Russia and China have just kicked off a joint naval exercise in the South China Sea, Joint Sea 2016. It is scheduled to last until 19 September, including a visit by the Russian surface contingent to China’s South Sea fleet headquarters at Zhanjiang. This is the latest in a series of Russo-Chinese drills that have evolved steadily into more frequent and sophisticated interactions over the past decade. Previous exercises have taken place as far away as the Mediterranean, demonstrating a global dimension to the budding Beijing-Moscow strategic axis. 

Joint naval exercises have allowed both parties to engage in concerted strategic signaling to the US and its allies, while deriving military benefits from operating together. Last year’s amphibious drill in the Sea of Japan was especially noteworthy for its scale and complexity. At the same time, these naval interactions occurred within the confines of a loose alignment in ways and in places that did not expose the reality of Russia’s increasingly junior status within the relationship.

In a broader but related context, President Vladimir Putin has shown recent signs of using Russia’s limited room for maneouvre in East Asia. Moscow has engaged in parallel outreach to Japan and South Korea, including a curious cameo role for Kevin Rudd in Vladivostok. Western sanctions and the under-development of Russia’s Far East make such outreach an economic imperative. But diversification from growing economic dependency on China is primarily a strategic need for Russia. 

Russia’s decision to publicly hang on to China’s naval coattails in Asia’s strategically hottest body of water is therefore puzzling, especially when reinforced by Putin’s comments on the sidelines of the G20 summit expressing support for China’s position in the South China Sea and opposition to 'any third-party interference'.

Such a pronounced tilt towards China goes against Russia’s hitherto cautious approach towards the South China Sea, and risks upsetting its partners in Southeast Asia. Earlier this year, Beijing claimed Moscow as an active supporter in its diplomatic campaign to de-legitimise the Philippine arbitration case. But Russia has in fact navigated a more neutral course on the South China Sea. Moscow has also put considerable effort into cultivating relations with Southeast Asia. A Russia-ASEAN summit hosted by Putin in May pointed to Russia positioning itself, seeking commercial opportunities but also geopolitical independence.

Preserving Russia’s longstanding relationship with Vietnam (recently upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership) is one major reason for Moscow to tread carefully in the South China Sea. Russia’s strategic interests in Vietnam pale in comparison with Soviet days, but Hanoi still maintains a higher level military-to-military relationship with Moscow than most, including access rights important to supporting Russia’s long-range aviation in the Pacific. Moreover, Russia has extensive commercial interests in Vietnam, including the refurbishment of Cam Ranh Bay port (where six Russian-made Kilo submarines are now based), in addition to ongoing arms exports and maintenance of combat aircraft and other defence equipment. Gazprom has offshore energy interests with Vietnam, despite Lukoil pulling out.

Some in Russia are therefore not happy to see this investment put in jeopardy by Putin’s apparent deference to China's stance on the South China Sea. Vietnam is also asking serious questions about Russia’s reliability as a partner.

As to Joint Sea 2016 itself, Russia has committed a relatively modest surface contingent to the exercise, based around a pair of ageing anti-submarine escorts, an amphibious ship and a sustainment vessel. Joint Sea 2016 is being closely watched more for the opportunity it presents for China to demonstrate its military capability in the South China Sea, post-Hague tribunal ruling, although the stated location of the exercise, off China’s Guangdong province, would put it well away from the disputed Paracel or Spratly Islands.

The participation of a Russian amphibious ship is probably the most noteworthy military aspect. China’s amphibious forces are somewhat under-appreciated but their capabilities are considerable and, although most commonly thought of in relation to Taiwan Strait invasion scenarios, they are concentrated in the South China Sea. According to the PLA Navy, 'island seizing' will be part of this week’s drills. Russia’s limited participation in the exercise says rather more about the limits to its own expeditionary capabilities. Nonetheless, lacking true maritime allies, China values Russia as a semi-trusted, ocean-going power; possibly as a model for foreign navies to maintain access the South China Sea on an invited, compliant basis. 

Some positives can still arguably be extracted from Russia’s naval presence in the South China Sea this week. It could be viewed as a demonstration of international naval access to the South China Sea, especially if I’m right in thinking that there will be a follow-on Russian port visit or naval activity with Vietnam.

Unfortunately, Putin’s comments in Hangzhou make it harder for Moscow to assert an even-handed approach to the South China Sea. Reassuring Vietnam on this score will require more than a cursory port call, even assuming that Hanoi is prepared to grant this indulgence. Vietnam is famously pragmatic, but as a function of that has other diplomatic levers available if it perceives that Russia has effectively sided with its major adversary in the South China Sea. Other Southeast Asian countries may also look askance at Moscow in this light.

Whatever Moscow’s diplomatic aims are for this week’s South China Sea exercise with China, the reality is the drill will do more to reveal contradictions in Russia’s regional approach, potentially damaging an important partnership with Vietnam, as well as exposing over-reach for Russia’s limited power-projection capabilities.

Photo: Getty Images/Mikhail Svetlov