Dmitry Mosyakov, Professor, Doctor of Historical Sciences, Director of the Centre for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania and the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“
The Challenge of Russia’s Approach to the Situation in the South China Sea
The Russia Federation first faced the challenge of approaching the South China Sea conflict in the early 2000s, as it was gradually recovering from the protracted economic crisis of the 1990s, when, apart from its relations with Western powers, nothing else seemed a priority to Moscow’s foreign policy. Yet, precisely at this point in time it began displaying interest towards the vast region of Greater East Asia, and in particular towards Southeast Asia, where it used to play a leading role back in the Soviet days.
Back then Russia’s return to Southeast Asia was perceived as a multi-vector policy based on the notion that Russia would make friends with any regional player that was willing to make friends with it. At the same time, Moscow was convinced that Beijing was genuinely interested in it occupying a stronger position in the region, as it had no intentions of competing with China in the Asia Pacific region. While it was convinced of China supporting its cause, Moscow came up with the concept of forming a so-called new security architecture in the Southeast Asia region. It seemed to be a brilliant idea back then as everyone is interested in having some kind of system of checks and balances in place that would allow business interests to settle their matters peacefully, all while avoiding costly military conflicts between nations.
Much of Moscow’s surprise, China showed little to no interest in assisting Russia in regaining its position it had lost in the region. It’s noteworthy that a prominent Chinese diplomat Zhang Deguang, a former ambassador to Russia, announced in December 2011 at a conference on the Russian-Chinese cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region that Moscow had to devise its own plan for reengaging with regional players and that China had no interest in helping out. This announcement, though disheartening back then, turned out to be favorable for the Russian Federation. It was relieved from the burden of keeping an eye on Beijing’s reaction to its steps, leading to Moscow’s perception across Southeast Asia as a new and independent player who could be of great value for those trying to balance regional power.
It is particularly important to underline the fact that Vietnam, which warmly accepted the return of Russia to the regional stage, assumed the role of Russia’s primary assistant in its quest, facilitating deals and discussions that Moscow brought to the region. Due to Hanoi’s support, Moscow managed to join a key regional economic organization – the East Asia Summit (EAS). Russia’s relations with Vietnam at that time again grew so close that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin back in 2011 described Vietnam as among the three most important states for Russia’s interests in Asia (along with India and China).
This powerful Russian-Vietnamese rapprochement emerged against the backdrop of growing tensions between Vietnam and China, with disputes erupting between the two states around the islands of the South China Sea. This conflict, once China declared a total of 80% of the South China Seas as its territory, became particularly acute. In spite of this drawback, relations between Moscow and Hanoi were developing rapidly in all spheres, with both countries signing energy, oil and military deals. Both states were soon to discover that they held similar positions on a number of key issues regarding international relations and the events that were taking place. As a model for further development, the prospect of a possible return of Russian military ships to Cam Ranh was discussed, with Moscow planning to rebuild a logistical center there together with introducing a free trade zone between the two countries.
As for Russia’s position on the conflict in the South China Sea, it was based on the notion of non-interference, while Russia’s officials expressed their hopes that all disputes would be settled peacefully through compromises and negotiations, as who could find more in common that the two Asian socialist power-houses.
While looking back one can notice that Russia enjoyed the advantage of an independent approach that suited its national interests perfectly. For instance, an agreement signed with the Vietnamese side granted its oil companies access to the rich oil and gas reserves of the South China Sea, in spite of the fact that this was a source of discontent for Beijing. Additionally, Moscow signed a number of arms contracts with Hanoi with a total worth reaching billions of dollars, which resulted in other countries of the region turning to Moscow to fulfill their security needs. On top of the above listed facts, Russia and Vietnam were highly successful in negotiating a number of major infrastructure projects, agreeing on on the construction of the first nuclear power plant in Vietnam. The Russian military fleet together with Chinese ships, conducted maneuvers in the Yellow Sea in the spring of 2012. While during summer of this year, Russia participated together with the American military in yet another naval exercise, where Beijing was not invited.
Such freedom in approaching the region can be attributed to the fact that Russia was in position to remain uninvolved in the ongoing disputes between China and Vietnam, thus developing ties with both states simultaneously, which puzzled the Chinese side. It’s clear that Beijing didn’t expect Moscow to be that successful in approaching regional powers, let alone creating a broad coalition that encompassed Vietnam and a number of other Southeast Asian players. It turned out that the region was in dire need of a neutral country that would ignore regional disputes, while providing a wide range of services to all the players involved. However, China grew particularly irritated when top-notch Russian weapons started pouring into Vietnam.
As it’s been noted by China’s influential newspaper, the Global Times, Russia has become the major supplier of weapons to Vietnam. From 1950 to 2010, the total volume of Russian-Vietnamese arms exports exceeded 23.6 billion dollars and accounted for 90% of Vietnam’s imported weapons. In addition, the newspaper noted, Russia constantly delivers its military jets to Indonesia and Malaysia. Even Brunei, that once relied on arms imports from countries such as Great Britain, France and the United States, began turning to Russian weapons imports. The whole national system of defense against low-flying targets of Singapore relies on the Russian-produced Igla-S systems. Today, Russian weapons have become a “commodity” in the markets of Southeast Asia. Moreover, Russia’s advancements in the South China Sea are not limited to arms deliveries, as Russia is gradually advancing in other aspects of economic cooperation. The newspaper would point out that such developments are disadvantageous for Beijing, therefore, in the opinion of this newspaper, China should have put some pressure on Russia where it was appropriate.
