WWII grave robbers on the loose in SE Asian waters

JAKARTA – The recent death of the sole survivor of the World War II sinking of the Australian light cruiser HMAS Perth in Indonesia’s Sunda Strait has brought home renewed attention to hundreds of wartime shipwrecks and the remains of their crewmen lying at the bottom of Southeast Asian seas.

After years of effort, it was only in 2018 that the Australian and Indonesian governments reached agreement on declaring the area around the 7,100-ton Perth and the nearby wreck of the American cruiser USS Houston as a maritime memorial park.

It was nearly too late. Australian Maritime Museum archeologists found that, between 2015 and 2016, about 60% of the Perth’s starboard hull plating was removed in an industrial-scale operation that disturbed the graves of the 357 Australian sailors in the process.

Salvage vessels have reportedly looted as many as 40 other wrecks, the last resting place for thousands of American, British, Australian, Dutch and Japanese sailors in the Java and South China seas and around the fringes of the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Only last month, the Chinese grab dredger Chuan Hoon 68 was reported picking over the wrecks of the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, sunk by Japanese bombers off Malaysia’s east coast in December 1941 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Royal Navy Museum director-general Dominic Tweddle said in a May 24 statement that the illegal salvage operation has thrown into sharp relief how vulnerable 5,000 similar historic underwater naval sites around the world are to wholesale plundering.

“We are distressed and concerned at the apparent vandalism for personal profit (of the two vessels),” he complained. “They are designated war graves. We are upset at the loss of naval heritage and the impact on the understanding of our Royal Navy history.”

Tweddle said there is a need for a management strategy for the Royal Navy’s underwater heritage to better protect or commemorate the wrecks “including the targeted retrieval of objects.”

“A strategy is vital to determine how to assess and manage these wrecks in the most efficient and effective manner,” he said. “Above all, we must remember the crews who served on these lost ships, and all too often gave their lives in the service of their country.”

The HMAS Perth (I) arrives in Sydney Harbour, April 1940. Photo: Samuel Hood / ANMM Collection 00022409 / Australian National Maritime Museum

Retired Royal Navy Captain Roger Turner, who led the recent successful search for the Japanese ship Montevideo Maru which carried 1,000 Australian prisoners of war to their deaths in 1942, told the Asia Times: “It is quite despicable that the Chinese should be pillaging war graves.”

Reflecting on the value of the scrap, the former nuclear submarine engineer points out that in one application the 200mm thick steel contains a very low level of absorbed radiation suitable for ultra-sensitive nuclear-monitoring devices.

“Post-nuclear-age steel, since about 1940, carries its own radiation signal derived from above-ground nuclear weapons testing, which leads to global fallout being imparted into the steel during the smelting process,” he explains.

As a result, steel from the Repulse and the Prince of Wales, launched in 1916 and 1939 respectively, is more valuable than normal scrap, particularly the 400mm-thick, high-quality armor plating covering parts of the 43,700-ton battleship.

Turner notes that although the anthropogenic element of background radiation has now fallen back to what it was before the 1963 nuclear weapons test ban treaty, diminishing the value of pre-nuclear age scrap, it still carries a premium.

“In comparatively shallow water of about 68 meters, even without the nuclear premium, 40,000 tons of steel at $100 per ton is a fair return,” he says. “Probably getting just half of it would be profitable.”

Malaysian authorities say they are investigating the movements of the 8,300-ton Chuan Hong 68, which has been in Malaysian waters since February and is known for earlier salvaging operations in the Java Sea.

The vessel is suspected of also pillaging the wrecks of the Dutch light cruisers HNLMS de Ruyter and HNLMS Java and the destroyer HNLMS Kortenaer, sunk in the Battle of the Java Sea in early 1942, shortly before the Perth and Houston met the same fate.

In 2017, responding to protests from the Netherlands government, Indonesia declared the area around the three hulks a historic site, using rarely applied 2010 legislation to forbid any anchoring, fishing or diving.

It was too late, however, to prevent the almost total removal of the wrecks of the British heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, and the destroyers HMS Encounter and HMS Electra, which were sunk in the same encounter with the loss of 2,300 lives.

Little is known about the wrecks of other allied warships, including the corvette HMAS Armidale and the destroyer HMAS Voyager, both sunk off the south coast of Timor Leste, the carrier USS Langley (Cilacap) and the destroyers USS Edsall (eastern Indian Ocean), HMS Jupiter (Java Sea) and the HNLMS Van Nes (Bangka).

Among the other hulks are three US submarines and two German U-boats, which had been operating out of Japanese bases in occupied Dutch East Indies and British Malaya and were sunk in the Java Sea in November 1944 and April 1945.

Known Japanese wrecks include the heavy cruiser Ashigura, torpedoed off the Bangka-Belitung islands in June 1945, a light cruiser, eight destroyers and three submarines, one of which lies close to the Krakatoa volcano in the Sunda Strait.

British naval historian Geoffrey Till believes the ultimate solution is for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to draft a common protection policy that can be implemented by individual countries.

“But since countries don’t protect such sites of historic importance, and in many cases don’t have the resources to do so even if they cared, it’s hard not to be despairingly pessimistic about this,” he said. 

It is not clear how many commercial salvagers may be involved in the grave robbing, but naval experts place part of the blame on complacent Western governments allowing China’s progressive encroachment on international norms and conventions.

The plundering of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales in 50-meter-deep water off Kuantan isn’t new. In 2013, divers noticed one of the Repulse’s bus-sized brass propellors was missing, something that could only have been done using a heavyweight crane.

Reports a year later claimed explosives were being used to break up both wrecks, the grave of 840 sailors. But the Malaysian government has done little to stop the destruction despite the site being well within the country’s economic exclusion zone (EEZ). 

Britain’s Protection of Military Remains Act makes it an offense to interfere with a protected place or to disturb or remove anything from the site. Divers are permitted to visit, but the rule is don’t touch and don’t penetrate.

There is no international law forbidding the practice, however, and outside of the United Kingdom, the sanctions can only be enforced in practice against British citizens, British-flagged ships or vessels landing in Britain.

HMAS Perth in the Battle of Sunda Strait. Image: AWM

Sunk by enemy gunfire and torpedoes on March 1, 1942, the Perth and the 9,000-ton Houston were victims of the Japanese invasion force which had completed the conquest of Southeast Asia and was then in the process of occupying the Dutch East Indies.

Able Seaman Frank McGovern, who died last week at 103, was the Perth’s last survivor. But that was only the start of his wartime ordeal, which Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described as “amazing” and McGovern as “an extraordinary Australian.”

In the years following the sinking of the Perth, he endured two years on the notorious Burma Railway, then was aboard a Japanese ship torpedoed by a US submarine in the Philippine Sea while carrying 1,000 prisoners of war to slave factories in Japan.

More than 540 Australians perished, but McGovern and 30 other prisoners escaped and spent three days in a lifeboat before being picked up by another Japanese ship, which delivered them to Japan.

There, McGovern was put to work in a factory, where his spine was fractured during the second of two American air raids in which incendiary bombs devastated large swathes of Tokyo.

Forced to work or face summary execution, the fate that awaited the incapacitated after they were drained of their blood, he managed to survive until the Japanese surrendered on September 2, 1945.

McGovern was one of the first Australians repatriated home, but it took years for him to adjust, confronted with many sad memories – including the death of his elder brother aboard the ill-fated Perth.

The general location of the Perth and the Houston, which lost 700 crewmen in the sinking and during subsequent Japanese internment, has long been known, lying four kilometers apart close to the mouth of the strait separating Java and Sumatra. 

Retired Australian navy diver Clive Carlin and compatriot Jack Hammett spent many weekends searching for the two wrecks in 35-meter-deep water, but say they only discovered their exact location from a local fisherman using his own GPS in 1999.

