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Tensions rising: Russia joins South China Sea dispute as Chinese ally, plan joint naval exercises

In this May 24, 2014 photo, China's Harbin (112) guided missile destroyer takes part in a week-long China-Russia "Joint Sea-2014" navy exercise at the East China Sea off Shanghai, China. Several Asian nations are arming up, their wary eyes fixed squarely on one country: a resurgent China that’s boldly asserting its territorial claims all along the East Asian coast. The scramble to spend more defense dollars comes amid spats with China over contested reefs and waters. Other Asian countries such as India and South Korea are quickly modernizing their forces, although their disputes with China have stayed largely at the diplomatic level. (AP Photo) CHINA OUT

In the wake of the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague purporting to decide the South China Sea dispute between China and the Philippines in the Philippines’ favour, the Chinese – Russian alliance, whose very existence some people continue to deny, has bared its teeth.  This has taken the form of the announcement of joint Chinese – Russian naval exercises in September in the South China Sea.

The announcement was made in Beijing and came with the usual assurances that the exercises are routine and are not aimed at any third party.  No-one should take those assurances seriously.  All the indications are that the exercises were hurriedly agreed by Beijing and Moscow in response to The Hague ruling.  By agreeing to participate in the exercises Russia is demonstrating in the most emphatic way possible its unequivocal support for China in the dispute.  As for the party against whom the exercises are aimed – or to be more precise against whom they are intended as a signal – that party is of course the US, who the Chinese suspect (correctly) of being the party that was ultimately responsible for the case in The Hague being brought at all.

The joint Chinese – Russian naval exercises in the South China Sea in fact represent a certain departure for the Chinese and the Russians.  The Russians have no interests in the South China Sea and they would not be holding military exercises there were it not for the fact that the interests of their China ally in the area are being challenged. 

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Russia’s Sergey Lavrov and China’s Wang Yi expressed opposition to the U.S. deployment of an anti-missile system in South Korea and said non-claimants should not take sides in the dispute over maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The two countries have never before made their mutual military support for each other in a dispute with the US quite so obvious.  It is almost certainly no coincidence that the Russian media has been giving heavy publicity over the last few weeks to the participation of a Chinese army contingent in the International Army Games hosted by Russia, which began on 30th July 2016.  It is probably now only a question of time before Chinese army units undertake joint military exercises with the Russian army in the European territory of the Russian Federation (joint exercises by the Chinese and Russian militaries in Central Asia and the Far East now happen regularly).

As the Chinese and the Russians heighten the military profile of their alliance, the Chinese also scored a diplomatic victory at the recent ASEAN summit.  An attempt to include a reference to The Hague decision in the summit’s final communique was blocked by ASEAN states like Cambodia and Laos, which are friendly to China.

As Anthony Carlucci has pointed out, the Philippines under its previous government made a serious mistake when it took China to court in The Hague over the South China Sea dispute.  It was a foregone conclusion that China would reject any decision that went against it, and the Chinese have the means and the international support from their allies (first and foremost Russia) to be able to do so.  All the Philippines has achieved by bringing the case is to annoy Beijing, without in any way advancing the Philippines’ own interests.  It remains to be seen whether Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ new President, will follow a more realistic course, more suited to the Philippines’ national interests as opposed to those of the US.

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