September 2022 saw multiple attempts from Russia and China to further deepen ties with countries in Central and Southeast Asia via two recent multilateral meetings, the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit. This is in line with the two countries ambitions to “create a more multipolar world”, realising the potential of developing countries, especially in Eurasia not being too dependent or too close to the West.
Both the EEF and SCO are international platforms where delegates from mainly Asian countries discuss political, economic, and security cooperation with Russia and China. This year, both forums took place in September and can be seen as opportunities, especially for Russia, to secure more partners as it is increasingly isolated by the West following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The first meeting was the 2022 SCO Summit where leaders gathered at Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Besides the host and this year’s SCO chair Uzbekistan, the summit was attended by China and Russia, Iran, India, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.
Together, these states make up the world’s largest regional organisation that represents around 40 percent of the global population and over 20 percent of the world’s GDP. Their potential influence as a bloc in international politics is immense and undeniable. Within the SCO, there is much talk from leaders such as Russian President Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping about “counterbalancing the West and bringing a just, democratic and multipolar world order.”
However, the composition and dynamics between the SCO members is interesting. Specifically, interests do not seem to always fully align. These differences have raised doubt among political observers on whether calling the SCO an “anti-West bloc” is suitable.
The SCO Summit held the first face-to-face meeting between Putin and Xi Jinping since the invasion of Ukraine, and Putin discussed concerns with Chinese officials regarding the recent loses of territory in its eastern neighbour.
China has been aiding Russia economically in response to sanctions, but this has raised concern from the central Asian countries of the SCO. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan have been reasonably anxious after seeing Russia’s willingness to invade a fellow former Soviet nation, and China’s lack of condemnation has complicated its relationships with its central Asian neighbours.
Another point of complication is the presence of India at the table, who clearly has rivalries and open disputes with fellow SCO members such as Pakistan and especially China.
India’s membership of the suspected anti-West bloc is even more odd because India is also part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) with the United States, Australia and Japan. The QUAD is inversely suspected of being formed as a counter to China’s expanse in the Asia-Pacific.
Despite all these potential fault-lines in the SCO, it cannot be mistaken that their gathering in Samarkand this month is part of Russia’s attempts to find opportunities and allies to alleviate its pressured economy following its unpopular invasion of Ukraine.
A week prior between the 5th to 8th of September, Russian President Vladimir Putin also met with several foreign delegates at Vladivostok in eastern Russia during EEF meetings, including of course China, India, Mongolia and South Korea. This year, the theme of the EEF was “On the Path to a Multipolar World.”
However, one of the most notable meetings during the EEF was between Vladimir Putin and Myanmar Junta Senior General Min Aung Lai. This is the Junta General’s third visit to Russia since taking power during the February 2021 coup, where the military Junta ousted Aang Suu Kyi’s civilian government.
The meeting between the leaders of Myanmar and Russia has garnered lots of attention worldwide, as both countries are currently facing isolation and sanctions by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and European Union (EU) respectively.
Min Aung Lai and Putin have discussed plans to further cooperate, specifically allowing direct flights between the two nations to increase trade in oil and gas, Russia’s main export which has mostly been sanctioned by the West.
On the other hand, Russia (and China) are suspected of supplying arms to the Myanmar Junta. Russian air force in particular have been crucial to the Junta’s campaign to eliminate rebellions. So far over 2000 have died in skirmishes with the Myanmar Junta. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stated Russia’s intentions in Myanmar as ‘stabilising the country in preparations for its election next year.”
Myanmar has also not been quiet in its appreciation for its partnership with Russia. General Min Aung Lai has claimed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to be “justified for the sustainability of their country’s sovereignty.” He even declared that Myanmar does not only consider Putin the leader of Russia but also the world.
In all, Russia and China as premier nations of the ‘Eastern Bloc’ are proactively seeking to deepen ties with allies from across Asia and the Asia-Pacific. They both seek to realise a multipolar world, though mainly aimed at rivalling the United States and the West.
However, sharing a common enemy is seldom enough to make deeper international partnerships, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will only complicate its alliances moving forward.
Contrast this with Indonesia’s vision for a multipolar world as mentioned by Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, that is multilateralism for international cooperation between countries to face global issues such as pandemics and climate change.
Indonesia’s ideal multipolar world is one where cooperation between nations is conducted regardless of any political blocs, rooted in Indonesia’s history as a non-bloc country and a founding nation of the Non-Aligned Movement of 1956.
Indonesia should balance itself between the coalitions of Russia and China as well as the United states, and position itself as a promoter of a more peaceful multipolar world. This will require sensitive and careful state decision-making informed by a deeper understanding of Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific.
- - Rifqy Tenribali Eshanasir is a Junior Researcher at the Centre for Peace Conflict and Democracy, Hasanuddin University, and an Alumnus of International Relations and Peace Studies at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan.