Elizabeth Wishnick: Russia: New Player in the South China Sea?
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Long accustomed to a seat on the sidelines of East Asian affairs, Russia now finds itself sought after as an energy and military partner, particularly by Vietnam, but increasingly by a wider range of states in Southeast Asia. Russia’s growing relations with Southeast Asian states, especially in energy and defense, and the development of an alternative northern shipping route to the Malacca Straits are changing perceptions of Russia’s potential role in the region, as Southeast Asian states seek to balance a rising China.
Indeed, it is not the Sino-Russian strategic partnership that will make Russia more of a player in East Asia, as Russian policymakers originally thought nearly two decades ago, but rather Russia’s role in counterbalancing Chinese power in the region, via defense and energy ties with Southeast Asian states. Although Russia finds support in China for its global positions, on a regional level Russian leaders have sought to enhance their country’s independence of action through an increasingly varied Southeast Asian diplomacy, including traditional allies like Vietnam, but also unexpected partners such as the Philippines.
What does the opening of a new northern shipping route through the Arctic have to do with Southeast Asia? Concerns about energy security, in particular through the Malacca Strait, the narrow shipping corridor through which most of the world’s oil passes and freedom of navigation are at the root of the conflict in Southeast Asia over the South China Sea.
With climate change making a northern shipping route more practical, Southeast Asian states have been looking to Russia as a way of diffusing their concern over access to the Malacca Strait. Since the record low extent of summer sea ice in 2007, scientists foresee the possibility of ice-free shipping in the Arctic Ocean by the summer of 2015.
New arctic routes via Canada (Northwest Passage) or via Russia (Northeast Passage) would cut shipping times from Asia to Europe in half, compared to passage through the Malacca Straits. Shipping has increased tenfold since 2010 and there was 53% increase in total cargo transported in 2012 over the previous year. China and Japan are among countries to have received energy supplies from this route so far.
Russia’s Asia policy has focused more attention on its bilateral relationships—especially its strategic partnership with China and its longstanding ties to India—than on Asian multilateralism. In the past two decades, Russia’s bilateral ties with Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam have been developing in weapons sales, aviation, and energy. More recently Russia has tried to expand military cooperation with the Philippines. Ironically, it is through these bilateral engagements that Russia is achieving greater relevance to Southeast Asian security as a whole than through its efforts to gain entry into East Asian regional institutions.
Historically, Russia’s strongest bilateral relationship in the region has been with Vietnam.
Vietsovpetro, the Russian-Vietnamese joint oil venture between Zarubezhneft and PetroVietnam dating back to 1981, now produces half of Vietnam’s oil. Gazprom and PetroVietnam entered into a joint venture (49% Gazprom and 51% PetroVietnam) to develop two offshore oil and gas blocks in the South China Sea. According to a Chinese source, originally Gazprom sought to develop a bloc that China considered within its “9-dashed line” defining its maritime boundary in the South China Sea, but the Russian company abandoned this project after the Chinese government asked it to withdraw. Even though Gazprom and PetroVietnam are proceeding with offshore oil and gas cooperation outside of the “9-dashed line,” a Global Times editorial reprinted on the official Chinese government website complained that Russia was “sending mixed signals” and “meddling” in the South China, which was tarnishing Russia’s reputation in China. The editorial noted that “Gazprom’s agreement with the Vietnamese company could simply be profit-oriented. However, as both companies are controlled by their respective governments, the action could be seen as a reflection of the attitude of top-level leaderships.”
Russia and Vietnam have been deepening their relations in other spheres as well. Vietnam has proposed that the Russian fleet resume using the port of Cam Ranh Bay for maintenance purposes. Russia also is helping Vietnam to develop a submarine fleet. With future Russian naval access to the Syrian port of Tartus now in doubt, the Russian navy has been seeking additional ports of call.
As China and the U.S. have sought a more active role in Southeast Asia, states in the region have begun to see the value of Russian participation. It remains to be seen whether Russia will take advantage of the new regional climate to engage more substantively with regional institutions. Given the priority of the Sino-Russian partnership, Russian policymakers have thus far treaded cautiously, sometimes at the cost of making inroads into Southeast Asia.
Nonetheless, Kavi Chongkittavorn, an editor of the Thai newspaper The Nation, commented last year that while Russia’s security initiatives in East Asia have been “dismal,” Putin’s third term in office “will impact on the Asia-Pacific region, in particular, ASEAN, more than ever before.” This is because of Russia’s interest in redistributing power in the region, unlike the United States and China, who seek to extend their own influence.
At a time of anxiety in Southeast Asia over China’s greater assertiveness in the region and the U.S. “rebalancing” in response, Russia can bring a lot to the table in any bilateral agreement: weapons, oil and gas, and an Arctic shipping route that will in time provide an alternative to the Malacca Straits.
Instead of being content with playing a marginal role in Asian multilateral institutions, Russian policymakers are now trying to develop their own alternatives, for example, by inviting Vietnam to join the Eurasian Customs Union. After several decades of talk about Russia’s role in Asia, if Russian leaders are ready at last to engage their neighbors in a consistent way in the areas noted above, they will find that Russia’s interest in a redistribution of power in the Asia-Pacific region now resonates with other regional powers such as Australia and Japan and has the potential to create new bridges between Eurasia and the Asia-Pacific region.
Author: Associate Professor, Department of Political Science and Law, Montclair State University; Senior Research Associate, Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University
A longer version of this article can be found at http://www.ponarseurasia.org/memo/russia-new-player-south-china-sea