The Joint South China Sea Patrols May Test Russia's Asian Balancing Act

In this May 24, 2014 photo, China's Harbin (112) guided missile destroyer takes part in a week-long China-Russia "Joint Sea-2
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

PERTH, Australia -- Just who is balancing whom?

China and Russia are expected to hold joint patrols in the South China Sea this month from Sept. 11 to 19, Russian news agency TASS reported. Captain Vladimir Matveyev told TASS that the war games will take place "on the coast and in the water area of the South China Sea." According to Matveyev, the joint military exercises have occurred four times previously and are aimed at "consolidating practical cooperation and counteraction to various threats out in the sea."

And, indeed, the event seems to be in line with past military exercises by the two countries aimed at invigorating the Beijing-Moscow relationship and curtailing American power in the region. The move comes after Vietnam reportedly moved rocket launchers onto its own islands in the disputed waters that Reuters said could take out some Chinese positions, such as its runways and military installations, in the area. And that's not all. The September patrols are scheduled to to take place not long after the Hague sided with the Philippines over a territorial dispute in the South China Sea and the same month as China hosts the G-20 summit, at which Putin is slated to be received as a special guest. It's a busy and tense time in the region, but for the past few years it always has been.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) during meeting prior to G20 Turkey Summit on November 15, 2015 in Antalya, Turkey. (Ahmet Bolat/Getty Images)

The patrols are noteworthy in themselves, given friendly overtures between the giants are often viewed with concern by the West and smaller surrounding countries. Russia and China have been conducting joint exercises for some time, first in the East China Sea after ties with Japan soured over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands (both China and Japan claim sovereignty) and in European waters close to Russia's neighbors. Closer ties are, it's widely thought, thanks to U.S. movements in the South China Sea and possibly Ukraine.

In fact, there have been varied amounts of Russo-Sino cooperation in some areas for a while. Both nations suggest all patrols have been "routine" and no third party is involved. In April of last year, ahead of the May 2015 drills, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said, "The aim is to deepen both countries' friendly and practical cooperation, and increase our navies' ability to jointly deal with maritime security threats." This sentiment echoes what Russian Captain Matveyev has said about the forthcoming drills.

Any patrol close to Vietnamese waters will be poorly received, and will also damage relations with Moscow.

Yet that doesn't mean others in the region aren't paying attention -- especially Vietnam. Hanoi is likely watching keenly: its highest-level ties are with the two nations, and persistent sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea have painfully strained relations between Hanoi and Beijing, especially after China moved its oil rig into Vietnam's exclusive economic zone in 2014. Any patrol close to Vietnamese waters will be poorly received, and will also damage relations with Moscow.

A Friendship Beyond Soviet Days

Russia's friendship with Vietnam goes back to Soviet times when the USSR helped many communist or proto-communist nations (Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile Mariam looked to Leonid Brezhnev for guidance and the nations signed a 20-year friendship treaty in 1978). Traditionally, Russia supplied arms and other services to Vietnam like education, was also active in oil and gas exploration and rented its deepwater port Cam Ranh Bay. Despite the downturn of the 1990s that meant less Russian development money, ties between the nations remained robust -- and the camaraderie, too.

Russia and Vietnam have a comprehensive strategic partnership, as do China and Vietnam. Russia was elevated to this level, the highest level of cooperation, not long ago in 2012, after officially becoming Vietnam's first strategic partner in 2001, and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc made his first prime ministerial visit to Russia this May. Carlyle Thayer, a longtime Vietnam expert and emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy, recently wrote that Russia's intentions in Vietnam and for its relationship upgrade were a pivot to Asia, but also a chance for better cooperation across science and technology, oil and gas, nuclear work and tourism.

