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Russia's South China Sea Conundrum

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On April 29, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held a joint press conference in Beijing during which they strongly opposed the deployment of a THAAD anti-missile defense system in South Korea by the United States as well as outside interference by non-claimants in the South China Sea (SCS) territorial dispute. 

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The Russian foreign minister commented on security developments in the Korean Peninsula, while deferring to his Chinese counterpart on the SCS. Lavrov spoke of a “unified position” on North Korea; however, there is no unified position on the SCS.

Lavrov’s comments in Beijing were constrained and offered little insights into Russia’s position toward the SCS. More illustrative were previous statements in Ulan-Bator on April 14, where Lavrov asserted the Kremlin’s opposition to “interference from third parties” and “attempts to internationalize” the dispute while insisting that “only parties to the conflict can resolve the dispute through direct talks.” However, Lavrov also stipulated that Russia was “not a party to the conflict” and “won’t interfere” in negotiations—indicating a cautious and hands-off approach should the dispute continue to escalate.

Rather than unconditionally backing Beijing’s unilateral revision of the status quo, Lavrov pointed to ongoing talks between China and ASEAN members based on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—which he described as a fundamental document. He also approvingly referenced the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002 (DOC) that the parties have signed and the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) that has languished under negotiations. It is notable that Lavrov referred to UNCLOS as well as multilateral and institutional frameworks rather than China’s so-called “nine-dash line.”

Lavrov’s ambiguous statements leave a multitude of unanswered questions. What is the nature and scope of Russia’s support? How will Russia implement and exercise such support? Does Russia support China’s opposition to UNCLOS as the legal framework for resolving the dispute? What is Russia’s position toward China’s efforts to restrict freedom of navigation and overflights in the SCS? If China establishes an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the SCS, will Russia comply or ignore? How will Russia balance its strategic relations with China and Vietnam? To what extent will Russia support China diplomatically if events continue to escalate? Would Russia intervene in a military clash between China or Vietnam or between China’s and the United States?

By contextualizing Lavrov’s comments, insights can be drawn which suggest that Russia will provide only limited diplomatic support to Beijing and avoid entanglements in any potential military clashes. In the meantime, Russia will maneuver to hedge against China in Southeast Asia by deepening its strategic relationship with Vietnam while expanding military and trade ties throughout the region on a bilateral basis as well as multilaterally with ASEAN.

Arctic Linkages And Naval Ambitions

Lavrov’s comments in Ulan-Bator were offered in response to a question about Russia’s position on the pending arbitration at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). Manila initiated this legal action against China in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in January 2013 which appointed arbitrators in the PCA. A ruling is expected in May or June that will determine, among other issues, whether China’s territorial claims must comply with UNCLOS. An affirmative decision would invalidate much of China’s claims based on the so-called “nine-dash line.” In 2015, the PCA ruled that it had jurisdiction over the matter.

Not surprisingly, China denies that the PCA has jurisdiction since the Philippines previously agreed to resolve the dispute on the basis of bilateral negotiations. Beijing opposes the use of UNCLOS to frame the debate over territorial claims in the SCS. China also argues that its territorial sovereignty in the SCS is based on historic rights that are independent and antecedent to UNCLOS. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has made it clear that China “will neither accept nor participate in the arbitration.”

It is noteworthy that Lavrov didn’t answer this question, particularly since Russia denied that the ITLOS held jurisdiction in the “Arctic Sunrise” case (Netherlands v. Russia) in 2013 and refused to participant in subsequent proceedings. In 2015, the PCA ruled that Russia had violated UNCLOS when the Russian Coast Guard seized a Greenpeace vessel and held its crew that were protesting against Gazprom’s offshore Prirazlomnaya oil platform in the Pechora Sea located within Russia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and on Russia’s continental shelf. The PCA also ordered Russia to pay compensation to the Dutch government under which the vessel was flagged. In response, the Kremlin continues to deny that the PCA holds proper jurisdiction based a Russian declaration at the time of ratification in 1997 that it would not accept binding decisions involving “disputes concerning law-enforcement activities in regard to the exercise of sovereign rights or jurisdiction.”

