Russia and France are courting Southeast Asian nations after both global powers were shut out of the AUKUS defense pact and the Quad strategic dialogue group – a pair of U.S.-led multilateral security arrangements in the heart of the Indo-Pacific.
On Tuesday, the Russian embassy and the Indonesian navy announced that Moscow and several members of the ASEAN bloc would hold their first-ever joint naval exercise in early December. The drills off Indonesia’s Sumatra Island will involve the Admiral Panteleyev (pictured), Russia’s large anti-submarine warfare ship, they said.
“All ASEAN member states have been invited to this exercise,” Natalia Naumova, spokeswoman for the Russian mission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Jakarta, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“Seven countries including Myanmar will send their warships.”
Three of the 10 ASEAN member-states will not send warships, but will take part in the online phase of the exercise and then observe the at-sea phase, Naumova said, declining to name the countries.
Laos and Cambodia are among the nations that will not deploy ships for the drills, an Indonesian Navy spokesman told BenarNews. The other members of the regional bloc are Indonesia, Brunei Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
The exercise between ASEAN members and Russia, the world’s third largest naval power, is scheduled from Dec. 1 to 3. It will take place in Indonesian waters in the Indian Ocean off Aceh province, said First Adm. Julius Widjojono, the Indonesian navy spokesman.
The exercise is aimed at increasing operational cooperation between the navies of ASEAN member states and Russia “to ensure the safety of maritime economic activity and civil navigation,” the Russian embassy said in a statement.
Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto will order the start of the exercise from the Admiral Panteleyev, a destroyer assigned to Russia’s Pacific Fleet, it said.
“We hope that the exercise will help strengthen relations between ASEAN and Russia and regional maritime security,” Adm. Julius told BenarNews.
Russia and ASEAN have been in dialogue since 1996, but Moscow’s increasing focus on Southeast Asia comes amid the two United States-led pacts – AUKUS, a defense alliance with the United Kingdom and Australia, and the Quad with Australia, India, and Japan.
The increased Russian engagement in Southeast Asia also comes after Moscow suspended its mission to NATO, when the latter expelled eight Russian military officers from its headquarters in Brussels over espionage allegations.
Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Southeast Asian leaders during a Russia-ASEAN summit that enhancing ties with the bloc was “one of Russia’s foreign policy priorities.”
These include cooperation to strengthen stability and security, safeguard the post-pandemic economic recovery, boost trade, and expand humanitarian ties, he said.
“Russia and ASEAN countries, in many ways, share similar positions on key global and regional issues. What is crucial is that we all support equal and mutually beneficial cooperation in the extensive Asia Pacific region,” Putin said during the summit, according to the Russian news agency TASS.
Bilaterally, Russia has conducted naval exercises with several ASEAN countries, including Indonesia and Vietnam. In December 2020, three Indonesian Navy ships and three Russian vessels staged a joint exercise in the Java Sea.
ASEAN, too, benefits from cultivating Russia, noted the Observer Research Foundation in a paper last year.
Southeast Asian countries are “looking to build a policy that would let them avoid taking sides between China – with whom they were deeply connected economically – and the U.S. – who was their security guarantee against any adventures by the rising power,” according to the paper authored by scholar Nivedita Kapoor.
This first-ever Navy exercise between Russia and ASEAN, meanwhile, will also benefit Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, according to Arie Afriansyah, a lecturer in international security at the University of Indonesia.
“Indonesia has the biggest interest in this exercise as most of the largest part of the Strait of Malacca is in Indonesian territory,” he said.
Indonesia needs a secure Strait of Malacca because it is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, Arie added.
French foreign minister visits Indonesia
France, for its part, was extremely annoyed with the AUKUS pact, under which the United States and United Kingdom agreed to supply Australia technology for nuclear-powered submarines.
France lost a major contract to sell submarines to Australia, because of AUKUS, so Paris has been trying to court other Indo-Pacific powers, especially Indonesia, the most sprawling country in Southeast Asia, for “true” relationships.
Additionally, France is not part of the Quad – which is committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific – despite having island territories in the region. So it is looking to Southeast Asia to forge relationships, and particularly to Indonesia, which Paris says is “at the heart of France’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific region.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was expected to arrive in Jakarta on Tuesday for a two-day visit which, Paris said, is intended to show its commitment to the Indo-Pacific.
Le Drian is to meet his Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi, and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on Wednesday, said Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah.
The French Embassy in Jakarta said in a statement that it emphasizes “commitment to contribute to regional security and the establishment of an international order in the Indo-Pacific, which is based on law and multilateralism.”
On Oct. 31, French President Emmanuel Macron met with Jokowi on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Rome. After the meeting, Jokowi said he welcomed “progress” in defense cooperation between the two countries.
In July, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo said his ministry hoped to acquire advanced fighter-jets including U.S.-made F-15s, Rafales from France, and Sukhoi Su-35s and Su-57s from Russia.
“Indonesia will likely settle on those fighter jets least likely to incense either China or the U.S., giving France’s Rafale bid an advantage over the others, unless a new contender appears on the horizon,” said the article by Johannes Nugroho, an Indonesian political analyst.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
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