“For me, the Perth is as memorial to the men who sailed in her, in defense of Australia and the Australian way of life,” says Carlin, a long-time Indonesia resident who helped lay an ensign on the wreck during an underwater ceremony on the 60th anniversary of the one-sided battle.

The shipwreck of HMAS Perth (I) lies in waters between Java and Sumatra, a victim of the Battle of Sunda Strait in 1942. A joint survey project between the museum and Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional (Indonesia) has recorded the devastation caused by extensive illegal salvage. Image: James Hunter, ANMM / Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional.

For the Australians, the issue of protecting the wrecks has surfaced again since the discovery of the Montevideo Maru, a converted passenger/cargo ship sunk by the US submarine Sturgeon off the northwest Philippines in July 1942.

Nearly 1,000 Japan-bound Australian PoWs who had been captured in fighting around lightly defended Rabaul on the northern tip of New Britain in Papua New Guinea died in what is still Australia’s worst maritime disaster.

The wreck lies about 100 kilometers west of Luzon’s Cape Bodjeodor on a direct line to its plotted destination on China’s Hainan island. But at a depth of 4,000 meters – the same as the ill-fated Titanic in the North Atlantic – that is unlikely to attract the attention of pillagers.

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SIA to offer free unlimited Wi-Fi for economy, premium economy class passengers from July


SIA’s chief executive officer Goh Choon Phong on Tuesday also shared the airline’s plans to improve its offering for passengers. 

For instance, there will be better seats across all cabins on the new Boeing 777-9 planes that are expected to be introduced in 2025, he said, adding that this will be an “industry-leading” product when it is launched.

SIA also expanded its network during the pandemic, enabling it to now reach about 80 per cent of its pre-COVID capacity. In comparison, airlines in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole have recovered to just over 50 per cent of their pre-COVID capacity, said Mr Goh. 

With SIA subsidiary Scoot’s recent acquisition of the Embraer E190-E2 aircraft that has 112 seats, the budget airline will be able to access “smaller points, particularly in the region”, therefore connecting Singapore and the hub to new places in Southeast Asia. 

Reflecting on SIA’s losses during the pandemic’s early days, Mr Goh expressed gratitude for the strong support from shareholders, allowing the company to raise S$15 billion (US$11.1 billion).

He also highlighted SIA’s decision to continue operations to serve its customers and the nation, even though many airlines ceased international operations due to a lack of demand. The airline also continues to honour customer refunds despite the direct impact on its cash reserves.

Adding that SIA’s employees have “taken quite a bit of sacrifice”, not just in terms of a pay cut, he pointed out that travel operations could not have resumed as quickly if not for their readiness. 

“Ironically, during that period, many of the ground (staff) were working sometimes even harder. Because we were doing a transformation to really get the organisation ready for the restart, in terms of reviewing the processes, reviewing workflow to ensure that we are even better than before,” he said.  

Earlier this month, SIA announced a record annual profit of S$2.16 billion after three straight years of losses. Eligible employees could receive around eight months’ bonus, the airline said.

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RTP agrees on Interpol centre initiative

The Royal Thai Police (RTP) will work with Interpol to establish a coordinating centre to tackle human trafficking gangs in Southeast Asia.

A source said that deputy national police chief Pol Gen Surachate Hakparn, director of the Child Woman Protection and Anti-human Trafficking Centre and Fishery Sector, met FBI officials to discuss human trafficking prevention at the Interpol Global Complex for Innovation in Singapore on Monday.

The source said the deputy chief of RTP’s Foreign Affairs Division and Immigration chief in Songkhla were also at the meeting with the FBI officials who were from its international operation unit against child violence.

At the meeting, the RTP reportedly discussed collaboration of anti-human trafficking and sexual abuse of minors in online crimes that have targeted Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines.

The ongoing conflict in Myanmar has made it difficult to assist human trafficking victims there while the number of gangs there keeps growing, the meeting was told. However, Interpol can still assist victims by coordinating with international police based in Thailand and RTP, the source said.