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Soviet-Vietnamese Declaration. Leonid Brezhnev during talks with Le Duan of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. October 29, 1975. (Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images

In fact, the relationship between these two countries transcends politics to influence culture. There's a generation of pets in Vietnam all affectionately named "Misha" after Russia's Olympic bear mascot. There's also a generation of engineers who were Soviet-trained, studying anywhere from Moscow to Kiev, or in the case of one hydrologist I once interviewed, Uzbekistan. Those not lucky enough for graduate study might still have ended up in Russia as part of a labor export deal, sadly detailed in author Duong Thu Huong's novel "Paradise of the Blind." The country remains a place many Vietnamese work, legally and otherwise, today. One man in Ho Chi Minh City opened a Russian-style shashlik shack in honor of his time in the old USSR and his lost love. Russians visit Vietnam in strong numbers and you can find menus (full of Russian food) in Cyrillic in beach towns like Mui Ne or Nha Trang north of Ho Chi Minh City. Russians, in fact, are one of Vietnam's strongest tourist groups, arriving in the hundreds of thousands each year.

About six years ago while a freelance correspondent in Vietnam, I wrote a brief travel piece on the Soviet relics still around in Hanoi. But that's all they really were -- relics. Younger Vietnamese probably think little of Russia, and those in their 20s today were not alive during the grand old Internationale days.

One friend of mine there spent 10 years living in Moscow as child, where his father ran a business.

Ta Ngoc Duy, 34, returned to Hanoi in his 20s but is still fluent in Russian. While Vietnam may still have highly valued the relationship with Russia through the 1980s and even the 1990s, post-Perestroika, it was rarely at the forefront of Russians' minds.

'People talk about partnering up with the U.S. against China rather than Russia because they still see [the] U.S. as a serious superpower.'

"Back then VN [Vietnam] thought Russia was a best place to be before the collapse of communism of course, but in general the feelings [about Russia] among the northern Vietnamese were positive," he told me. "[But] Russians didn't see Vietnam as anything. We met occasionally people who worked as consultants in Vietnam back in the 70s. They were lovely but rare people of course."

But Vietnam never held the same importance in Russians' minds as Russia did for Vietnamese of that generation.

Today Duy said the younger generation is largely "indifferent" regarding Russia, and the language is rarely taught in schools. English and some Asian languages like Korean or Japanese are favored. The "U.S. is of course the most favorite partner these days ... people talk about partnering up with the U.S. against China rather than Russia because they still see [the] U.S. as a serious superpower," he said.

russia vietnam

Russia's President Vladimir Putin listens to Vietnam's former President Truong Tan Sang at an APEC Summit on October 7, 2013. (REUTERS/Mast Irham/Pool)

The Pivot to Vietnam

Vietnam and China are Russia's only real friends in Asia -- and Vietnam the only in ASEAN. Given tensions between the two, Russia has its own, smaller balancing act to play (compared with the oft-described one Vietnam plays between China and the U.S.) This summation of Russia-Vietnam relations by Moscow-based Southeast Asia expert Anton Tsvetov writing for the Carnegie Moscow Center bears substantial quoting:

A strong partnership with Vietnam is central to Russia's political and strategic presence in Southeast Asia -- although even that may start to lose its relative importance as Vietnam's relations with the United States, India, Japan, and the EU improve ... Russian-Vietnamese summits or high-level meetings are held annually and generate plenty of positive rhetoric. Because of the high level of bilateral relations and significant arms sales to Vietnam, Russia gets preferential treatment when using the Cam Ranh deepwater port.

Russia, or rather the Soviets, leased this port for 25 years and there has been talk of Russia returning for a while now.

Vietnam and China are Russia's only real friends in Asia -- and Vietnam the only in ASEAN.

Vietnam's ambassador to Russia was quoted by Russian media in May as saying his nation believed Russia, "a close country, and a traditional partner," and that a "relationship of trust with Russia is a priority of Vietnamese foreign policy."

What is the value of foreign policy between the nations, past public diplomatese in the papers?

In an interview Tsvetov told me, "I would say that the value Russian foreign policy places on Vietnam is twofold -- strategic and commercial. Strategically, there is no closer partner for Russia than Vietnam in Southeast Asia, as manifested by the special port call arrangements for Cam Ranh Bay and Vietnam's FTA [free trade agreement] with the Eurasian Economic Union." And, importantly, Vietnam is a "counterpart" in what Tsvetov calls the most developed areas of Russian industry and those that "constitute the largest influential pressure groups": oil and gas, nuclear energy and the arms trade.

cam ranh bay

This picture taken on January 3, 2014 shows the Vietnamese Navy's first submarine class Kilo 636 being released into the sea at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. (Vietnam News Agency/Getty Images)

This real-time value does not match what Tsvetov called the "rosy rhetoric": trade and investment between the two countries is still relatively low at around $4 billion. Yet the co-dependence has lessened: Vietnam has not needed wide-scale Soviet (or rather Russian) economic aid since the 1980s and its doi moi program of economic reform that opened markets to the world economy, and Russia is no longer using Vietnam to deter China quite so much. Tsvetov also noted that "balancing out U.S. military presence on the Philippines," is also no longer a focus. "We have none of that indispensability today," he said. However, Vietnam is an arms customer and also serves as an entrance into ASEAN for Russia.

