Russia's 'Pivot to Asia' Fails to Gain Much Traction Beyond Arms Sales to Myanmar, Vietnam

Russia’s threatening posture toward Ukraine has drawn widespread international concern, but the Pivot to Asia has so far drawn less attention.
A commentary by Dan Southerland
2021-05-10
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Russia's 'Pivot to Asia' Fails to Gain Much Traction Beyond Arms Sales to Myanmar, Vietnam Russia's Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin (L) meeting Myanmar armed forces chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw, March 27, 2021.
Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV) via AFP

Russia announced a plan last year to shift its diplomatic and trade ties eastward from Europe to the Asia-Pacific region. 

But experts say that the plan, nicknamed the “Pivot to Asia,” is already encountering difficulties and criticism.

Russia’s threatening posture toward Ukraine in recent months has drawn widespread international concern, but the Pivot to Asia has so far drawn less attention.

Toward the end of last year, the Washington, D.C.-based Jamestown Foundation summed up the obstacles to the “Pivot” as seen by Russia’s Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.

During his first trip to the Russian Far East as prime minister, Mishustin found an inadequate level of infrastructure support for international trade at a local seaport at Magadan.

The limitations of the port, located on the Sea of Okhotsk, have hindered the surrounding region’s economic development and international outreach.

Russia’s Pivot to Asia isn’t a totally new idea. Former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov laid down the policy’s foundations at the end of the 1990s.

The policy proposes shifting Russia’s economic ties eastward from the European Union to the Asia-Pacific. 

It would make Siberia and the Russian Far East the country’s “national priority for the 21st century.”

But by 2019, the strategy was floundering due to systemic and cultural obstacles, according to the Jamestown report.

Citing experts, the report written by Sergey Sukhankin says that Russia faces four challenges in its attempts to implement the “Pivot.”

Negative public perception

First is Russia’s lack of a comprehensive approach to overcoming the social and economic hardships faced by its least developed regions, namely Siberia and the country’s Far East.

The government has moreover failed to improve the negative public perceptions of this region among Russians. Settlers and business people view much of Siberia and the Far East as “highly unattractive” places to live or work in. According to some, these regions are in “the middle of nowhere.”

Second, the key pillar for the Pivot to Asia was originally premised on strengthening economic ties with China. But now, according to an expert at the U.S.-based Eurasia Group, many Russian experts and intellectuals see the limitations of that approach.

Though it serves as a source of raw materials, Russia occupies a marginal role in China’s foreign trade and economic ties.

Attempts to diversify cooperation by engaging India, Japan, and South Korea have yielded minimal results.

Third, despite some impressive diplomatic and political achievements, Russia has been unable to convert these into sustainable economic gains.

A Russian expert at the country’s Pacific National University in Khabarovsk said two years ago that Asian nations didn’t consider Russia to be an attractive place for foreign investments.

So, not surprisingly, Russia’s share in the economy of the Asia-Pacific region has been limited.

Fourth, according to the Jamestown report, inhabitants of the Far East view the Pivot to Asia as “an artificial, Moscow-generated project that doesn’t adequately assess local realities nor invite the participation or input of the local population.”

“Moreover, in Siberia,” it says, “there is growing dissatisfaction over its de facto exclusion, despite pompous rhetoric, from the project.”

‘Incompetent metropolis‘

In other words, the federal center has been unable to explain to the locals how it plans to upgrade regional living standards.

Sergey Karaganov is a former advisor to Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin and a leading supporter of the Pivot to Asia strategy.

In an article that he co-authored with Russian scholar Anastasia Likhacheva, the two say that for the past year and a half the strategy has risked a loss of momentum.

Among other concerns, they argue that a major problem hindering progress is inadequate attention paid to “human capital” in the Russian Far East and in Siberia.

Human capital is a reference to people who are supposed to be a driving force in the Pivot. But according to Karaganov and Likhacheva, they end up viewing Moscow as an “incompetent metropolis.”

Russia’s economy has long depended heavily on oil and gas exports. But in recent years, arms sales have also become a major source of revenue. 

Vietnam, for example, is almost entirely dependent on Russian military equipment, although experts say that Vietnam is now trying to diversify its sources.

China meanwhile accounted for roughly half of Myanmar’s major arms imports from 2014 to 2019, including warships, combat aircraft, armed drones, armored vehicles, and air defense systems, according to an expert with the Stockholm Peace Institute.

Russia supplied 17 percent of Myanmar’s military imports during that same period, mainly in the form of combat aircraft.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the junta chief who overthrew the civilian government in Myanmar on Feb. 1, has cultivated ties with the Russian military over the past decade, according to the Japanese website Nikkei Asia.

He did this, Nikkei Asia says, to avoid dependence on China, Myanmar’s giant neighbor and the country which had long served as its largest weapons supplier.

Asian diplomats told Nikkei Asia that Min Aung Hlaing still recalls reports that China served as a Chinese weapons supply line passing into strongholds held by ethnic rebels along Myanmar’s eastern border.

Days before the military coup against the civilian government, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Myanmar to complete a deal for a new surface-to-air missile system, surveillance drones, and radar equipment.

Russian weapons in junta hands

The coup had prevented Aung San Suu Kyi’s popular National League for Democracy from taking a second term after winning a landslide election last November.

Following the coup, tanks and other armored vehicles made in Russia were seen on the streets of the heavily populated city of Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar and formerly known as Rangoon.

 The United States and several other Western nations have denounced the coup and condemned the military’s use of violence against unarmed protesters.

The total death toll since Feb. 1 reached 780 as of May 9, according to a local group called the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The military junta said this number was inflated and claimed in late April that the real number was 240. 

While Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who is reported to have visited Russia six times over the years, has stated that Russia has proven to be a “loyal friend,” Russia may not be winning many hearts and minds among ordinary people in Myanmar.

Amy Searight, a senior associate of the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said recently regarding Myanmar, “Moscow has seemed to seek to fill the military void in a way that no other country has. Even China has been more cautious than Moscow.”

She mentions that on Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day in late March, Russia sent its deputy defense minister to a parade that featured not only tanks and other military equipment but also several Russian-built military jets flying overhead.

The parade took place in Myanmar’s capital city of Naypyitaw.  

But Searight is skeptical about Russia’s Pivot to Asia both as it existed to a certain extent in the past and then with its new emphasis today, at least when it comes to Southeast Asia.

“I think they never really managed to gain much traction in that effort in the past,” she said.

She made her comments in a discussion organized by the Washington D.C.-based Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute and Asia Program to discuss Russia’s Role in Southeast Asia. 

Dan Southerland is RFA's founding Executive Editor.

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