Russian revival for Southeast Asia
By Andrew Symon
SINGAPORE - News of Russia's arms deal completed last week with Indonesia
harkens back to the Cold War era, when throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s
Moscow sought to gain influence in Southeast Asia through hefty dispensation of
military and economic aid.
The new deals are less ideologically and more economically driven and indicate
that Russia is now bidding to expand the big-power competition between China
and the US for regional
influence into a three-way contest.
President Vladimir Putin, making the first visit to Indonesia by a Russian
leader since the 1960 tour by the late Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, oversaw
the signing of a raft of cooperative agreements and arms deals with his
Indonesian counterpart, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
That included the US$1.2 billion sale of Russian submarines, tanks and
helicopters, for which Moscow offered Jakarta a generous line of credit. There
were lesser cooperative agreements in finance, investment, the environment, and
Putin said Russia is also interested in expanding cooperation in energy,
mining, aviation, telecommunications and other technical fields. Agreements
were signed between state-owned enterprises, including Russia's LUKoil and
Indonesia's Pertamina. It was unclear whether any agreements were reached on
the nuclear front, where Indonesia has announced its intention to build a
4,000-megawatt facility by 2017.
Indonesian state mining company AnTam and Russia's Rusal signed a partnership
agreement to develop bauxite deposits and build a smelter-grade
alumina-processing plant in West Kalimantan. The announcement notably comes
amid a regional race for bauxite development, with major regional players such
as Australia's BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto ramping up their exploration and
The huge arms and economic agreements are the latest indication of Moscow's
diplomatic offensive under way to court or renew old ties in Southeast Asia.
Russia is moving to enhance its diplomatic relations with the 10-member
Association of Southeast Asian Nations and hopes to participate in the East
Asia Summit, the annual meeting of ASEAN, Chinese, South Korean, Japanese,
Indian, Australian and New Zealand leaders that was established in 2005.
Russia also wants a place at the East Asia Summit, and at the Asia-Pacific
Economic Cooperation meeting in Sydney over the weekend Putin said his country
would like to host the leaders' summit in 2012 in Vladivostok. In the future,
Moscow's greatest source of political leverage may be its huge potential as an
energy, mineral and arms supplier to both Southeast and East Asia.
Old stomping grounds
It all represents a potential comeback in the making. From the mid-1950s until
the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia had an overarching presence in
Southeast Asia. For more than a decade, with the post-Cold War economic
collapse at home, Russia lacked the economic capacity or strategic ambition to
assert itself in the region.
Putin's government is now keen to re-establish Russia as an international
power, armed with a much improved economy boosted by oil and gas revenues, and
Moscow has clearly turned its attentions to its old stomping grounds in
From the mid-1950s, Indonesia was on the front line of the battle between the
US and Soviet Union for sway over the direction of Third World politics. At one
point, there were 1,000 Russian military advisers in Indonesia, on top of
cohorts of civilian technical advisers and a huge diplomatic mission with the
usual contingent of secret-service KGB operatives. Until very recently, there
were still loans from the Soviet Union and its old Eastern European satellites
on the Indonesian government's books.
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, legacies of Soviet-era aid can still be seen today
in Cambodia, including roads named after the Soviet Union and the Institute of
Technology, originally the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Institute of Higher
Technology, a 30,000-square-meter building funded, designed and equipped by the
Russians in 1964. In Laos, the Soviet Hammer and Sickle still adorns the top of
many decrepit office buildings in the capital Vientiane.
But it was in Indonesia that the Soviet presence was particularly pronounced.
Reflecting Indonesia's size, strategic geography and the fact that its Partai
Komunis Indonesia (PKI), a legal communist party, had one of the largest
memberships in the world, the Soviet Union was keen to take advantage of
Indonesian president Sukarno's openness to Soviet ties and economic assistance.
Tangible reminders of that era still exist in Central Jakarta, including in the
Indonesian military museum Satri Mandala, where an old Russian MiG aircraft, a
missile and a tank, with its classic squat turret set forward, are still on
display and were last used, according to the plaque, in the Indonesian invasion
of East Timor in 1975.
Military aircraft, ships and vehicles were provided under long-term loans,
initially to assist Sukarno in an anticipated fight with the Netherlands over
then-Dutch West New Guinea, which Jakarta claimed should have been transferred
to its sovereignty when Indonesia became independent of Dutch rule in 1949. In
the end, fighting was avoided, with the Dutch accepting a plebiscite be held to
determine the territory's future.
Russian military aid also gave muscle to Sukarno for his saber-rattling policy
of Konfrontasi with Malaysia and its former colonial ruler, Britain,
over the decision to include Sarawak and Sabah on Borneo in the new Malaysian
federation. It was Indonesia's obtaining mid-range Soviet bomber aircraft that
led Australia to procure the then-state-of-the-art F-111 fighter-bombers from
the US, which are still a mainstay of Australia's air force.
Economically, Soviet aid and advisers supported early development of the
still-active Krakatau Steel plant in West Java and the Asahan Dam and aluminum
smelter in North Sumatra. Unfortunately, many ambitious projects spawned in
Soviet central-planning style did not graft well on to Indonesian conditions
and collapsed or languished after aid was cut.
Complicating things for Moscow and Southeast Asia, then as now, was China's
position. With the doctrinal split between Beijing and Moscow in the early
1960s, the Soviet Union suddenly found itself at loggerheads with Mao Zedong's
China. In Indonesia, Beijing's influence over the PKI, then reputedly the
largest communist party outside the Soviet Union and China, ultimately
dominated - much to Moscow's chagrin.
In early 1965, the US committed ground troops in Vietnam on a large scale while
looking over its shoulder at Indonesia, where Sukarno was leaning ever more
toward the left, the PKI and Beijing. But the threat of a communist Indonesia
collapsed in September 1965. An attempted coup by left-leaning army and air
force officers was thwarted by General Suharto, later president. The
conspirators said they were trying to preempt a takeover by generals secretly
supported by the US.
But the result of the September event is clear: Sukarno was badly discredited,
never to regain his authority, and the PKI, blamed for the coup, was the target
of nationwide pogroms that killed thousands of the party's members and the
destruction of grassroots communist influence. Suharto firmly aligned his New
Order regime to the West, and the Soviet position in the archipelago faded as
the Kremlin redoubled its efforts to maintain influence over Vietnam and the
rest of Indochina.
With the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse, China has gradually, and more rapidly in
recent years, gained regional influence at Moscow's expense. In Southeast Asia,
its diplomatic and commercial influence is arguably far greater now than it
ever was in Cold War times, rivaling the US and its strategic partner Japan.
Apart from growing bilateral business ties, ASEAN is increasingly reorienting
to accommodate China's growing clout through its ASEAN + 3 forum - entailing
the grouping's 10 Southeast Asian nations plus China, Japan and South Korea.
During the Cold War, Russia's interests in Southeast Asia were driven more by
communist ideology and the notion of fighting an international struggle against
capitalism in general, and the US in particular, wherever it might be fought.
Moscow has arrived late on the scene of the new capitalist order, where
free-trade agreements trump in significance aid and arms deals, and faces an
uphill struggle in gaining ground on China and the US for regional influence.
But a three-way tug-of-war among the former Cold War powers is now clearly
under way in Southeast Asia and promises in the years ahead to complicate the
region's evolving strategic and economic diplomacy.
Andrew Symon is a Singapore-based analyst and journalist. He was based in
Jakarta from 1992-97.