MOSCOW and Beijing could be on a collision course in the South China Sea after the Philippines invited Russian oil giant Rosneft to join it as an oil and gas exploration partner in the disputed waters.
Russian activities in the region have been under scrutiny since July when Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 arrived tried to block oil rig work by Vietnam and Rosneft near Vanguard Bank, a reef which is also claimed by Beijing. China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest and most resource-rich waterways which is home to $2.5 trillion in energy reserves.
Vietnam reluctantly abandoned oil and gas drilling by Spanish partner Repsol last year after China warned it would halt any exploration projects with foreign companies it felt threatened Chinese sovereignty.
But Russia’s Rosneft appears undeterred, fuelling speculation that Vietnam’s strategy of bringing in outside powers such as Russia would serve as a counterweight against Beijing.
The invitation to Rosneft was made during Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to Moscow last week, when he met company directors, including chief executive Igor Sechin.
Philippines presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said: “The president invited Rosneft, the leader in the Russian oil sector, to invest in the Philippines, particularly with regard to oil and gas development.
“He assured its officials that their investments are safe in the Philippines and that he would not tolerate corruption in the bureaucracy.”
Carlos Sorreta, Philippine ambassador to Russia, said Russian energy companies were interested in oil and gas exploration but insisted any deals could not compromise Manila’s rights in the region.
“If they come in, it’s really in full recognition of our sovereign rights and our right to explore.”
Senior analyst and author Dr Namrata Goswami believes Mr Duterte could be trying to playing Russia against China, and both nations against the US, in a bid to gain a foothold in the region while also securing trade deals.
“This was obvious from his five visits to China and with none to the US to meet Trump.
“From Duterte’s perspective, if the US is serious about the South China Sea, it should have clearly responded with military might when China started building those artificial islands.
“Since it did not, Duterte views a relationship with China as more to Philippines’ advantage than the US China has also been building upon its influence in the region, through its economic and diplomatic efforts and Duterte’s change in tactic reveals that.
“The deeper strategic implication of Duterte’s move could be that it is a deliberate ploy to establish closer ties with China so that the US does not take its former colony for granted, or ignores some of its internal issues, or think it’s ok to meddle into Philippines’s internal problems.”