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What Role Will Russia Play in the US-Chinese South China Sea Drama?

© Sputnik/ Vitaliy Ankov
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The US-Chinese standoff in the South China Sea is heating up, with Washington dispatching a small armada to the area following reports that Beijing had reinforced a key island with fighters and air defenses. Much has been said and written about the dispute, with Russian analysts left pondering: if push comes to shove, what will Russia's role be?

On Thursday, the Navy Times reported that the US had dispatched an aircraft carrier, the USS John C. Stennis, two destroyers and two cruisers from the US's 7th Fleet to the South China Sea, ostensibly in response to reports that China had sent fighter jets to Woody Island, the largest of the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

China's response did not take long in coming. On Friday, Fu Ying, spokeswoman for the National People's Congress (China's legislature), commented by suggesting that this US "show of force" "arouses a feeling of disgust among the Chinese people," adding that Washington's "actions seem to be aimed at agitating tensions."

The territorial dispute surrounding islands in the South China Sea has gone on for decades, and includes the Paracels, the Spratlys, and Scarborough Shoal. The groups of islands are contested by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. The US, for its part, cannot directly contest China's claims with sovereignty counterclaims, but has involved itself in the dispute under the guise of protecting its allies.

South China Sea claims map
© Photo: Wikipedia/Voice of America
South China Sea claims map

Last month, the United States accused China of militarizing the South China Sea by placing anti-aircraft missile systems, advanced radar and jet fighters on Woody Island, thereby ostensibly expanding Beijing's control of sea territories through which nearly a third of global trade passes. With Washington suggesting that the move would "raise further tensions in the region," the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded by stressing that Beijing has every right to maintain defensive military systems within its own territory.

Commenting on the ongoing dispute in an article for independent Russian newspaper Svobodnaya Pressa, columnist Andrei Ivanov suggested that amid the rising tensions between Washington and Beijing, one thing is obvious: 

"That the dispute between the two great powers is not just over the islands. China is fighting for global leadership, something which the US will not let go of so easily. After all, so long as Washington is recognized as the world's hegemonic power, US debt obligations can be exchanged for the fruits of the labor of countries all across the world."

"Interestingly," Ivanov noted, "at the same press conference where Fu Ying spoke of US aggression, the spokeswoman of the National Legislature also had many warm words to say about Russia." 

At the conference, Fu emphasized that "Chinese-Russian relations are at their best stage in history," adding that their further "development will be sound as they meet our mutual interests." Beijing and Moscow, she noted, do not have any serious disputes between them, "do not exert pressure on each other," and "can fully concentrate on discussing cooperation, as well as the exchange of ideas."

The spokeswoman's words, Ivanov suggested, indicate that "it's possible that China is engaging in a more assertive policy in the Pacific precisely because it counts on the support of our country."

Russian-Chinese naval drill Naval Interaction–2015, Vladivostok, August 2015. The exercises constituted the largest joint maritime exercises in the two countries' history.
© Sputnik/ Vitaliy Ankov
Russian-Chinese naval drill "Naval Interaction–2015", Vladivostok, August 2015. The exercises constituted the largest joint maritime exercises in the two countries' history.

The Laws of Geopolitics

Asked to comment on the situation in the South China Sea, Mikhail Alexandrov, the head expert at the Center for Military and Political Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, told Svobodnaya Pressa that the processes taking place in the region are taking place according to the laws of geopolitics.

"A reconfiguration of forces is taking place around the world. The strength of power centers independent from the West, among them Russia, China, India, Iran and Brazil, is growing. And the United States can no longer control the entire planet. Once they get involved in some kind of confrontation with any one power center, the others take the opportunity to spread their influence."

Subsequently, the analyst noted, "the Chinese took full advantage of the conflict between Russia and the West. American resources were diverted to the European direction, and to Syria, Turkey and Ukraine. There was even talk of the possibility of war in Europe. The Americans escalated the situation around the Baltic. [Subsequently] they overlooked the fact that China might be strengthened as a result."

