Russian President Vladimir Putin is visiting Singapore this week for a state visit and in order to attend the summit of Russia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as the 13th East Asia Summit (EAS).
This is the first time the Russian leader is setting foot on Singaporean soil. 2018 also marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two nations.
Putin’s visit to Singapore comes as a surprise to many since a Russian President has not attended an EAS since Russia acquired membership in 2011, even if the Asia-Pacific region has become increasingly more important to Russia’s foreign policy.
In past years, Putin has been present at meetings for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which mostly occurs right after EAS meetings, and he has sent Russia’s foreign affairs minister or prime minister to the summit.
But this year, while Dimitri Medvedev, Russia’s Prime Minister attends the APEC forum in Papua New Guinea on November 14 and 15, Putin will be in Singapore for a state visit and to attend the EAS on the same days.
The EAS, which is held yearly, is a meeting between member nations of the ASEAN with its eight dialogue partners: Australia, Japan, India, China, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Russia and the United States. Challenges in the region are discussed, and the summit is seen as an opportunity to build better relations and cooperation within the region.
Neither US President Donald Trump, not China’s Xi Jinping will be attending the EAS, which puts Putin, along with Shinzo Abe of Japan and Narendra Modi of India, as perhaps the summit’s most important delegates.
It is highly likely that Putin is attending the summit due in a bid to improve Russia’s economy, which has suffered from sanctions after the crisis in Ukraine four years ago.
And visiting this year’s ASEAN chair, Singapore, may have also been key, since the Lion City has shown encouraging signs that it wishes to strengthen trade relations with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU)—a new economic group including Russia and some of the members of the Soviet Union, such as Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus.
Furthermore, the portion of Russian foreign trade in the APEC has grown in the last five years from 23 to 31 percent. Trade with Vietnam grew to US$5.2 billion last year, and Russia remains the country’s second-biggest foreign investor, at almost US$3 billion
Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, had said that he hopes that the memorandum of understanding signed between Singapore and the executive regulatory body of the EAEU, the Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC) in 2016 would facilitate a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the Lion City and the EAEU. This would make Singapore the second nation to sign an FTA with the EAEU, after Vietnam in 2016.
The ASEAN is also proving to be a good market for Russian weapons. Hanoi ordered weapons from Russia worth over US$1 billion in September, and last year Indonesia said it would purchase 11 Sukhoi fighter jets worth US$1.14 billion. Despite the threat of sanctions from the US, Indonesia announced in October that payments would proceed.
Russia also made recent “gift deals” of weapons to the Philippines, which many believe will pave the way for arms sales to the country, which has bought most of its weapons from America.
Russia is also expanding in exporting energy to the region, with nuclear plants as a possibility in the Philippines and Indonesia, and with firm plans to build nuclear plants in Vietnam.
One country whose ties with Russia remains to be seen is Malaysia, where it is unknown whether the newly minted Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad will warm toward Putin or not.
An issue that may be up for discussion is the new evidence implicating Russia in the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in July 2014, which killed all 298 people on board.
Malaysia’s foreign minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah was asked whether Dr. Mahathir will bring up the downed flight when he meets Putin. The minister told members of the press, “Our position has always been very clear. We’re awaiting for the conclusive report from the JIT (Joint Investigation Team). We don’t hold any other position.”
The JIT is composed of representatives from Malaysia, Australia, and Ukraine, as well as Dutch prosecutors and police. Last May the JIT indicated that MH17 may have been the target of pro-Russian rebels against the Ukrainian government, an allegation met with denials by the Putin administration.
Other sources have also pointed to a key figure in the ill-fated flight, Oleg Vladimirovich Ivannikov, a Russian intelligence officer of high rank.
But Saifuddin did say that security in the Korean peninsula would be discussed with the Russian president.