Opening ceremony of the first ASEAN-Russia Naval Exercise in Belawan. (Photo: Russian Mission to ASEAN / Facebook)

Russia’s Maritime Exercise With ASEAN: Punching Below Its Weight

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The recent ASEAN-Russia Naval Exercise served up a rich dose of symbolism and a signal of Moscow’s resolve to up its profile in the region. The fact remains that Russia’s presence in Southeast Asia should not be exaggerated.

Last week, the ASEAN-Russia Naval Exercise (ARNEX) took place over three days in ­­the balmy waters off the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The drills were composed of two p­­arts: phase one in the port of Belawan, and phase two off the northern coast of Sumatra. The participating warships undertook a variety of activities, including maritime interdiction and search and rescue (SAR) exercises, and practising communication protocols under the mishap-avoidance Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES).

ARNEX is only the third time that ASEAN has undertaken naval manoeuvres with a major power. The first, held in two parts in August and October 2018, was the ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise (ACMX) and the second, in September 2019, the ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise (AUMX). Both exercises took place in the South China Sea, though outside China’s controversial nine-dash line.

ACMX and AUMX were broadly comparable in scope and duration. ACMX lasted eight days, involved three Chinese warships and one each from five ASEAN states (Brunei, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam). AUMX took place over five days, included two US warships and one each from six ASEAN members (Brunei, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam).

ARNEX lasted only three days, and Russia deployed just one warship, the Udaloy-class anti-submarine warfare destroyer RFS Admiral Panteleyev which is assigned to the Pacific Fleet in Vladivostok. Seven ASEAN states contributed one warship each (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam). The Philippines participated virtually.

That ASEAN’s third naval exercise was with Russia is somewhat surprising. After all, with the notable exception of arms sales, Russia’s security role in Southeast Asia and its defence diplomacy activities in the region lag far behind those of ASEAN’s ten other dialogue partners, especially the United States, China and Japan, but also its newest entrant, the United Kingdom.

So why an ASEAN maritime exercise with Russia before some of the other dialogue partners such as Australia and Japan?

As well as putting Russia on a par with the two superpowers, ARNEX was also part of a concerted effort by Moscow to raise its overall profile in Southeast Asia.

ASEAN’s love of commemorative activities is one reason. This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of ASEAN-Russia Dialogue Partner relations, an event marked by a virtual summit on 28 October.

ARNEX also provided ASEAN with another opportunity to show that when it comes to its relations with the major powers, it takes an inclusive and balanced approach.

For Russia, its motivations were more complex.

Because Russia sees itself as having the same geopolitical stature as China and America, it pushed hard for ARNEX. The idea was first proposed by then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in November 2019 and accepted by ASEAN at a meeting of Russian and ASEAN foreign ministers in July 2021.

As well as putting Russia on a par with the two superpowers, ARNEX was also part of a concerted effort by Moscow to raise its overall profile in Southeast Asia.

Although the Kremlin announced a ‘turn to the East’ in 2010, its pivot to Asia has been criticised both at home and abroad as being too China-centric.

To disabuse those critics, over the past several years Moscow has been giving Southeast Asia more attention, even as its relationship with China has tightened. Most notably, President Vladimir Putin attended the East Asia Summit (EAS) for the first time ever in 2018 (previously Medvedev had represented Russia) and virtually in 2020 and 2021.

Another reason why the Kremlin wants to up its game in Southeast Asia is to promote a positive foreign policy narrative in an effort to offset its rapidly deteriorating relationship with the West over a raft of issues, including gathering war clouds over the Ukraine, alleged cyber hacking, anti-satellite tests and even a row over diplomatic visas.

ARNEX was also a boost for Russia’s defence diplomacy in Southeast Asia, as it enabled Moscow to leapfrog other ASEAN dialogue partners who have held numerous bilateral naval exercises with regional navies (Russia itself has only ever conducted a handful) but not an ASEAN naval exercise (though to be fair, it does not appear that any of the others have asked for one). It also helped that Indonesia, Russia’s historical friend, was the country coordinator for ASEAN-Russia relations until August 2021.

While ARNEX was good publicity for Russia, it is important to keep the country’s role in Southeast Asia in perspective.

Russia’s trade with the region is anemic (a mere US$18.2 billion in 2019, the smallest among ASEAN’s then ten dialogue partners except New Zealand), its Sputnik-V COVID-19 vaccine has been a flop, and the joint statement issued at the end of the 4th ASEAN-Russia Summit was thin gruel. It is unclear whether Putin will attend the EAS once they resume the in-person meeting format.

Militarily, Russia’s Pacific Fleet is a shadow of its Cold War self. While some new ships have recently been added (including submarines and frigates) plans to equip it with powerful nuclear-powered destroyers and aircraft carriers are unrealistic given budgetary constraints and the lack of industrial capacity. Given its limited assets, the Pacific Fleet focuses its attention on Northeast Asia (as the recent Russia-China naval exercises in the Sea of Japan highlighted) rather than the more distant waters of Southeast Asia.

ARNEX was something a coup for Russia, but the deployment of one Soviet-era warship to the region for a few days is not a symbol of military power, but an indication that in Southeast Asia at least, Moscow continues to punch well below its weight.

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