From the strategic point of view, Alexandrov noted, China's moves "are absolutely correct. Beijing saw that US resources were concentrated elsewhere, and placed aircraft and air defense systems in the South China Sea. The US realized this, too late, and now attempting to remedy the situation will be difficult."

US Can No Longer Count on Kicking China Out of the Region

"What can the US do? Provoke a confrontation? Any collision with the Chinese would not be a cakewalk for the Americans. China now has enough strength to repel the attack of two or three [carrier-based US] aviation groups. Moscow could give the Chinese sea-based cruise missiles. So a US victory in a sea battle cannot be assured. And if the Americans lose, or even tie, US hegemony around the world would collapse like a house of cards. Therefore, Washington is taking a serious risk, and they know it."

China, in the analyst's words, has yet to achieve military parity with the Western alliance, "but as far as a naval battle on its shores goes, China can win. Moreover, the Chinese military has been equipped with new submarines, new aircraft, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles to attack carrier groups. In other words, China is well armed for this kind of battle."

"Naturally, China is concerned with US actions, including the attempt to control shipping in the South China and East China Seas, and to prevent the reunification of the Chinese mainland with Taiwan." Therefore, "China's task is to demonstrate such a level of strength that the Americans will not be able to creep into the region, and Beijing is steadily doing so."

Effectively, Alexandrov suggested, "the US will need to start an arms race in the region, and simultaneously in Europe and the Persian Gulf as well. I do not believe that the US or even the whole West will be able to do so – the economic situation is too unfavorable."

'Washington's Ammunition Doesn't Match Its Ambitions'

Asked whether, facing the situation that they do, Washington might not do better to simply leave the Asian-Pacific region quietly, to save face, the analyst noted that experience has shown that is unlikely. 

"We had long proposed to the Americans that they leave the post-Soviet space alone. We have long said 'leave us alone in the [former Soviet] space, and we will not bother you elsewhere around the world.' But Washington cannot agree to this: they want to be present all over the world. Except their ammunition does not match their ambitions."

"In principle, it never did. It's just that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia mistakenly hoped, for a long time, to integrate into the West; the US, subsequently, saw themselves as an unchallenged leader. The illusion of omnipotence was born. It is an illusion in which Washington continues to live, and this is very dangerous, because it provokes the threat of a major war. And it is necessary to explain this danger to the Americans using economic, political and military means. Washington needs to understand that it is not all-powerful."

With his interviewer recalling that China depends on the US as its main trade partner, Alexandrov countered by emphasizing that in fact that really, "it's not yet clear who depends on whom more…If China were to completely break trade relations with the US, as the US did with Russia, an alternative financial system, without the West's participation, would be formed, [given that] tremendous manufacturing capacities have been formed in the Asia-Pacific region…A complete victory over China is one thing. But just severing relations with China is not something the US will do; and it will not introduce sanctions."

"Now, we will see the maneuvering of forces. China will continue to increase its power in the region. America will need to show that it is still the world's most powerful sea power. The arms race will continue until one party runs out of steam –most likely, that will be the US. They have an enormous budget deficit, and a colossal public debt. And Washington will not be able to shoulder the burden if it has to engage in an arms race against Russia as well."

Asked what role, if any, Moscow might play in the ongoing US-Chinese drama, the analyst emphasized that China is already receiving Russian support. "Russia is the only country selling modern weapons technology to the Chinese. Were it not for Russian assistance, China would be lagging significantly behind the West's aircraft and cruise missiles."

Furthermore, "Russia and China have a treaty of friendship and cooperation, in which there is an article on consultations in the case of a threat to one country. And in the case of conflict with the United States, Russia may provide assistance to China; the treaty allows for such an eventuality."

Russian and Chinese servicemen shake hands during the Russian-Chinese drill Naval Interaction-2015 at the Klerk testing grounds in Russia's Primorye Territory.
© Sputnik/ Vitaliy Ankov
Russian and Chinese servicemen shake hands during the Russian-Chinese drill "Naval Interaction-2015" at the Klerk testing grounds in Russia's Primorye Territory.

