The South China Sea: The Deal Breaker for a Russian-Chinese Alliance?

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April 30, 2016 – 

Tsargrad – 

Translated by J. Arnoldski 

The visit of Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov to China and the joint statement of the two countries’ former ministries has confirmed Moscow’s position on key, contentious issues in the region. Russia’s support [for China] could have a serious influence on the confrontation between the People’s Republic of China and the USA in Asia, including on the protracted conflict in the South China Sea and the situation on the Korean Peninsula. On the one hand, the press conference on the results of Lavrov’s visit was a continuation of the consistent, official statements from Russia on the matter of supporting Beijing’s view. On the other hand, in the context of the growing confrontation between Russia and the West, the press conference appeared to be a request for join action with China. 

At the beginning of the week at the Moscow Conference on International Security, Lavrov discussed the aggravation of the situation on the Korean Peninsula and spoke strongly against the US’ deployment of the newest Thaad missile defense system in South Korea. 

“[These] attempts to somehow establish a security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region are split over the concept of exclusivity, the desire for global domination, and the desire to defend only their own interests to the detriment of others’ security,” Lavrov said in his speech. 

On the one hand, the dream to be recognized as a nuclear state has glazed eyes towards North Korea. But the threats of Kim Jong Un are illusive, while the US escalation of its military presence in the region is totally real and has not gone unnoticed by Moscow.

The situation on the Korean Peninsula was devoted special attention during Russian-Chinese talks in Beijing. “We agree that the North Korean side should refrain from any new, irresponsible steps. Simultaneously, we have stressed the counter-productive character and danger of attempts to use Pyongyang’s actions as a pretext or excuse for building up military capabilities in the region and the deployment of the US’ global missile defense system,” Lavrov said at the press conference with his Chinese colleague. 

“All questions concerning the ensuring of security can be decided only on a collective basis. We urge our American, South Korean, and other partners…to be guided by such an approach,” the diplomat concluded. 

“We have discussed the situation the South-China Sea. These problems should not be internationalized in any way, as none of the external players should attempt to interfere in their resolution.” These words by Lavrov practically replicate the official position of Beijing. In the case of the installation of missile defense systems on the Korean Peninsula, it is quite clear and transparent that the situation in the South-China Sea will be complicated and multi-dimensional, and Russia’s interests in these issues are sometimes at odds with those of China. 

The head of the Russian Ministry of Defense stated that it is necessary to resolve territorial disputes through direct dialogue with the concerned countries, adding that politics and diplomacy, and not saber-rattling, should be used. 

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More than a third of the world’s trade shipments pass through the South-China Sea, and 40% of China’s imports are delivered via this route, which is rich in oil and gas. The disputed territories are the archipelago of Senkaku, which the Chinese call Diaoyutai, the Xisha archipelago (the ParcelIslands)), the Yansha Islands (Spratly Islands,, and Huangyan (the Scarborough Reef). The main confrontation in the South-China Sea is between Vietnam and China, but additional claims to these disputed parts have been made by Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. 

China occasionally enters into confrontation with each side by demonstrating the capabilities if its navy in a “peaceful mode.” The last genuinely serious clashes occurred in 1988, when 60 Vietnamese sailors were killed. Massive riots also erupted  in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city, killing 20 and wounding several hundred Chinese, when the Chinese installed drilling platforms in the disputed waters. 

Nevertheless, according to Bloomberg, China does control approximately 3,000 acres of land on the disputed islands and has been engaged in developing military and industrial infrastructure there, including beginning construction of the first floating nuclear power plant. In response, the US has regularly sent warships to the area as the official status of these waters is, despite Chinese claims, neutral. A strike group of the US Navy headed by the John C. Stennis aircraft carrier is currently stationed at the disputed islands. 

US President Barack Obama was quoted by TASS as believing that Chinese authorities “have a tendency to consider some pressing regional issues or disputes as a ‘zero sum game’” According to him, “instead of acting in the South-China Sea in accordance with international standards and regulations,” the Chinese government has acted like “the biggest kids in the region,” who are trying to “push the Filipinos and Vietnamese around” in place of serious dialogue. 

The rules which Obama mentioned and which Lavrov also recalled are the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South-China Sea between China and the ASEAN Countries, as well as the guidelines agreed upon between Beijing and the capitals of the ASEAN counties. We recall that that ASEAN summit in 2012 was foiled and ended in a scandal over the conflict. For the first time in the 45 year existence of the ASEAN, a communique on the disputed territories failed to be agreed upon following the conventional meetings of the member-states’ foreign ministers. Beijing did not support the adoption of the Declaration on Conduct, stating that the ASEAN summit should not engage in local disputes. According to the Chinese side, such conflicts should be resolved by negotiations between their participants.. Four years later, the same words have now come from the mouth of the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs. 

Nevertheless, China still still exhibits a certain slyness in this position. At first glance, this local territorial dispute has, through the actions of the “direct participants” indeed affected bigger players. For example, Russian and American oil companies have long been working on the Vietnamese Shelf which is claimed by China. 

“Exxon is very successfully engaged in the search for hydrocarbons on the North Vietnamese Shelf,” the director of the Institution for National Energy, Sergey Pravosudov stated.” “Also engaged in this is Russian Gazprom, which has discovered two gas shelves there, ‘Bao Vand’ and “Bao Den’. I happened to be on the ship with the aid of which Gazprom engaged in the geological exploration of the Vietnamese waters. We boarded the ship by sailing to it on a military boat of the Vietnamese army. Russian geologists told how incidents with Chinese warships have constantly hindered geological work.” 

In addition, the expert reports, China and Vietnam have competed for second place among global buyers of Russian weapons. Not just any weapons, moreover, but those designed for use in naval battle and for the defense of coastal objects (for example, we are dealing with the mobile coastal “Bastion” complexes equipped with  the “Yakhont” anti-ship cruise missiles). 

The expert himself believes that a military confrontation between China and Vietnam is unlikely. “The last time China attacked Vietnam was in 1979. And China was met with defeat, something which Beijing considers a national disgrace to this day. If the Chinese will try to take revenge, then they will have to face opposition from the US and Russia, whose companies actively work on the Vietnamese Shelf,” Pravosudov recounted. 

Nevertheless, the alliance with China in the context of a large-scale geopolitical dispute with the United States is significantly more important than the profits of Russian oil companies. Russia needs the support of such a powerful global player as the People’s Republic of China in such sensitive spots as Ukraine, where Beijing has been playing its own game for two years by supporting Kiev with financial loans. 

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