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East meets Southeast: Russian foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific

Image credit: Kremlin (Creative Commons: Wikimedia)

Russia is situated in a complex strategic neighbourhood. Encircled by the Nuclear powers of the US and NATO on one side, China on another, along with the weaker yet erratic nuclear armed North Korea on the periphery, Russia finds itself in a volatile and uncertain environment. Moscow has reacted to these matters in part by pursuing a progressive foreign policy in Asia: It has long acknowledged that the global balances of power are tipping to the East, and Vladimir Putin’s government has directed its policy to ensure an active regional presence.

Russia has had significant success in developing diplomatic and strategic regional partnerships within the Indo-Pacific and has become a key player in regional negotiations. While Russia shares strained relations with a number of parties, its focus toward regional cooperation alongside shared understandings with China positions it to be a primary actor in the future of Indo-Pacific affairs.

While the Russia-China relationship is seen by some to inevitably progress into an aggressive great power rivalry, the history of cooperation and solidarity in resistance between the two states indicates such a clash is far from a given. For decades Russia has willingly shared technology and military training exercises with China, whereas the US and EU restricted China’s access to these areas. The arms and technology exposure was particularly important for China in its development of a competitive capability against the West until its indigenous capability was ripe.

China and Russia share a unique relationship. They have each been marginalised by the US-led order, and are keen to challenge this international mandate now that they have the assets to do so.

While serious conflict with another major power in regard to territorial disputes or aggravating tensions regarding regional dominance is not entirely unrealistic, the more pressing threat is a regional conflict. To mitigate this Russia has pursued an Indo-Pacific strategic policy that favours cooperation with rising powers that are inclined to resist the continuation of US-led international rules-based order and pursue regional policies that more closely relate to their interests. It also means Russia is active in maintaining a diplomatic and institutional regional presence.

Russian has a stake in some of the region’s most intractable problems. Moscow is not often considered on the Korean peninsula, but it too has a direct interest in a resolution being reached. Any potential conflict that may break out so close to their border and to regional allies presents the risk of dragging Russia into an unwanted war. For Kim’s regime, Russia is a more trustworthy delegate than either China or the US. While the other parties maintain stronger ties with either side of the demilitarized zone, Russia has upheld equal relations with both. For this reason, Russia is seen as less suspicious than China for proposing that South Korea decreases military activity with the US, and less threatening while urging the DPRK to de-escalate their own programs to “refrain from provocative actions.” Further, access to North Korea’s East coast Wonsan port potentially offers a solution to Russia’s desperate need for a warm water winter port.

Meanwhile, Russia has progressively advanced defence cooperation throughout the Indo-Pacific. Russia’s Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu has successfully constructed a policy of regional ‘defence diplomacy’, marked by the development of regional security platforms such as the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus, participation in the Shangri-La Dialogue, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Along with this comes a serious expansion of Russia’s Pacific fleet, as a part of the State Armament Program (GPV) upgrade of over 70 large sea units by 2027. Although information on the program is restricted, senior officials have also indicated that a focus on the GPV upgrade will be on force mobility, deployability, defence logistics, and command-and-control (C2) mechanisms. This aims in part to improve Russian ability to project power and be operationally active abroad. The entire project has an estimated 19 trillion ruble budget, or roughly $US306 billion. While a substantial amount will be to replace aged and outdated technology, there is more than enough to drive Russia’s regional impact further.

Russia also has other long-term emerging allies in the region to assist in this, such as Vietnam. The two share a powerful bilateral arrangement, built on extensive military investment and support. This relationship has its roots in the Soviet Union and has historically based on ideological and strategic support within a hostile region.

Russia cannot compete militarily with the US, but it doesn’t need to. A combination of military capability and strategic diplomatic and institutional planning offers Russia a unique in-road into the region. Along with long-term partnerships and shared sentiments of resistance, Putin can be confident that Russian influence can’t be shaken through brute force.

Leaders like Putin also have a luxury in that they do not have to plan policy between election cycles. Being undisputed long-term leaders means that they can plan years ahead without consideration of forming policy to suit the next election campaign. Putin and his defence ministry have steadily progressed their Indo-Pacific policy with little interruption, which stands in contrast to the stop-start programs of the West. While it may not make constant headlines, Russian influence in the Indo-Pacific is set to stay.

Emmett Howard is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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