While the fact set in “Arctic Sunrise” case is easily distinguishable from the SCS dispute, Beijing seems to have taken a page from Moscow’s playbook by refusing to recognize the PCA’s jurisdiction or participate in the arbitration proceedings. China’s intransigence risks undermining UNCLOS’ compulsory dispute settlement jurisdiction as a mechanism for peacefully resolving maritime territorial disputes. China’s refusal to adhere to an adverse arbitration settlement will likely trigger an escalation of events in the SCS.

Lavrov specifically referred to the UNCLOS as a “fundamental document” in context of the SCS dispute. This is because Russia is a signatory to UNCLOS and relies on the treaty to advance its own maritime claims in the Arctic and Caspian Sea. In 2001, Russia initially submitted a claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) claiming the Lomonosov Ridge in the Arctic based on UNCLOS. Russia resubmitted its claim in 2015 to include the Mendeleyev Elevation and again in 2016 to include the Chukchi high plain. Russia’s expansive Arctic territorial claims hinge on legal claims under UNCLOS. The CLCS will hear Russia’s Arctic claims during its upcoming session between July 11- August 26.

Hedging Against A Junior Partnership

By denouncing “interference from third parties” and “attempts to internationalize” the SCS–a thinly veiled reference to Washington and Tokyo—Moscow is promoting its shared vision with Beijing for a multipolar international order that restrains and binds perceived U.S. global hegemony. What Lavrov did not mention is that Moscow’s and Beijing’s vision for a new Asia-Pacific security order is not perfectly aligned. Russia sees itself as a traditional “Eurasian power” that is reasserting its rightful place in the Asia-Pacific sphere of influence. Moscow seeks a regional security order based on equality with Beijing and Washington, rather than just trading one hegemon for another with Russia playing junior partner to China.

As Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said on April 25, Moscow advocates “the creation of a collective, equal and undivided security system in the [Asia-Pacific] region.” Although the Asia-Pacific region is of secondary importance compared to the Atlantic and Mediterranean operational theaters, Moscow is building up its Pacific Fleet as part of its global naval ambitions. For the first time, Russia’s Pacific Fleet will participate in the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) Maritime Security and Counterterrorism Exercise on May 1-9 hosted by Singapore and Brunei that will take place in the SCS. In April, Russia’s Pacific Fleet participated in the multilateral Komodo Exercise 2016 hosted by Indonesia.

Lavrov’s references to the DOC and COC indicate that Moscow supports ASEAN’s collective engagement with China on the SCS dispute. In contrast, Beijing prefers to negotiate bilaterally with each claimant and intentionally divide ASEAN to prevent a unified ASEAN position adverse to Chinese interests. For example, China recently reached an agreement with Cambodia, Laos, and Brunei that the SCS dispute would not impair China-ASEAN relations. Beijing has successfully pressured ASEAN members in the past, particularly states that are not claimants, to block unified statements on the SCS.

The Kremlin sees ASEAN as a potential hedge against unrestricted Chinese power and influence. As Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has stated “expanding military ties in the Russia-ASEAN framework is in line with the interests of not only our countries but also of the whole Asia-Pacific Region.” On May 19-20, Russia will host a Russia-ASEAN Summit in Sochi where the Kremlin will likely remain silent on the SCS issue while focusing on expanding trade ties and securing contracts for Russian defense, nuclear and energy industries. In May 2015, Russia concluded an FTA between Vietnam and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Russia seeks similar agreements that link ASEAN to the EAEU and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in response to expanding China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative that threatens to encroach upon Russia’s perceived spheres of influence in its “near abroad.”

China’s unilateral attempts to alter the status quo in the SCS, along with its naval strategy to restrict U.S. freedom of movement and freedom of action within the first island chain through anti-access and area denial (A2/AD), is a double-edged sword for Russia. If China is successful in exerting de facto control over much of the SCS, China may then move to restrict Russia’s freedom of navigation, undermine Russia’s strategic relationship with Vietnam and block Russia from further expanding military ties with ASEAN.

 

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