Russia's Challenge to the US in Southeast Asia

Growing Russian involvement in Myanmar could pose a strategic risk for Washington
Published : 05 February 2014

By: Anthony V. Rinna

The Republic of the Union of Myanmar, previously known as Burma, has been described as a potential geopolitical flashpoint between China and India, as well as fertile ground for US psychological warfare. Now another global power -Russia- is slowly edging its way into Myanmar’s geopolitical array. Specifically, defense and security ties between Myanmar and Russia are increasing at a steady pace.

Recent Russian actions, combined with a relative lack of American engagement in Southeast Asia, point to yet another potential geopolitical sore spot for the US. Until the declared “pivot” or rebalancing toward Asia by the US produces real substance, Washington still risks losing its optimal geopolitical strength in the region.

In addition to Russia’s continued foreign policy ambition of re-asserting its power in the post-Soviet space, Russia under Vladimir Putin has also enacted a strategy of courting key allies in regions well away from Russia’s immediate vicinity, where it could extend its geopolitical leverage, form solid business relationships (particularly in the energy and arms fields), and counter the influence of the United States.

Two strong examples of this trend are Syria and Venezuela, countries which Russia has used to gain a strategic foothold in the Middle East and Latin America, respectively. Now Russia seems to be doing this in Myanmar, which gives Russia a three-pronged geopolitical thrust- into the Indian Subcontinent, the Indian Ocean, and Southeast Asia.

Post-Soviet Russia has been heavily engaged in Southeast Asia, in contrast to the United States. Although US President Barack Obama has declared his “pivot” toward Asia, a vast amount of US resources are still vested in the War on Terror and its main battlegrounds in the Middle East and Central Asia. The US of late has missed several ASEAN summits, whereas Russia, on the other hand, has been actively engaged with the organization since 1991, and was made a full-scale dialogue partner with ASEAN in 1996. Bilateral ASEAN-Russia summits were held in 2005 and in 2010.

It seems, however, that the United States has come to realize the risks as well as opportunities inherent in greater engagement with Southeast Asia, and Myanmar in particular. In November, 2012, President Obama announced his intention to hold an annual summit with ASEAN, so it seems the need for greater American engagement in Southeast Asia is not lost on the president. Around that same time, Mr. Obama visited Myanmar itself (a first for any sitting US president). While these actions have been taken in the context of geopolitical tensions between China and the US, the less-developed but ever-growing Russian presence cannot be ignored.

Sometimes Russian actions are taken not to merely counter US influence, but to outright thwart and frustrate US national interests, exemplified most notably in Russian intransigence over Syria. In a similar vein to recent actions on Syria, China and Russia both refused to approve a UN resolution on human rights in Myanmar in 2007.

Traditionally, Russia’s greatest ally in Southeast Asia has been Vietnam, based (in the past) on both a shared Communist government as well as mutual distrust of China in light of the Sino-Soviet Split and, in the case of Vietnam, deep-rooted historic suspicions of China. Vietnam’s ties to the US, however, have grown consistently warmer since US President Bill Clinton opened up relations starting in 1995. 

Myanmar, on the other hand, was largely isolationist after the establishment of the military government in 1962, although the country had a relatively strong friend in China since the 1970’s. What makes this web of relations different from the case of Vietnam, however, is that the state of affairs between China and Russia has been very different lately than it had been since the mid-1960’s, and while some problems between the two countries still abide, many foreign policy analysts now speak of a growing China-Russia axis. 

As Myanmar’s defense ties with Russia continue to grow, Myanmar could eventually represent a key strategic state in Southeast Asia where both Russia and China (insofar as their own respective national interests permit) can take complimentary or even collaborative foreign policy actions to counter US pursuits in the region, thus posing a risk to geopolitical stability in Southeast Asia as well as the Indian Ocean.

The first major development in Russian assistance to Myanmar was the 2007 announcement that Russia would assist in the development of a light water nuclear reactor. Military and defense ties between Myanmar and Russia continue in earnest. In 2013, the Burmese army’s commander-in-chief, Min Augung Hlayn and Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu met twice to discuss deepening defense relations between the two countries. In light of the second meeting, Shoigu was quoted by Russian news agency ITAR-TASS as saying “The meeting shows a great potential for Burmese-Russian cooperation” and that “I’m pleased to note the activation of bilateral relations in the military realm.”

In November 2013, three Russian Navy ships made a six-day port call to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, the first ever by Russian warships in the modern era and an event that could set the tone for later joint military exercises. Even before these meetings, Myanmar-Russia military ties were strong as it has been common for Burmese military officers to spend a few years in Russia to study (a Russian-language school for Burmese military officers will soon open in the country, allowing students to achieve a professional working proficiency in Russian before moving to Russia for training).

In addition to allowing Russia greater geopolitical thrust into Southeast Asia, a strategic Myanmar-Russia relationship also gives the latter country a stronger hand in the Strait of Malacca, one of the key shipping lanes in the region. If the proposed Trans-Afghanistan pipeline, which is supposed to bring Caspian Sea energy all the way down to India, is completed, India could potentially sell some of this energy to customers in Asia, but such an endeavor could face a political risk if Russia sought to thwart energy shipments through the Strait that did not meet its own national interests.

A more assertive Russia has proven to be a source of instability in various regions and in particular a source of consternation for the United States. The US would do well to watch and react appropriately to Russia’s developing ties with Myanmar, lest a situation detrimental to US interests take root in this most critical part of the globe.


Anthony V. Rinna is an analyst at the US-based Center for World Conflict and Peace

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