What's Behind the Sino-Russian Exercises in the South China Sea?

Main Image Credit Russian President Vladimir Putin and China President Xi Jinping before a joint naval exercise in 2014. Image courtesy of the President of Russia website.

Recent Sino–Russian naval drills in the South China Sea were touted by both states as an example of an alignment in each side’s interests. But the reality is more modest, as the two powers carefully balance the strategic advantages and liabilities of their relationship.

Amid heightened regional tensions, China and Russia chose to hold their joint military exercises Joint-Sea 2016 in the South China Sea. The exercises, which ended on 19 September, were the fifth drill since they were conceived in 2012, and by far the most contentious.

Although Russia and China have conducted joint naval and other military exercises before, the location and nature of the recent drills – which included anti-submarine exercises, joint air defence and ‘joint island-seizing missions’ – can be deemed highly provocative, given the tense regional dispute over maritime boundaries, resource ownership and island sovereignty.

This sensitivity was heightened after the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 12 July ruling, which unanimously rejected China’s claim to historic rights over 90% of the South China Sea. China refused to accept the ruling, with President Xi Jinping saying China’s territorial sovereignty and marine rights in the seas would remain unaffected by it.

As such, it seems to be a conscious and carefully calculated decision to hold Sino–Russian exercises now. The decision to hold them in the world’s most contested waters at a time when the US is eager to reassert its presence and role in the Pacific certainly carries a strong diplomatic message.

It is difficult to determine how significant these exercises are for Sino–Russian relations. Opposing US ‘hegemony’ in the region is clearly a uniting point between China and Russia; both countries desire a more multipolar world and wish to challenge US dominance. Both Beijing and Moscow wish to deter Washington from intervention in each country’s ‘near abroad’ – their respective strategic backyards, which are largely seen as spheres of influence.

The joint naval display allows Russia and China to show a united front, and provides some substance – at least in appearance – to Moscow’s claim that it is ‘pivoting’ to Asia.  The association between Beijing and Moscow has gained political traction with at least one of the US’s traditional partners in the region: the new President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. After a spat with the US, he said he was considering acquiring defence equipment from Russia and China.

Regardless of the claims of solidarity between Russia and China, historical tensions between the two states raise questions about how deep the level of trust between them runs. How far these exercises reflect a shared interest in defending the South China Sea against China’s adversaries greatly depends on how far it serves the long-term geopolitical interests of both Russia and China. At times, the interests of one may be at odds with that of the other.  

 In its response to the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the South China Sea, Russia initially avoided giving overt support to China’s position. Moscow stressed instead that it was not a party to the territorial dispute and urged those involved to refrain from using force. This is an anodyne position that showed Russia was not rushing to defend Beijing’s position in the dispute.

However, in public statements made on the sidelines of the G20 Summit hosted by China in early September, Russian President Vladimir Putin took a somewhat different tone. He questioned whether the Court had any legal basis to rule on the South China Sea dispute as ‘China never asked the court in The Hague to rule on its case and China’s position was not even listened to there. So, how can such a ruling from The Hague be considered a just one?’

This may have been interpreted as a direct Russian endorsement for Beijing’s position on the ruling. However, it is more likely to represent Russia’s more general and traditionally ambivalent stance towards compulsory international arbitration, and its enduring respect for great powers’ ‘sovereign’ decision-making.

Russia’s careful balancing act with other close partners in the region highlights that Russia is not willing to alienate other powers in favour of its ties with China. Vietnam is a particularly good example. In 2009, Russia agreed to sell six Kilo-class submarines to Vietnam. This arms deal is now near completion, with the fifth submarine delivered in February this year. Vietnam is one of China’s biggest opponents in the South China Sea, and its newly acquired submarines are a direct challenge to the Chinese navy. Russia has also been encouraged to return to the Cam Ranh Bay military installation it left in 2002; there are plans to set up a submarine maintenance and repair station run together with the Vietnamese. In May this year, Moscow announced its intention to deliver two anti-submarine frigates to Vietnam.

Further afield, Russia participated in the Indonesia-led Komodo military exercises in 2014 and 2016, and Moscow’s arms sales to Southeast Asian states doubled to nearly $5 billion between the beginning and the middle of this decade, compared with the preceding five-year period. And in May, Russia hosted an ASEAN–Russia Summit to mark 20 years of ‘dialogue partnership’ at which Putin highlighted the need for further economic cooperation. This demonstrates that Russia is interested in diversifying its partners in the region well beyond China and thus cannot risk going too far in supporting China’s position on the South China Sea.

The recent naval exercises demonstrate Russian support for China. Their implications are significant and should be monitored, but they should not be exaggerated. Apart from Russia’s desire to balance its relations with other regional partners, there are also signs that both Russia and China are aware of the sensitivity surrounding their actions. The fact that the exercises took place just east of the port of Zhanjiang in Guangdong province, and not near to the contested Spratly islands, is an indication of a conscious decision on the part of Russia and perhaps even China not to push the boundaries too far. While this geographical restraint may be partly due to logistics, it certainly also signifies a diplomatic choice.

In effect, Russia and China are playing a balancing act in their bilateral relationship: they show mutual support on issues that are important to both, but gingerly navigate around other contentious matters in each other’s backyard. Just as Russia has not protested against Chinese economic influence in Central Asia, Beijing seems to be quiet on Moscow’s move towards regional cooperation in Southeast Asia.

The real risk, as always, is whether such joint actions, in an already tense regional context, will provoke others to act, further heightening regional tensions. Japan has said it will step up its activity in the South China Sea through training patrols with the US, as well as bilateral and multilateral exercises with regional navies.  Although this need not be interpreted as a direct reaction to the Sino–Russian naval exercises, it does indicate the continued increase in military posturing in the region among an increasing number of players. The question, however, is how long we’ll see Russia and China sailing together in the South China Sea.



Veerle Nouwens

Senior Research Fellow

International Security Studies

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Sarah Lain

Associate Fellow

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