By Stephen Blank
Russian and Chinese spokesmen regularly profess full identity of views on Asia. But Russian activities in Southeast Asia show that Moscow plays a double game in Southeast Asia and that China knows and resents it. At ASEAN’s 2011 Ministerial Summit Russia became an ASEAN dialogue partner reflecting improved ties with members and mounting concern about China. Those enhanced ties manifest themselves in Russia’s growing arms and energy sales to Southeast Asia that reflect Moscow’s desire to have its cake and eat it regarding China. For example, Vietnam was Moscow’s biggest customer for weapons in 2009. ASEAN states fear that China could use Russian weapons against them in the South China Sea and/or the contested Spratly Islands. Thus Moscow arms both sides in potential conflicts yet denies responsibility for any regional arms race even though the evidence suggests a regional action-reaction pattern.
Also in 2011 despite Chinese efforts to declare the South China Sea a core interest Mare Nostrum Russia openly sided with Vietnam against Chinese claims. Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov gave economic reasons for supporting Vietnam. Chinese reports denounced this action as “unrighteous,” warning Russia that it consciously prefers cooperation with “ill-doers” over China with whom it professes an identity of interests. Chinese media also stressed that Russo-Vietnamese military and energy cooperation allows Vietnam to extend its energy exploration into contested areas. Thus Russia, in some sense Russia is culpable here. It also correctly accused Russia of seeking a return to Cam Ranh Bay. Indeed, quite recently Russia’s Navy announced its interest in returning to a naval base there, a step probably connected to joint Russo-Vietnamese energy projects off Vietnam’s coast, and as a means of checking China.
Since then matters have only gotten worse. In April 2012, Russia announced a major deal with Vietnam to explore for oil and gas in the South China Sea. This deal aroused Chinese unhappiness and Beijing actually told Moscow to stay out of the area. Russia also lent Vietnam money to build its first nuclear power plant and its ships made a three day port call to Manila shortly before the most recent Sino-Philippine imbroglio over Scarborough Shoal. But since Russia depends on China for its “Weltpolitik” against the United States, when Sino-Philippine tensions flared Russia retreated to China’s argument that only claimants to territories in that sea should be involved there. Nevertheless China openly suspects Russia’s ambitions and Moscow is unlikely to desist from crudely playing both sides against the middle in pursuing its national interests that clearly involve attempts to balance China in Asia even while professing an undying identity of interests with China. Unfortunately Moscow can neither outbid nor outwit China and may actually be falling into greater dependence on China over time. Even so, we are unlikely to see a true harmony of interests between Moscow and Beijing regarding Southeast Asia anytime soon.
Dr. Stephen J. Blank is an expert on Russian foreign and defense policy. His bio is available here.