So far, Thai police and Interpol have wrapped up 12 human trafficking-related cases in Myanmar and helped 88 victims of various nationalities. Police are working on nine other cases.

To better tackle human trafficking, Interpol wants to conduct an operational plan and establish a coordinating centre in Thailand, said Pol Gen Surachate, according to the source. The source said the deputy national police chief has agreed with the move.

Pol Gen Surachate said illicit drug gangs are likely associated with human trafficking and illegal fisheries. To tackle it effectively, he reportedly said, requires cooperation from all sides to enforce international laws.

In previous meetings with Myanmar authorities, the RTP obtained details about cases of sexual abuse against minors from the National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and Interpol.

The RTP have instructed police to intensify their search for trafficking victims and asked Interpol to supply more information through the International Child Sexual Exploitation (ICSE) database, said Pol Gen Surachate. The RTP’s Thailand Internet Crimes Against Children (TICAC) taskforce will lead the operation and keep Interpol updated on the progress.

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NATO should tread carefully in the Indo-Pacific

NATO’s incursion into the Indo-Pacific region is a move that will exacerbate regional conflicts and tensions. That’s because NATO cannot be separated from the history of European colonialism and imperialism that shaped modern Asia — and plays a major role in Chinese nationalism today.

In 2022, NATO declared that China was a “challenge” to the alliance’s “interests, security and values.” Recently, NATO has argued that possible Chinese assistance to Russia in its war against Ukraine makes China a military threat to Europe.

NATO is opening a liaison office in Japan and is partners with Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea. This may be a first step to deeper European involvement in Asia’s security architecture.

Japan argues that the war in Ukraine has destabilized the world, and has invited NATO into the Indo-Pacific to deter China. However, NATO is widely distrusted in the non-Western world.

NATO: An American puppet?

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has acted as an extension of American power. NATO’s bombing of Kosovo and Serbia in 1999 violated the United Nations Charter.

NATO’s intervention in Afghanistan was authorized by the UN, but it assisted the illegal and devastating US invasion of Iraq by freeing American military resources.

The UN Security Council also gave the green light to NATO’s intervention in Libya, but NATO states violated the terms of that resolution to pursue their own political and economic objectives in the North African country. The result was the destruction of Libya and the spread of instability across North Africa. There are no states in Africa that would call NATO “a defensive alliance.”

Very few countries support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, the non-Western world — including most of Southeast Asiagenerally accepts Russia’s claim that it invaded Ukraine to protect itself against the expansion of NATO. To much of the world, the reality of Western militarism makes Russia’s arguments entirely plausible.

A teenaged boy carries a gun as he jumps from a tank.
A Libyan youth carrying a gun jumps from a destroyed tank at the site of a NATO air strike at the outskirts of Benghazi, Libya in March 2011. Photo: AP via The Conversation / Nasser Nasser

China fuels regional prosperity

Most Southeast Asian states have set aside their historical grievances with the West. They are committed to an international system that — somewhat accidentally — has served them well.

Regional states are concerned about the rise of China and its acts of intimidation. Yet China is the No 1 trading partner of most Asian states. Regional prosperity depends on China’s success.

Asians are cautious about western provocations over issues like Taiwan. Asians want the US present to balance China’s power, but that doesn’t mean they want a European military alliance operating in their region.

In particular, states that are part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) want to manage regional security without outside interference.

Southeast Asians’ perception of a predatory international system is based on their experiences with European colonialism. Their focus on protecting state sovereignty is directly linked to this history. Their stated preference is to build economic and diplomatic connections to manage regional conflict.

China has also prospered under the existing system and has a stake in its continuation. But it’s considered a threat because it will not be subservient to western power, especially American.

Consequently, it’s been encircled by more than 300 American military bases and subjected to intense US economic and technological sanctions.

