What stands between Russia and close ties with Indonesia?
In March 2018, Indonesia unexpectedly found itself in the crossfire of a US–Russia diplomatic spat due to its decision to purchase 11 Russian Su-35 jet fighters. The deal has stirred up discussions of what Russia’s game in Indonesia is and how it fits into Indonesia’s defence posture. Although the deal is not huge in scale — the cost is reported to be US$1.1 billion, offset by barter mostly in palm oil and coffee — the move to buy the fourth-generation fighter jets breathes new life into the Russia–Indonesia arms-trade relationship.
There is a meaningful convergence of interests between Russia and Indonesia, strengthened by current trends in East Asia. For Indonesia, a forward-looking defence posture has been a key strategic goal. Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has attempted to formulate a more proactive foreign and defence policy that would leverage Indonesia’s strategic position between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Even before Jokowi, Indonesia began to turn its military into a ‘minimum essential force’. A key element of this has been modernisation of obsolete weapons systems. An even stronger ambition is to move towards self-reliance in military production. To this end, Jokowi has pledged to include technology transfer clauses to arms deals and increase funding for local production.
For Russia, Indonesia has long been an underinvested asset in its eastward policy. Since 2012, Russia has been visibly keen on developing deeper relations with Asia. This accelerated as Moscow’s relations with the West deteriorated. Russia is now seeking to diversify its strategy in Asia to include a better relationship with Southeast Asian states and ASEAN. Still, among Southeast Asian states Russia has enjoyed a particularly deep relationship only with Vietnam, fuelled by a long history of Cold War alignment.
Indonesia has been a particularly tough nut to crack for Russia, with bilateral trade in 2017 at a mere US$3.2 billion, with US$2.4 billion being Indonesian exports. Russian companies have been aiming to build an oil refinery, a power plant and a railway, but each high-level dialogue seems to produce more memoranda and not much actual building.
Defence cooperation is among the more interesting areas. Southeast Asia is a key market for Russian arms exporters, and broader military-to-military cooperation is attractive to Moscow as well. In December 2017, Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers visited a runway in Indonesia, refuelling and then continuing on to patrol the Southern Pacific. Russia’s new Ambassador to Jakarta — the experienced Lyudmila Vorobieva — downplayed the power projection move, though it was the first of its kind.
Russia is aspiring to a visible presence in Southeast Asia and will have to get Indonesia on board. President Vladimir Putin is reportedly considering visiting Jakarta this year and may elevate the two countries’ relationship to a ‘strategic partnership’, a mostly symbolic but still significant gesture.
But three issues may hurt Russia’s attempt at strengthening strategic relations with Indonesia.
First, China’s growing assertiveness is pushing Southeast Asian states to hedge. Russia is projecting an image as China’s closest partner. Moscow’s appeal to Southeast Asia may suffer from this image, especially with how the Western media portrays the Russia–China non-alliance.
Second, the Trump administration is refurbishing the United States’ Asia policy with the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ concept. Indonesia’s approach to the Indo-Pacific idea has been more traditional in the sense that it focuses on existing multilateral ASEAN-centred institutions. But at the same time it is open to incorporate new mechanisms as long as they don’t undermine the old ones, meaning that Indonesia may well be accommodative to US- and Japanese-led security initiatives in the region.
An overly welcoming attitude may cause irritation in Moscow, where there is inherent mistrust of US-led initiatives. The ‘Indo-Pacific’ was already marked by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a case of American ‘geopolitical engineering’, harmful to regional security.
Finally, if US sanctions on Russia unfold in their harshest form, this may mean big trouble for anyone willing to buy weapons systems from Russian producers. The current US legislation allows for sanctioning any country, organisation or individual that deals with Russian entities on the sanctions list (which includes key arms sellers).
The Su-35 deal has shown that Russia’s relations with Indonesia and Southeast Asian states depend heavily on whether Russia and the United States decide to keep their differences at bay and take an issue-based approach. If the two choose to counter each other wherever their interests cross and make it into a global confrontation, we may all find ourselves in big trouble.
Anton Tsvetov is an expert at the Center for Strategic Research (CSR), a Moscow-based think tank. He tweets on Southeast Asian affairs and Russian foreign policy at @antsvetov. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect those of CSR.