Russia’s involvement in the South China Sea has historically been marginal. Since withdrawal from Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam in the early 2000s, Russian military presence has been scarce, though the navy still makes port calls regularly. Russian leaders have not expressed much interest in the ongoing sovereignty disputes, mostly because Russian interest in regional affairs has been relatively weak and limited to maintaining bilateral relations with Northeast Asian states and Vietnam.
Generally, Moscow has taken an explicitly neutral stance on the maritime disputes, usually issued by the foreign minister or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson. They have repeatedly stated that Russia does not take any sides on sovereignty issues, supports a diplomatic solution, non-use of force, adherence to international law including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 2002 Declaration on Conduct, and calls for an early conclusion of negotiations over a binding code of conduct.
Russia has been low-key in the South China Sea because it simply doesn’t have much at stake. Little of Russia’s energy resources travel through the waters of the South China Sea. Russia does not yet have the reach or need to participate in regional squabbles, and does not have any major economic interests to protect there. Awareness in Russia about the South China Sea is very low, and rarely a matter of presidential politics.
The interest in the disputes that does exist comes from Russia’s close ties to both China and Vietnam. Russia is a long-time arms supplier to both countries and has been central to Vietnam’s naval modernization, especially with the Vietnamese navy’s six Kilo-class submarines capable of carrying Klub missiles. That is in addition to the corvettes, frigates, fighter jets, and missile defense systems that provide Vietnam the capability for retaliation and possibly deterrence against China.
Russia’s position between the rivals was expected to become an issue as its political ties with China blossomed after 2014. Both of Russia’s partners seem to understand the nature of the dilemma and have generally been very accommodating toward Russian balancing. However, there has been concern in Vietnam that if Russia’s economic situation worsens, Russia might fall into over-dependence on China and thereby be leveraged into disposing of its neutrality.
Such fears increased as the July 2016 arbitral ruling on the Philippines’ case against China loomed. Observers noticed another bullet-point in Russia’s South China Sea stance – the opposition to external interference and, essentially, internationalization of the disputes. This likely stems from Russia’s allergic reaction to Western engagement in the post-Soviet space and the traditional criticism of foreign interventions in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. However, many saw this as evidence that Russia was leaning toward China.
Another important development came at the G20 Summit in Hangzhou in September 2016, where Russian president Vladimir Putin first publicly stated support for China’s defiance of the arbitration ruling. Since then, Russia has spared no effort to reiterate that this addition does not change Russia’s neutral stance and does not concern sovereignty or politics. The statement was likely made in view of a similar UNCLOS-based suit that could be soon filed by Ukraine against Russia over the waters surrounding Crimea, and partly in continuation of Russia’s non-participation in and non-adherence to an international tribunal on the Arctic Sunrise case brought in 2013. Still, the effort to demonstrate continued neutrality indicates that Russia seeks to maintain autonomy from Chinese influence, or at least to look like it is doing so.
More recently, Russia and China held joint military drills in the South China Sea bolstering coordination on, among other things, “island-seizing.” As menacing as such an exercise may sound, we should be careful in interpreting it as Russian support for China’s South China Sea stance. The exercises took place off the coast of Guangdong province, as far from the disputed area as possible while still in the South China Sea. Last year’s drills were also held in the controversial waters of the Mediterranean and Black Seas, but far from the Crimean Peninsula. This is why the 2016 drills most likely do not show any change in the level of Russia’s support for China, at least not beyond giving Beijing the opportunity to spin the story with headlines like “Russia and China Hold Drills in South China Sea.”
Despite these shifts, Russia maintains the same low-profile strategy. At the core of it is a desire to avoid taking sides and maintain an image of power, reach, and independence. It is fortunate that neither China nor Vietnam have been too assertive in wooing Russia over the South China Sea, because picking either would result in severe diplomatic and reputational damage for Russia. Actual participation in any dispute settlement initiatives at this point is also unlikely, as is an increased military presence. Russian politicians, pundits, and government officials speak of “returning” to Cam Ranh Bay from time to time, but it is safe to disregard such proclamations as intended for a domestic audience. Policymakers in the MFA are well-aware of Vietnam’s opposition to foreign bases and the low practical benefits of having an actual naval facility in Cam Ranh.
However, the South China Sea will still factor in Russia’s grand strategy in Asia, if that strategy takes shape soon. Pivoting to the east, Russia’s likely bargaining formula is to sell diplomatic and security capabilities in exchange for economic cooperation. Among Moscow’s key talking points in Asia is a call for an inclusive multilateral security architecture. Implementing a project like that would be difficult without taking a more active role in the South China Sea or suggesting a viable approach to untying the knot.
As Russia’s Asia policy develops, it is also likely to become more diversified and less focused on China. This trend is manifest in Moscow’s 2016 push toward Japan and South Korea, as well as Russia-ASEAN summitry and free-trade ambitions. Will Northeast and Southeast Asian partners ask Russia for a deeper engagement in the South China Sea as another step in their cooperation? They might, and in that case Russia will once again face a tough balancing challenge, with China remaining its number one partner in Asia.
Finally, one of the great issues at stake in the South China Sea is freedom of navigation and the interpretation of this principle. While China does not have meaningful blue water navy capabilities, Russia does, and is actually more inclined toward the U.S. interpretation of what foreign military ships can and cannot do in other states’ exclusive economic zones. After all, the 1982 UNCLOS was written by and for global naval powers like Russia.
In the long run, Russia may find itself more deeply involved in the South China Sea, as long as its Asia policy is a full-scale shift and not just a minor change in its bilateral engagements. However, for the time being, while Russian policymakers are still taking the measure of East Asia and merely putting their foot in the door, the main strategy will be to avoid taking sides and getting involved in another geopolitical conundrum like those already abundant in Russia’s foreign policy.