While the United States' pivot to the region may include returning there given worries in Ukraine and involvement in Syria, Russia has had a place at the ASEAN table for well over two decades, with the first Russia-ASEAN dialogue held in 1991. Moscow sent Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Laos in July in fact. At the same time ASEAN, initially formed to combat communism, has been suspicious of Russia in the past and as one scholar wrote, "The role of Southeast Asia in Russian foreign policy was uncertain in the beginning of the 1990s. In fact, relations with ASEAN started from zero."

'Some in Moscow are advocating for closer military cooperation and assume that an anti-U.S. alignment is inevitable'

Russia's standpoint on the South China Sea is more nuanced than America's as well. It believes that the rule of law and United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Sea should be followed but has also decried what it calls "internationalization" of the issue. In other words, keep it out of ASEAN and keep non-claimants out of it, too -- something Lavrov said this April. This was not something Hanoi wished to hear.

Russia still supplies much of Vietnam's weaponry, having recently delivered many of its six Kilo-class submarines first ordered in 2009. From 2011 to 2015 Vietnam was the 8th largest importer of major weapons according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The U.S. lifted the embargo on arms sales to Vietnam during Obama's visit, something Vietnam had wanted for a long time but each sale is still subject to congressional approval and also will not preclude a continuation of the Russian market (it is cheaper, after all) and submarines and other materiel need maintenance. This is important to factor in when thinking of the patrols. Vietnam increased its arms intake thanks largely to Chinese aggression in the region and the increase will make the costs of skirmishes, or even war, for Beijing that much higher.

A Marriage of Convenience?

What does all this mean for the patrols to be held in a little over a week and Russia-Vietnam relations?

Professor Carlyle Thayer, the Vietnam expert, called the closer Russia-China ties and their drill a "marriage of convenience" in a presentation in May this year. Hanoi, of course, understands this and may have even predicted it given the patrols in the East China Sea were also designed to provoke (and it knew the Hague ruling was coming).

china russia drill

In this photo taken Wednesday, July 3, 2013, a Chinese destroyer leads a fleet of naval ships, heading to take part in a joint exercise with Russia in the Sea of Japan. (AP Photo/CHINA OUT)

The Wall Street Journal also noted that past joint exercises in another continent are seen as significant in this bilateral relationship as well: "In May last year, China and Russia held drills in European waters for the first time -- in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea -- in what many Western ­officials saw as a show of ­solidarity following Moscow's ­annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014."

Beyond these past patrols is also the tension spurred by an international tribunal. The Hague ruling will likely push Chinese hawkishness, but whether that will extend to once again upsetting Vietnam remains to be seen. Though Russia's purposeful neutrality when it comes to sovereignty issues has upset Vietnam, it also means that any overt violation of Vietnamese sovereignty would be contradictory.

Everyone is friends until someone moves an anti-submarine ship too close.

So there are those strategic considerations and, given this non-alliance is largely described as anti-U.S. in character, Moscow may not want to push Vietnam further to the U.S., either strategically or even in terms of more general sentiment. At the same time this non-alliance itself bears closer scrutiny: how long can it last and where might it go? Tsvetov, giving the view from Moscow told me, "Though some in Moscow are advocating for closer military cooperation and assume that an anti-U.S. alignment is inevitable, a significant group of Russian scholars do not expect that to happen given all the strategic limitations of an arrangement like that."

As for Beijing? Xi Jinping once said that China and Russia's relationship was the best and greatest of any of the great powers, and yet he also greatly values relations with Vietnam as he made clear on his visit last year. So in other words, everyone is friends until someone moves an anti-submarine ship too close.

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