporting anyone’s territorial claims and urging the parties to settle their differences through political and diplomatic channels.

However, a recent Russian official statement on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea indicates a growing convergence between the Russian and Chinese positions. In April 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that his country does not support the internationalization of disputes in the South China Sea, a remark that generated strong approval from China and created serious concerns in Vietnam.

The stance taken by Russia is in line with the country’s general ideological approach of opposing any outside involvement in local disputes. However, Russia’s opposition to internationalization actually fosters it. Moscow’s position reinforces the Western narrative of a country weakened by sanctions and therefore more politically dependent on Beijing, which is taking advantage of Russia’s weakness to force it to take the Chinese side or at least remain silent if a territorial dispute escalates into a military confrontation.

This makes maintaining a strategic partnership with both China and Vietnam a big diplomatic challenge for Moscow. The Kremlin will continue to use bilateral diplomatic channels to try to thwart attempts to get Russia embroiled in the territorial dispute and be seen as favoring either side. At the same time, Russia’s continued military-technological cooperation with Vietnam increases the costs of a hypothetical armed conflict for China and has a stabilizing effect.

Does ASEAN need Russia in the region at a time of growing diplomatic tensions? ASEAN countries are certainly interested in seeing a greater number of players in the region. The “middle outside” powers, Japan and India, are starting to play this role now. Most probably, Russia’s participation would also be welcomed by ASEAN countries. Since the current balance of power in the region can be best described as “China against everyone else,” the appearance of a player that is close to China but not its ally may actually become a safe way of softening China’s outlook of being a “besieged fortress.”

But is Russia prepared to play such a role? Can it speak to the issues relevant to Southeast Asian countries? For now, its capacities are rather limited, and the Russian leadership is not willing to get actively involved in regional processes. Russia primarily sees its interests in preserving the quality of its strategic partnerships with China and Vietnam, and its future actions in the region start with those two countries.

  • Anton Tsvetov