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"What did Russian President Putin Achieve in Singapore?" by Ian Storey

2018/101, 27 November 2018

Seen from the perspective of the Russian government, President Vladimir Putin’s 2½ day trip to Singapore last week can be considered a great success. There are three main reasons why.

First, and most importantly, Putin’s attendance at the East Asia Summit (EAS) allowed him to burnish his image as a major international statesman and leader of one of the world’s Great Powers which the West has failed to isolate since the Crimea crisis in 2014. The absence of US President Donald Trump gave Putin an even greater share of the limelight. This was Putin’s first time to attend the EAS. Between 2011 and 2017, Putin had sent Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov or Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to the EAS, while he preferred to join the APEC Summit. Instead, this year Putin travelled to Singapore for the EAS while Medvedev attended APEC in Papua New Guinea.

Second, Putin’s participation in the 3rd ASEAN-Russia Summit and EAS, as well as his state visit to Singapore, enabled him to accentuate the positives in Russia-Southeast Asia relations and answer critics that his government’s Asia policy is too China-centric with not enough attention being paid to Southeast Asia and ASEAN. At the ASEAN-Russia Summit, the two sides agreed to elevate their relationship to a Strategic Partnership. Russia had long sought this promotion but ASEAN had hesitated due to Putin’s non-attendance at the EAS.

Economics was top of Putin’s agenda, and the Russian leader was particularly keen to show that despite Western sanctions Russia is open for business and that lucrative business opportunities await Southeast Asian companies. Currently, economic ties between Southeast Asia and Russia pale in comparison with the region’s trade relations with the other major powers such as China (US$437 billion) and Japan (US$218 billion). However, the situation is improving, with two-way trade at US$16.74 billion in 2017, up 40% on the previous year. In Singapore, ASEAN and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU, which also includes the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) signed an agreement to boost trade and investment ties. In addition to trade, Russia and ASEAN also agreed to strengthen cooperation across a range of issues, including connectivity, combating transnational threats, energy and people-to-people links. Russia is Southeast Asia’s largest supplier of military equipment and is looking to increase arms sales to the region. During a bilateral meeting between Putin and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the two leaders reportedly discussed defence cooperation, including replacing Malaysia’s ageing MiG-29 fighters with a Russian-manufactured jet such as the SU-35 (which Russia has sold to neighbouring Indonesia).

Prior to the ASEAN-led meetings, Putin paid a state visit to Singapore to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. Putin and Singapore President Halimah Jacob attended a ground-breaking ceremony for the Russian Cultural Centre in Little India which will also house a Russian Orthodox Church. President Halimah hosted a state banquet for her Russian counterpart and praised the two countries’ “long-standing friendship”. Putin also held a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. During Putin’s visit, Russia and Singapore signed four bilateral agreements on trade and investment, higher education, social and labour issues, and urban transport management. Trade between Russia and Singapore was US$5.39 billion in 2017, up from US$1.38 billion in 2007. The EAEU and Singapore are currently negotiating a free trade agreement which the two sides hope to conclude in 2019.

The third important outcome for Moscow was a potential breakthrough in the Southern Kuriles/Northern Territories dispute between Russia and Japan. On the sidelines of the EAS, Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to accelerate talks on a peace treaty based on a 1956 joint declaration by which the Soviet Union promised to return two of the four disputed islands which it annexed at the end of World War Two. Putin and Abe are set to discuss the issue again at the G-20 Summit in Argentina at the end of this month, and when Abe visits Russia in early 2019.

Dr Ian Storey is Senior Fellow with ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.