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Russia - South China Sea

The South China Sea is not a priority for Russian foreign policy. Burdened by economic difficulties at home, continuing engagement in Syria, and conflicting interests with the West, Russia is focusing its renewed attention in Asia on China and does not appear too eager to get involved in the South China Sea territorial dispute.

China claims 95 percent of the waters of the South China Sea and has territorial disputes with ASEAN countries - Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. For China it is crucial to control the disputed islands in order to ensure the safety of shipping routes from the Persian Gulf that are used to deliver oil to China. In July 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that China has no grounds to claim these islands and reefs in the South China Sea. The Chinese authorities refused to accept the court's decision.

Washington insists on the principle of freedom of navigation, which is at odds with the interests of China in the region. The placement of military infrastructure by Beijing on the Spratly Archipelago could compormise the ability of US warships to navigate these waters.

On 14 April 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave an interview in which he outlined Russia’s position in the South China Sea disputes. Lavrov reiterated Moscow’s traditional stance on the issue, expressing support for a diplomatic solution, commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and compliance with the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). He also welcomed an early conclusion of a binding Code of Conduct (COC).

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said for his part after a meeting in April 2016 with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that external players should not interfere in the settlement of the dispute over ownership of island in the South China Sea. Quite unusual for a media statement, "We discussed the situation in the South China Sea. The Russian stance is invariable - these problems should not be internationalized - none of the external players should try to interfere in their settlement efforts," he said.

Lavrov said: "Our position is determined by the wish, natural for any normal country, to see disputes resolved directly between the countries involved in a peaceful political and diplomatic manner, without any interference from third parties or any attempts to internationalize these disputes."

Lavrov then went on to criticize attempts to internationalize the issue in international forums like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summits, and the Asia-Europe Meetings and called upon non-claimants to “refrain from taking sides or using these ongoing disputes to get any geopolitical unilateral advantage in the region or to isolate one country or another.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry reacted by heralding the two countries’ converging position on the South China Sea, a remark that the state-run Xinhua News Agency dubbed “applauding." But Russia opposes internationalization within the overall philosophy of contemporary Russian foreign policy. Moscow repeatedly criticized other states, especially the United States, NATO and the EU, for interference in other states’ affairs – in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and elsewhere. Russian policymakers most likely see internationalization as the first step toward interference.

Some Russian strategic analysts see benefits for Russia if the disputed islands of the Spratly Archipelago and the Malacca Strait were under China’s influence and beyond the influence of the United States and its allies in the region. “Willingly or unwillingly Russia supports China's claim to disputed islands in the South China Sea,” says military expert Viktor Litovkin. “The construction of Chinese military infrastructure will provide Russia with protection in the area against US Navy ships and the Aegis system and SM-3 and Tomahawk missiles.”

“In the near future this area will become home to China's aircraft carrier group,” accoridng to Alexey Maslov, an academician with the National Research University Higher School of Economics. “Russia has recently been trying to significantly strengthen its military and military-technical cooperation with Beijing.”

"Although the US Department of State has expressed concern over the deployment of Vietnamese missiles in the South China Sea, in reality Washington is keen to see China surrounded by a mass of minor troubles," Maslov said. "The United States finds fearsome China’s aggressive growth and its active penetration into the European economy. China indisputably rules the roost in Southeast Asia, but Washington argues that Beijing lacks the required degree of responsibility for playing such a role in the region and it is determined to stem Chinese expansion," he explains.

In September 2016 Russian Pacific Fleet ships went to the South China Sea for joint exercises with Chinese naval forces. Three ships and two support ships of the Pacific Fleet have left Russian waters to take part in the upcoming Russian-Chinese naval exercises in the South China Sea. The drills, which took place Sept. 12-19, included maritime, land and air operations. This is the fifth edition of the Sino-Russian “Sea Cooperation” drills, but it was the first time that such an unstable region was chosen to hold the exercises.

The maneuvers were the subject of unofficial talks at the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China. Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the naval drills in the South China Sea would not affect anyone's interests. The drills will be conducted to the benefit of both Russia's and China's security.

US Department of State spokesman Elizabeth Trudeau has urged all parties to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea "to avoid actions that build tensions" and "to take practical steps to build confidence and intensify efforts that find peaceful, diplomatic solutions to disputes."

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Page last modified: 08-09-2016 19:44:39 ZULU