In late-October, US guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen came within 12-nautical miles of the disputed Spratly archipelago; one of many contested island groups residing in the South China Sea claimed by China, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan. Beijing interpreted the move by the USS Lassen as a threat to China’s sovereignty which consequently escalated tensions between Beijing and Washington. However, in a recent speech at Peking University, US Admiral Harris defended operations in the South China Sea, maintained that no violation of international law occurred and expressed the intention to continue periodic visits to the region. It is likely that these continued endeavors into disputed Chinese territories will perpetuate tense relations between Beijing and Washington and may indeed push China to strengthen ties with Russia.
China and Russia in the 21st Century
Russia and China have a long and complicated history, however, the 21st century has seen an increase in aligned interests and partnerships between Beijing and Moscow. For example, the mutual inclusion of Russia and China in BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and, more recently, South Africa), which brought attention to the investment potential of these emerging economies and became a formal political group in 2009, increased Sino-Russian cooperation. Russia is also the third largest shareholder in the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB), and the past few years have witnessed an increase in economic, security, and political cooperation between Russia and China. Perhaps the most important driver contributing to this increase in cooperation has been a shared interest in contesting US hegemony.
Nevertheless, Sino-Russian relations remain marked by distrust which has led to cooperation between the two states to be perceived by some as an “axis of convenience”, only to remain as long as it is convenient for Beijing. Whilst Russia and China do indeed share a common goal of counterbalancing US hegemony, their respective strategies differ considerably. Russia views increased cooperation with China as an effective way to contest US hegemony, given China’s recent rise in the international community; however, China does not perceive Russia as having the same means to counter or influence US actions.
Moreover, China has advocated a peaceful rise and aims to garner more participation in international institutions rather than directly opposing the US. Russia has employed a more militaristic approach in recent international developments, which has been at odds with Beijing’s foreign policy. In March 2014, for instance, China abstained from voting on a UN Security Council resolution that would have declared the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation as illegal, with Chinese officials disapproving confrontation and advising restraint. This kept Russia isolated from other UN member countries and was perceived as a victory for Western diplomats. More recently, China has been opposed to Russian military action in Syria and, once again, has advocated a political and diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict.
The Effect of US Presence in the South China Sea
Given the distrustful relations and often opposing strategies of Russia and China, any type of cooperation must be incentivized; US presence in the South China Sea may provide this incentive. As the US continues to breach the zones of alleged Chinese territory, China may see Russia as increasingly necessary to counterbalance US influence in the region. China has no apparent interest in taking the place of US hegemony and is largely content with creating peaceful multi-polarity in the international sphere. However, when China’s sovereignty is threatened, Beijing must respond.
This response is typically manifested in rhetoric and warnings between Beijing and Washington, but given US insistence on continuing its operations in the South China Sea, Beijing may turn to increased cooperation with Russia to deter the US in the region. With the strained history between the US and Russia, the geo-strategic importance of Russia on regional relations, and the influence of China in every facet of the international realm, increased cooperation and friendly relations between Beijing and Moscow may be just what China needs to deter US operations in the South China Sea.