Russia is getting increasingly involved in the South China Sea dispute, which the U.S. considers one of the most pressing issues of our time, along with North Korea’s nuclear program and the eradication of terrorism and radicalism.

China vs. U.S. South China Sea Japan
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Foreign ministers for the Group of Seven (G7) are calling for the implementation of the Hague’s ruling on the South China Sea despite China’s claims of indisputable sovereignty over the disputed area, which accounts for about 28 billion barrels of oil reserves. Meanwhile, Russia is trying to reshape the region by getting involved in the dispute.

Several countries have made competing claims over the South China Sea, with many experts saying that territorial disputes between Asian countries could lead to a large-scale military conflict. China’s claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea, through which $5.3 trillion in trade passes each year, have met with opposition from Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia and the Philippines.

While Russia is a non-claimant nation in the South China Sea dispute, it is getting involved. While the Kremlin formally remains an extra-regional player with no claims in the territorial dispute, it actually has a much bigger role than it might seem.

Russia sides with China to satisfy its own appetites in South China Sea

Russia has reiterated the importance of not siding with any claimant in the conflict, but in reality, it has sought closer ties with China and Vietnam. Rusia has also increased its military buildup in the Asia-Pacific region, not to mention the fact that it is a vital energy and military equipment partner of the rival claimants.

Russia may not have gotten directly involved in the South China Sea dispute, but it does seem to have strategic goals and interests in how the heated dispute plays out. Moscow also does seem to be favoring China’s and Vietnam’s claims by seeking closer ties with both. While it may seem counterproductive to be warming up to two rivals at the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin – in his usual manner – shows that he is a long-term strategist.

Even though the Russian Foreign Ministry states that it is “a matter of principle” for Russia “not to side with any party” of the dispute, China and Russia recently held joint naval drills in the South China Sea, making a rather loud statement that rippled across the entire sea. The two nations have became particularly close when the West turned Moscow into a pariah state following Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The September 2016 naval exercises between Russia and China – called Joint Sea 2016 – became the first-ever drills to be held by China and another nation in the disputed area after the Hague ruling.

It also does seem to serve as yet another proof of Russia’s large appetite for the disputed sea that one-fourth of Moscow’s impressive arms modernization program goes to the Pacific Fleet, turning it into a powerful fleet able to carry out extended operations in distant seas.

China benefits from Russia warming up to its rival Vietnam too

But China is not the only claimant on the South China Sea that Russia has sought closer ties with. Russia-Vietnam relations have also seen a significant improvement lately, even reaching the level of strategic partnership. Russia is partnering with Vietnam on developing joint gas projects in the South China Sea and helping Vietnam boost its defense capabilities, both of which are supposed to anger China, although they don’t. Russia’s close ties to Vietnam actually serve China’s interest in the South China Sea dispute.

It’s in the best interests of Beijing to prevent the consolidation of a U.S.-Russia alliance, and Russia is right there to replace the U.S. as Vietnam’s ally. In the long-run, the Russia-Vietnam friendship is a godsend to China, although it may seem like Moscow’s boosting of Hanoi’s defense capabilities and the two nations’ joint gas projects go against its interests and goals in the South China Sea.

Russia acts as a shield that prevents Vietnam from seeking closer defense ties to the U.S., as Moscow satisfies Hanoi’s needs on arms transfers. Thus, Russia prevents the U.S. from gaining yet another one of China’s neighbors as a military partner. China doesn’t seem to oppose the growing Russia-Vietnam military cooperation either, as it recognized the risks of Hanoi shifting its policies towards Washington and starting to move the Pentagon’s defense system closer to its borders.

Russia reshapes Asian balance of power in South China Sea

While Russia says its stance on the South China Sea dispute is strictly neutral, its warm ties with both Beijing and Hanoi seem to contradict the Russian Foreign Ministry’s official statements. It still remains difficult to interpret the nation’s intentions and long-term strategic goals in the South China Sea, but there’s no denial that Moscow’s involvement is gaining in significance by the day.

Russia’s closer ties with Vietnam are not only beneficial for Hanoi because Moscow boosts the country’s defense capabilities and helps it seemingly gain an edge in the territorial dispute, but also because Moscow could help improve China-Vietnam relations. Vietnam also benefits from partnering with Russia rather than the U.S., as the latter would merely put Hanoi in the middle of the ongoing China-U.S. competition, which extends well beyond the disputed sea.

In addition to that, Vietnam is quite experienced in using Russia’s military equipment and greatly benefits from being able to use Moscow’s advanced arms technologies. As for Russia, not only does it get to satisfy its long-term regional and global goals by warming up to both Beijing and Hanoi, but it also gets to play a much more influential role in the South China Sea dispute to possibly open doors for multilateral negotiations.

Russia would also seemingly benefit from prolonging the territorial dispute involving China, Vietnam and other countries, as this way it gets the chance to increase its stake in the Asian balance of power.