A row of soldiers in battle fatigues walk along a grassy path.
US soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division walk after disembarking from a Blackhawk UH-60 helicopter at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, on May 4, 2023. Photo: AP / Lee Jin-man

Century of humiliation

Chinese nationalism has been stoked by what’s known as the “century of humiliation” from 1839 to 1949, when European powers, the US and Japan took part in seizing Chinese territory, imposing unequal treaties and brutalizing the Chinese people.

NATO is a European military alliance that is establishing a strong working relationship with Japan. This plays directly into China’s concerns that the same powers that humiliated it in the past are lining up for a second attempt.

Asian states that find the Russian explanation for the war in Ukraine plausible will clearly be concerned that NATO’s move into the region is duplicating the same hostile dynamic of backing an adversary into a corner.

An Asian man and a balding man raise their champagne glasses with a colourful mural behind them and a large bouquet of flowers on the table in front of them.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping toast during a dinner at the Kremlin in Russia in March 2023. Photo: Pavel Byrkin/ Sputnik / Kremlin Pool via AP / The Conversation

For the past several centuries, world politics have been defined by Western colonialism and violence. That era never really ended.

After the Second World War, Europe passed the torch of global Western imperialism to the US Since the end of the Cold War, the US — often assisted by NATO states — has frequently engaged in illegal violence around the world, most notably with its invasion of Iraq.

Therefore, it’s not surprising NATO claims that it’s merely a “defensive alliance” are viewed skeptically in the non-Western world. What is surprising is that Western powers seemingly cannot understand why their insistence that they represent a “rules-based international order” fails to resonate with much of the globe.

NATO’s growing presence in the Pacific evokes a painful history that the western world has never confronted or fully acknowledged. NATO ignores how its recent actions affect how it’s perceived in the larger world and how those actions lend credence to states that see NATO as a threat.

Its presence in the Indo-Pacific can easily be construed as a new attempt to reassert Western military domination of the region.

Shaun Narine is Professor of International Relations and Political Science, St. Thomas University (Canada)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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EU-Singapore in a deepening digital embrace

SINGAPORE – Singapore hopes to begin negotiations on a digital free trade agreement with the European Union, one of its major trading partners, as soon as this year, building on a non-binding digital partnership agreed between the two sides in February, according to Singapore’s Minister-in-charge of Trade Relations S Iswaran.

Addressing a business outreach event on Monday (May 29), Iswaran said Singapore and the EU are in the process of identifying projects to pursue through the partnership, which aims to strengthen the interoperability of digital markets and policy frameworks between the two sides, with the ultimate goal of enabling consumers and businesses to transact online at a lower cost.

The principles established in the EU-Singapore Digital Partnership (EUSDP) represent “the first step towards a bilateral digital trade agreement between the EU and Singapore [that] will give our citizens and businesses the clarity and legal certainty they need to transact confidently in the digital economy,” said Iswaran, who is also Singapore’s transport minister.

“We look forward to launching negotiations on a digital trade agreement with the EU soon hopefully, during Sweden’s Presidency of the EU Council,” Iswaran added, potentially placing digital trade talks in the first half of 2023 when Stockholm serves as rotating council chair, building on an existing Singapore-EU bilateral free trade agreement that entered into force in November 2019.

Known as the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUSFTA), the deal was the first of its kind between the EU and a member state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and is regarded as a template for a wider future trade pact with regional economies. Trade experts, however, note that an EU-ASEAN agreement is highly ambitious and remains a long way off.

A future EU-Singapore digital trade agreement would similarly be seen as a stepping stone for closer region-to-region connectivity. The EU’s digital partnership with Singapore is the third such agreement signed with a key trading partner in Asia after partnerships with Japan and South Korea were concluded last May and November, respectively.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong; President of the European Council Donald Tusk; Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission; Mr Sebastian Kurz, Austrian Federal Chancellor, sign the EU-Singapore FTA agreement in Brussels, Belgium. 19 October 2018. Photo: EU

The EUSDP aims to facilitate research and regulatory cooperation in areas ranging from 5G and 6G service adoption, artificial intelligence (AI) governance and semiconductor supply chain resilience. It also seeks common rules on cross-border data flows, electronic invoicing and payments to provide small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with more open access to overseas markets.

