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Commentary (December 1, 2006)

The Russians are Coming

Michael Richardson (Security Specialist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore)

As post-communist Russia under President Vladimir Putin seeks to rebuild influence in Asia, it is using exports of arms and energy to strengthen old ties and build new links. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has been successful in retaining India as a major customer for weapons and equipment, while attracting China as an increasingly big buyer. About 45 per cent of Russian arms exports, worth nearly US$6 billion last year, go to China and 40 per cent to India.

Now Indonesia is showing intense interest in Russian military supplies. Among a raft of agreements signed in Moscow this week - during the visit of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, which ends today - was a US$1 billion loan for the purchase of arms.

Indonesia could not get spare parts for its US-supplied fighter jets and transport aircraft when lawmakers in Washington imposed a military embargo, after Indonesian troops killed dozens of unarmed protesters in East Timor, in 1992. The embargo was finally lifted last year, and bilateral relations have improved greatly.

But the still-powerful Indonesian defence establishment has not forgotten the danger of becoming too dependent on a sole supplier. According the Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono, US products now constitute 65 per cent of the country's arms purchases, and will fall below 50 per cent in the coming years. Russia is keen to take up the slack, by offering Jakarta flexible payment terms. Indonesia wants to add eight more Sukhoi fighter jets to its arsenal, as well as Russian infantry fighting vehicles, submarines, helicopters and air-defence systems.

Does it matter that Asia's three largest nations are looking to Russia for advanced weapons? Does it presage a further decline of US and western influence in the region?

The US and its regional allies find it more difficult to hold joint military training and exercises with countries that use Russian, rather than American or Nato-standard, equipment. But this is not an insuperable barrier. Indeed, India last year signed a wide-ranging defence co-operation agreement with the US, and is undertaking an increasingly wide array of activities with American forces, despite its extensive use of Russian naval and air force weaponry. Taken as a whole, US-India relations have never been closer.

The Sino-Russian strategic partnership is more problematic for Washington. Beijing and Moscow aim to counter the influence of the US and its allies, particularly Japan, in Asia - while combining to veto US initiatives that cut across their interests in the region. Russia has supplied China with a range of modern combat and transport aircraft, destroyers, submarines and other equipment. But Moscow has stopped short of selling Beijing advanced strategic weapons, including long-range supersonic bombers armed with cruise missiles that could threaten the US navy protecting Taiwan.

Meanwhile, the US can offset Indonesia's interest in Russian arms by offering assistance to maintain existing US military equipment, continue defence reform, promote counter-terrorism and improve maritime security.

Japan's move this week to start negotiations with Indonesia on a preferential trading arrangement will also help. Japan is Indonesia's biggest export market and second-largest supplier. Concluding a mutually beneficial trade expansion deal will remind Indonesia that Russian guns, without butter, are of limited use.

(Originally appeared in the December 1, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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