The clear discontent with Russia’s advances in the South China Sea was displayed by China and at an official level. The fact that Russian companies were assisting local players in developing the resources of the South China Sea was harshly criticized both in the speeches of Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Liu Weimin and in publications of China’s leading newspaper, the People’s Daily. In particular, it was pointed out that China and Russia should have been aware of the fact that the stability of China-Russia relations relied on the protection of the strategic interests of the two countries and that the South China Sea has become a particularly delicate geopolitical point of contention for China. It was pointed out that Vietnam and the Philippines were hoping to attract external forces, thereby forming a “coalition” of sorts against Beijing. The reaction of the Global Times towards the Russian-Vietnamese rapprochement was particularly harsh in this respect.
Now it is difficult to say how much the Chinese protests and threats would have affected Russia’s policies in the South China Sea, had it not been for worsening ties between Russia and the West. In a difficult situation, Moscow decided to counter the ever increasing pressure of the West with improving ties with China. This shift meant that Moscow’s steps in the region were to be closely tied with the interests of China. Naturally, all these changes could not but affect the position that Russia used to enjoy regarding the South China Sea.
It should be noted that as a result of such a turn, any of China’s actions in the South China Sea did not receive any official assessment in Moscow. The fear of offending Beijing also manifested itself in Russia’s response to the ruling of the Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration over the situation in the region in July 2016.
However, it soon became clear that, in addition to official gratitude from the Chinese authorities, there was no tangible advantages from Russia’s non-recognition of the Court of Arbitration ruling. This resulted in Russia taking sides in the South China Sea disputes, finding itself in a the minority, as almost all of the ASEAN countries, including Vietnam, recognized the decision of the Court of Arbitration as legitimate and demanded its implementation by the Chinese side. This move, according to many political scientists, provoked doubts about the degree of independence Russia enjoyed in regional affairs.
These suspicions were further intensified when joint maneuvers of the Russian and Chinese fleets that were launched in the South China Sea. And although they occurred in areas far from disputed waters, a great many political figures in Vietnam took such maneuvers as a sort of betrayal on Russia’s part of the common interests of traditions of friendship between Moscow and Hanoi.
In such a tense situation, mutual misunderstanding may arise, when in response to the passivity and dependence of Russia’s position in the dispute over the South China Sea, Vietnam chose to cease automatically supporting Russian initiatives on the international stage, while exercising greater restraint regarding the global politic challenges that Moscow was facing. Also in Vietnam, the trend towards a greater reliance on Washington in its foreign policies began to intensify, which turned into the second largest trade partner of Hanoi after China. In turn, the US, within the framework of the policy of “encircling China” began to advertise itself as the only real force capable of stopping China’s expansion in the South China Sea.
In a sense, such a shift in Vietnam’s policies was a forced measure, as Beijing was acting quickly in increasing its military potential in the South China Sea. How reliable and productive the cooperation between Hanoi and Washington will be, and how large a contribution the US can make to Vietnam’s defense capabilities is a big question. We must not forget their betrayal of their closest ally, the South Vietnamese regime, when in January 1974 China seized the Paracel Islands and Washington failed completely to provide assistance to its ally.
Thus, the complex international circumstances in which Russia finds itself inflicted serious damage to the state of the Russian-Vietnamese relations. But, in spite of the desire of many external players to dismiss Vietnamese-Russian relations, pushing Russia from the positions of a key partner into a peripheral player, they failed. The foundation of these ties are too complex and too long-standing to simply ignore. As it turns out, much of what was laid in previous years, has stood the test of time, and continues to develop slowly but steadily. This can be seen by the statement of the Russian Economic Development Minister Maxim Oreshkin who confirmed that Vietnam remains Russia’s number one partner in the APEC region during his visit to Vietnam in early 2018. The average annual growth rate of mutual trade during the last 5 years was 10.3%, with trade and economic ties enjoying a fully formed and diversified structure. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted during his recent visit to Vietnam that the trade turnover between Russia and Vietnam in 2017 increased by more than 35%, having reached a record level since 1991 – of more than 5 billion dollars.
In the sphere of military and military-technical cooperation, contacts are also maintained at the highest level, which, in particular, was confirmed by the recent visit to Vietnam of the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu.
In a joint statement following the official visit of Vietnamese President Chiang Dai Kuang to Russia in late June 2017, it was noted that the countries reached an agreement to deepen cooperation on joint geological exploration of oil reserves on the continental shelf of Vietnam, while respecting the UN 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This statement is interesting because Russia again returns to the formula for the settlement of the South China Sea disputes that it advanced before the events of 2014, and again refers to the UN Convention as a key fundamental document for a peaceful settlement.
Today, the darkest days of the crisis of Russian-Vietnamese relations are all but over. The way out of the crisis, in spite of all the difficulties, can be attributed to the fact that Moscow is increasingly aware of the new major goal that its policies must pursue in the East. This means that while it is going to deepen its ties with China and with Vietnam, it will remain on the side of justice and peace amid South China Sea disputes. This is precisely what they usually call in the West as a win-win policy, a policy where there are no losers as all parties benefit from the decisions taken.
However, with all the optimism regarding the prospects of Russian-Vietnamese relations, it may be a little early to talk about a significant shift achieved in the search for positive solutions in the dispute over the South China Sea. Moreover, for Russia the position it is to occupy on the dispute seems to be turning into an increasingly more difficult puzzle than ever before. The reason for this is not Vietnamese-Chinese tensions, but in the rivalry between China and the United States for domination in the region, as the South China Sea has been transformed into a point of contention that, if handled wrongly, can trigger a conflict of global proportions.