Russia Pacific
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

When US and Russian warships almost collided in the South China Sea on June 7, there was nary a mention in the mainstream Australian media. Some believe the warship incident was no coincidence, with China’s leader Xi Jinping in Moscow at the time as the two leaders indulged in an orgy of mutual praise.

“We confirmed that Russia’s and China’s stances on the key global issues are similar or coincide,” Putin said.

Xi noted his visit would “serve as an incentive for the development of Chinese-Russian relations, comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction in a new era”. “We’ve managed to take our relationship to the highest level in our history,” the Chinese leader added. “We will continue to improve our ties and we are ready to go hand in hand with you.”

The meeting also saw a major energy deal signed (part of Russia’s plan to diversify its energy export markets into Asia) and the pièce de résistance, a deal for China’s Huawei Technologies (banned by Australia, the US, Japan and Vietnam) to supply 5G network equipment for Russia’s largest mobile network MTS. So it’s now clear Russia want to join China at the forefront of creating digital authoritarian police states.

Xi was also conveniently out of town on June 16, when up to 2 million Hong Kong citizens flooded city streets protesting a bill for an extradition treaty with China that would punch a hole in the legal firewall that keeps them relatively safe from Beijing’s brutal and opaque legal system. Xi, again, was with Putin — this time in Kazakhstan at the annual Shanghai Cooperation dialogue that brings together China, Russia, India, Pakistan and the central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Yet for all the talk of the US-China strategic battle for the Pacific, the world’s equal number one nuclear power (according to the latest weapons data) has been all but forgotten by Australia. This is despite public anger over the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines plane over the Ukraine in 2014, leading to a promise by prime minister Tony Abbott to “shirtfront” Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Since then, ministerial visits and leadership contact outside major global summits have all but dried up. Two-way merchandise trade between Australia and Russia — which was never really significant — fell to just $697 million in 2016, down from $1.83 billion in 2014; two-way services trade languished at $183 million. Russian involvement in Europe and the Middle East continues to get a great deal of coverage, but the country’s involvement in the Pacific goes largely without scrutiny.

But military and defence types in Australia are now turning their minds to the quietly growing influence of Russia in the region. Last March two Russian diplomats were expelled from the embassy in Canberra.

As it increasingly aligns with China on geopolitical issues (such Syria and Iran), Russia has continued its long-term military relationships with India. Indeed, at the Kazakhstan meeting Putin and Indian leader Narendra Modi made it clear the two nations were increasing military cooperation. This would put a major spoke in the stuttering alliance between the US, Japan, Australia and India (known as the Quad).

Russia is building ties by selling arms, but also by backing the major infrastructure projects of South and Southeast Asian nations including Bangladesh (where it is helping build a nuclear reactor), Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand. It is building arms manufacturing centres in its east, aimed squarely at its increasingly remunerative Asian customers.

Under Putin, Russia has poured funds into its military — including along its lengthy Pacific coastline in North Asia. In early 2018 Russia mounted a huge war games exercise that was reported to involve more than 300,000 troops; 36,000 tanks; 1000 aircrafts, including helicopters and drones; and 80 warships and support vessels. More alarmingly 3500 Chinese troops were said to have taken part in the Russian war games under Russian control.

According to research by Curtin University associate professor Alexey Muraviev, Russian air force units deployed to East Asia were bolstered by about 300 new upgraded aircrafts from 2013-18 — about equal to the entire Royal Australian Air Force. Over this time, the Russian Eastern Military District (which is responsible for operations across the Pacific) is estimated to have received more than 6240 new assets including tanks, missiles and heavy artillery.

The Russian Pacific Fleet is also expected to get 70 new vessels by 2026, including 11 nuclear-powered and diesel-electric submarines as well as 19 new surface warships. As the Arctic continues to melt, opening up new shipping routes, Russia will be able to move naval assets from west to east.

Russia is also one of the key players/sponsors — along with China — in rapidly escalating cyber warfare via its notorious Internet Research Agency which buys bots and troll farms to drive traffic to fake news websites that use fabricated biased stories to push online debates. The aim is to unsettle public debate and politics.

In February, Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed a sophisticated state actor attacked the Parliament House computer network targeting the three major parties. “Our cyber experts believe that a sophisticated state actor is responsible for this malicious activity,” he said. No further information was announced on who was behind that that attack, though it’s worth noting Russia has a keen interest in accessing Australian intelligence that is part of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network (including US, UK, Canada and New Zealand).

An increased focus on Russia by Canberra bureaucracy’s outsourced policy arm the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has underscored the fact that the Cold War superpower is now back in Canberra’s calculations.

In short, Russia is determined to reassert itself as a power in the Asia-Indo-Pacific in myriad ways. It’s time we took more notice.

Peter Fray

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