“The Singapore-EU partnership is not a binding agreement yet. It should be viewed as the first steps of potentially creating one,” Deborah Elms, founder and executive director of the Asian Trade Centre, a Singapore-based trade research and advisory firm, told Asia Times. “While Singapore clearly has no particular issues signing binding commitments on digital and has done so repeatedly already, the same is not true for the EU.”

Elms, who is also president of the Asia Business Trade Association, added that the EU has the challenge of managing “27 member states with varying levels of readiness and enthusiasm for digital trade. This always makes it hard for the EU to act, particularly on new issues like digital. Getting the EU to a comfortable place for signing up to commitments can be time-consuming.”

Data privacy differences may prove difficult to bridge said Elms, pointing out that Singapore has not made a binding commitment to align with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), considered the toughest privacy and security law in the world, while instead implementing a different standard known as Cross-Border Privacy Rules (CPBR).

“The two systems are not incompatible but they aren’t exactly aligned either. Figuring out how to bridge the gaps could take time. If you stick to a framework, it may not be a problem to have two systems, but if you want to create legally binding commitments, fudging the differences can be harder. Time is also not standing still while the EU and Singapore sort out the partnership,” Elms said.

The EUSDP, which essentially serves as a set of digital trade principles, builds on Singapore’s extensive network of free trade agreements and digital cooperation initiatives, reinforcing its role as a global business hub. Key priorities for implementation in 2023 include common approaches in electronic identification and AI governance and facilitating the digital transformation of SMEs.

Singapore is a major destination for European investments in Asia, with bilateral foreign direct investment stock between the EU and Singapore expanding to an estimated 434 billion euros (US$464 billion) in 2022. Singapore is also the EU’s second-largest commercial partner in ASEAN, with more than 10,000 European companies headquartered in the city-state to serve the wider region.

“Integration with the rest of Southeast Asia is key for our companies who are looking to grow and expand. We need to have everyone working seamlessly together – not just the EU and Singapore, but the rest of the region,” said Jenny Egermark, chargé d’affaires at the Embassy of Sweden in Singapore. “That is the dream and long-term goal that we are working towards.”

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President Halimah, PM Lee congratulate Turkish President Erdogan on re-election win

SINGAPORE: Singapore’s President Halimah Yacob and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong have written to Türkiye’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him on his reappointment as president, said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) on Tuesday (May 30). Mr Erdogan won 52.1 per cent of the votes during Türkiye’s presidential electionsContinue Reading

Russia struggling to keep its SE Asia arms markets

Russia continues to pitch arms sales to Southeast Asia, pinning its hopes on the economically vibrant and strategically challenged region to save its embattled weaponry industry amid the ongoing Ukraine war and punitive Western sanctions.

This month, Asian Military Review reported that Russia is looking at new opportunities for “military-technical cooperation” – Russian parlance for arms sales – with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members.

In an interview with Russian Aviation & Military Guide (RAMG), Dmitry Shugaev, director of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSMTC), said that Russia enjoys good diplomatic relations with ASEAN states, with all parties reputedly maintaining active dialogue on “military-technical cooperation” issues.

In the same interview, Shugaev noted that Russia has been an ASEAN Dialogue Partner since 1996 and that a legal and regulatory framework for such cooperation has long been established.

Shugaev criticized Western diplomatic pressure and sanctions for undermining Russia’s arms exports to the region while claiming that alternative payment mechanisms in national and other currencies have recently been formed. He also said that Russia is open to new joint production schemes with the bloc’s members.

Russia’s arms exports have slowed since the Ukraine war, including to Southeast Asia’s growing markets. David Brennan and Yevgeny Kuklychev note in a March 2023 Newsweek article citing data published this year by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) that Russia’s total military exports have fallen by 31% over the past five years compared with the previous five years.

