Russia’s Southeast Asia Influence in Focus with First Myanmar Maritime Exercise MARUMEX
Plus China’s pre-Biden-Xi meeting ASEAN charm offensive; Southeast Asia at a special Israel-Gaza war summit; big digital economy stakes & much, much more.
Greetings to new readers and welcome all to this edition of the weekly ASEAN Wonk BulletBrief! For this iteration, we are looking at:
Assessing the significance of a new Russia-Myanmar exercise and its impacts on Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region;
Mapping of regional developments including China’s pre-Biden-Xi meeting ASEAN charm offensive; Southeast Asia’s Israel-Gaza war views at a special Islamic summit and more;
Charting evolving trends such as on risks in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Southeast Asia’s digital economy and related issues;
Tracking and analysis of industry developments including a coming investment screening regime; a “historic” Southeast Asia renewable story; the region’s biggest tri-service meet and more;
And much more!
WonkCount: 1,601 words (~8 minutes reading time)
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China’s pre-Biden-Xi Meeting ASEAN Charm Offensive; Southeast Asia’s Israel-Gaza War Views at Special Islamic Summit; New First in Japan-Philippines Defense Ties & More
Russia’s Southeast Asia Influence in Focus with First Myanmar Maritime Exercise
The first Russia-Myanmar maritime security exercise is an important reminder that as isolated as the two countries may be, the intense push by both sides to broaden and deepen their ties in the past year should not be dismissed despite their clear limitations and challenges.
What’s Behind It
Russia and Myanmar held new maritime drills this week. Myanmar state media noted that the 1st Myanmar-Russia Security Exercise (MARUMEX) and related activities, launched at the Thilawa Port of Yangon on November 5, lasted until their full conclusion on November 91. This occurred amid a series of ongoing challenges for the ruling junta, including a major offensive against it by allied ethnic armed groups in the north.
The drills are the latest indication of Russia’s role as one of the few supporters of Myanmar since the 2021 military coup and Naypyidaw’s status as a partner for Moscow in Southeast Asia despite its 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Defense-wise, Russia offers the Myanmar military a rare arms supplier to win a raging civil war and an alternative to avoid over reliance on Beijing which it has historically distrusted, while Naypyidaw gives Moscow a node to project its limited regional security influence in Southeast Asia. This has been visible in interactions thus far in 2023, including a nuclear cooperation pact in February and a joint ASEAN-related counterterrorism exercise in September (see table below)2. After Myanmar’s ruling military chief Min Aung Hlaing met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time last year, both sides have worked to broaden collaboration beyond the military domain as well, even though ties in areas like economics are building from a relatively small base (on trade for example, even Russian statistics acknowledge this was just around $200 million in H1 20233).
Select Notable Russia-Myanmar Developments in 2023
Why It Matters
The drills allowed both Myanmar and Russia to showcase their partnership for their own respective interests. Russia’s emphasis was more on the defense aspect of the drills as an example of its regional reach, while Myanmar’s priority was on maximizing publicity on the engagement as much as possible to counter claims about its isolation and bolster regime legitimacy. Notably, while Russian state media did cover the exercise, Myanmar state media stretched coverage of the exercise in detail over the course of the week, including separate pieces on Min Aung Hlaing’s visit on board a Russian naval vessel where he was briefed on its capabilities and even one on how the Russian delegation left for home4.
The exercise itself was quite basic and standard in nature. The drills, taking place around 85 nautical miles west of Myeik, comprised of largely harbor-based exercises related to the prevention of air, water surface and underwater dangers as well as maritime security measures5. On the Russian side, participation included Russian navy destroyers Admiral Tributs and Admiral Panteleev as well as the sea tanker Pechanga6. Other than that, interactions on the sidelines included visits to landmarks in Yangon, cultural troupe and naval orchestra performances, as well as standard components such as a welcome ceremony, briefings and discussions.
Where It’s Headed
How MARUMEX fits into the future prospects of broader defense cooperation is not yet clear. Neither side publicized their intent for developing this new first in their security ties, whether it be through regularization of a certain cadence or an increase in sophistication over time.
Nonetheless, this does serve as a reminder to closely watch how the contours of defense ties develop within the wider relationship. Though more kinetic, military-focused new firsts such as MARUMEX will naturally be the focus of headlines, it will also be key to monitor non-military areas as well and their strategic significance. As a case in point, while the exercise was playing out, lesser attention was paid to other Russia-Myanmar engagements occurring simultaneously, including efforts at mineral exploration and power sector cooperation7). More generally, both countries are actively working to broaden collaboration across priority areas including oil and gas, atomic energy, central bank coordination, education and personnel training, culture and language and diplomatic support (as we saw for instance with Moscow’s support for Naypyidaw’s dialogue partner status at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization).
Southeast Asia in China’s Global Belt and Road; Digital Economy Risk and Opportunity Snapshot; US-China Pre-APEC Perceptions
“Beijing has a particularly high level of environmental risk exposure in….Southeast Asia (including Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia),” notes a new report by AidData on China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The other regions with high environmental exposure include the Tropical Andes, the Southern Cone, East Africa, West Africa and Central Asia. Southeast Asia is also a region of relatively high concentration when it comes to social risk exposure (link).
Risk Exposure in China’s Infrastructure Project Portfolio
“The current demand and supply gap outlines a potential risk of a digital economic divide in the e-commerce sector,” argues the latest iteration of a digital economy report on Southeast Asia by Google, Temasek and Bain & Company. Overall, the report portrays a picture of a region growing against global headwinds with a mix of aggregate and sectoral risks and opportunities (link).
Digital Economy Demand-Supply Gap Picture in Southeast Asia
“In Indonesia…similar shares see investments from both superpowers as having helped their country’s economy at least a fair amount,” notes a new Pew Center report on perceptions of the United States and China. Indonesia is the only country from Southeast Asia included in the total list of 24 cases. Indonesia along with Hungary are also two striking cases mentioned in the study as instances where “U.S. and Chinese contributions to global peace and stability are seen in a similar light” (link).