SOUTH CHINA SEA tensions between the US and China have erupted in recent years as both nations compete for superiority in the contested region. But under the radar, a third superpower, Russia, has slowly began to take note of the resource rich waters, and has even defied the US in colossal military exercises with Beijing’s forces.
In September 2016, China and Russia embarked on the exercises flaunting the military prowess of both nations in a defiant challenge to the US in the South China Sea. They were the fifth Beijing-Moscow exercises in four years, signifying a growing threat for US Navy in the region as it looks to thwart China’s accelerating militarisation of island clusters and dominance over trade. The exercises featured naval surface ships, submarines, fixed-wing aircraft, ship-borne helicopters, marine corps, and amphibious armoured equipment from both navies.
Senior adviser to the China Institute for International Strategic Studies and former Chinese Major General, Wang Haiyun, made an assessment of the challenge from Russia which would have concerned many in Washington.
He told the Financial Times: “By holding the exercise with China regardless of the sensitivity of the issue, Russia is effectively showing its support for China.”
While Russia and China have grown closer in recent years due to mutual rivalries with the West, this hasn’t stopped Moscow from staking its own claim in the South China Sea, even at Beijing’s expense.
As highlighted by National Interest, President in the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte invited Moscow-based energy company Rosneft to conduct oil and gas exploration in waters claimed by Manila.
Filipino representatives have also been invited to Moscow and have agreed for Manila’s ships to explore oil rich waters near Russia.
Rosneft is half owned by the Russian government, and therefore indicates President Vladimir Putin is showing more and more interest in the South China Sea
Russia also has close ties with Vietnam, with the two nations making defence a core part of their relations.
Hanoi and Moscow agreed defence cooperation agreement covering 2018–2020 last year, and agreed to enhance defence cooperation during 2019–2023.
Russia and Vietnam also elevated their bilateral relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2012, National Interest reports.
Even more worrying for Beijing is Rosneft’s exploration in waters claimed by Vietnam, but also contested by China.
Russian exploration breaks the conditions set by China that ‘no country, organisation, company or individual can, without the permission of the Chinese government, carry out oil and gas exploration and exploitation activities in waters under Chinese jurisdiction’.
Even with China and Russia becoming closer allies since Western sanctions hit Russia and US trade war chaos impacted China, differing outlooks on the South China Sea could cause political uproar.
Vietnam have been particularly difficult for China to contend with, being the only smaller nation to put up substantial resistance to China’s encroachment.
Earlier this year, Beijing and Hanoi were embroiled in a three months long standoff as Chinese oil vessel – Haiyang Dizhi 8 – remained in Vietnam’s economic exclusion zone.
The South China Sea is host to lucrative shipping lanes and trading ports, provoking President Xi Jinping to enforce a controversial Nine-Dash Line demarcation of what China deems to be its territory.
The demarcation enforces a claim over all of the island clusters in the region and 90 percent of the South China Sea as a whole, but is deemed illegal by UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).
This has angered smaller nations in the region such as Vietnam and the Philippines, both of whom are reeling at China’s militarisation of the Spratly Islands – a key archipelago in the region that both countries claim sovereignty over.