Western sanctions on Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea have slowly chipped away at Russia’s defense industry, undermining its position as the world’s second-largest arms exporter, the authors said.

Brennan and Kuklychev note that Russia’s global arms exports fell from 22% to 16% of the world market between 2013 and 2017 and from 2018 to 2022, leaving it in the dust of the US, which accounts for 40% of global exports, and only slightly ahead of France, which accounted for 11% over the last five years.

An anonymous source cited by the writers said that Russia’s export contracts have been relegated to “last priority” as Moscow doubles down on trying to replace its battle losses in Ukraine.

The same unnamed source mentioned that Russia would face considerable difficulties in fulfilling export contracts as foreign-made parts become harder to source due to sanctions and with its domestic arms industry struggling to produce substitute components. The anonymous source said that the poor performance of Russian weapons in Ukraine is a “demonstration” of their inferior quality.

The source estimated Russia could fall from among the world’s top arms exporters, with its future market confined to selling relatively low-tech weapons to impoverished, sanctioned and pariah states via barter mechanisms while losing its market share of high-end weapons to competitors like the US.

Before the Ukraine war, Russia was the leading arms supplier to Southeast Asia. In a May 2022 article for The Diplomat, Sebastian Strangio notes that between 2001 and 2021 Russia shipped US$10.9 billion worth of arms to the region, leading other major arms exporters including the US ($8.4 billion), France ($4.3 billion), Germany ($2.94 billion), and China ($2.9 billion).

Strangio notes that Russia’s main comparative advantage over other arms exporters in Southeast Asia is price and its willingness to sell weapons to rights-abusing states such as Myanmar and Cambodia, which are under various Western sanctions and embargoes.

Southeast Asian countries continue to buy Russian weapons amid intensifying US-China strategic competition. David Hutt mentions in a May 2022 article for DW that Southeast Asian nations are hedging between the US and China regarding their arms purchases, as big arms purchases from either would potentially peeve the other.

Hutt notes that buying weapons from Russia is viewed, within certain limits, as acceptable by both superpowers. He notes that the US is reluctant to sanction Southeast Asian states like Vietnam and Indonesia for buying Russian arms when its top diplomatic priority is to rally regional states against China.

Mike Ives writes in a November 2022 article in the New York Times that, from 2017 to 2021, South Korea eclipsed Russia as Southeast Asia’s top arms supplier, accounting for 18% of the region’s arms purchases over the period. No other global exporter accounted for more than 14% of the region’s arms exports, according to the report.

Ives also claims that the US is increasingly seen as an attractive arms supplier, even as the US increasingly ties its arms exports to diplomatic and military support against China. He also says European arms suppliers have been willing to sell arms to Southeast Asian states to grow their defense industries, with some cases involving significant technology transfer.

Despite Russia’s challenges in maintaining its grip on Southeast Asian arms markets, Vietnam may remain Russia’s reliable customer.  

Le Hong Hiep notes in an April 2022 Fulcrum article that Vietnam is Russia’s 5th largest arms customer, with Russia accounting for 90% of Vietnam’s arms imports from 1995-2014 and 68% from 2015-2021. Hiep notes that Vietnam’s limited defense budget means it could not afford more expensive Western arms.

He also says compatibility between Russian and newer non-Russian weapons will be problematic. The writer notes that many senior Vietnamese military officers who trained in the Soviet Union or Russia are accustomed to doing business with their Russian counterparts and may find it challenging to deal with more transparent and demanding Western business cultures.    

Indeed, Richard Bitzinger and Kenneth Boutin state in an August 2022 East Asia Forum article that Russia’s complementarity to the US and its “no strings attached” approach to arms sales means it is likely to remain a long-term arms supplier to Southeast Asian states, despite the bloc’s attempts to diversify its sources.  

Bitzinger and Boutin note that Southeast Asian arms markets such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam will likely continue to provide much-needed funding for Russia’s struggling defense industry, alleviating a problem predating the Ukraine war.

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