M is for Multipolar

Ultimately, Alexandrov emphasized, "our goal is to create a polycentric system – that is, to push the US out of its position as global hegemon. Today, the US can dictate its terms and impose its decisions on others. In a multipolar world, it is possible to form tactical alliances in order to counter other players. That is, we are talking about a system promoting the balance of power –one that allows countries to maneuver, and does not allow any one power to hold a 'controlling stake' in world affairs."

"When this polycentric system is created, we will be able to judge whether continued cooperation with China is beneficial for Russia. At the current stage, it is advantageous."

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More Kids on the Block? US, Japan, India to Hold Exercises Near S China Sea
US Urges China to Demilitarize South China Sea
Frenemy? China to Participate in US-Hosted Military Exercises
US Navy to Boost Presence in Disputed South China Sea Region
China Claps Back at Reports of Sending Fighter Jets to Disputed Islands
McCain: US Should Consider Sanctioning Chinese Companies
Tags:
territorial claims, land reclamation, analysis, Chinese Navy, US Navy, East China Sea, South China Sea, China, United States, Russia
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  • Ivan Buckeye
    I like the idea of distracting the U.S. military and causing them to be spread too thin. Russia and China could have a field day with tag-teaming. Now that the U.S. may be sending naval resources to the South China Sea, activity might pick up in the European front or the Middle East. It seems that in the U.S. media as of right now, Syria and the South China Sea are the two main areas of activity or propaganda.
  • Anton KOMAROV
    The role of Russia in this conflict is....wait and see
  • Blackiein reply toMother Gorilla(Show commentHide comment)
    Mother Gorilla,
    Yes and rember the US breach international law every minute.
    It is time the US were dissarmed, they are an abomination and with them there can be no freedom.
  • Blackiein reply toAnton KOMAROV(Show commentHide comment)
    Anton KOMAROV,
    Hi,
    US needs a bloody nose!, soon .
  • Mother Gorillain reply tohawaiiguy61(Show commentHide comment)
    hawaiiguy61, but now Kim Il Sung already said he was going to call off his tests if the Americans quit their posturing.
  • Mother Gorillain reply toBlackie(Show commentHide comment)
    Blackie, absolutely, and they need the money they spent on their oversophisticated and lethal weapon systems for their own people.
  • Is it because I am black?in reply tohawaiiguy61(Show commentHide comment)
    hawaiiguy61, as for solid data, there is just the Brookings study,

    mgafrica.com/article/2015-09-08-china-investment-in-africa-the-myths

    I don't know what you find in it, but it looks like the Chinese, like the West as well, are out to make a yuan on us.

    As for more service-intensive investment, I think that would hold for most Western countries' investment as well, as the whole world economy is shifting that way. It includes banking and similar sordid endeavours that can strangle us Africans more than help us.
  • rasojin reply toIs it because I am black?(Show commentHide comment)
    Is it because I am black?, I read the article and I think it is suggesting Chinese investment isn't nearly as exploitative as it has been made out to be by media in the West. Chinese companies are not just extracting natural resources although there is quite a bit of that. Of course, at the end of the day, they are looking to maximize profits like any capitalists.
  • roycomfortin reply tolandauroj(Show commentHide comment)
    landauroj, your comment only confirms that we - or at least certain nations - have gone backwards in time, to the days of nationalistic state warfare driven by ethnic, economic or, more usually, political gain. If we accept that raw power conquers all, as you are positing, then every rogue state and power-obsessed leader can upset the applecart on a whim and we will be fighting local and regional wars for evermore. The whole point of the new framework of international law introduced after WW2 was to ensue ' never again' - never again would the world sit back and let crazed dictators seize territories and carry out gross atrocities. All the permanent members of the UNSC drafted, agreed and signed the new protocols and added punitive penalties, via the Hague. If rhe idea now is that Russia and China can do whatever they like, picking laws to suit themselves and ignoring the ones that don't, then we are on a collision course. The USA and west will never accept the wilfull breakdown of the rule of law, so we better accept that Cold War 2/WW3 is heading our way. It will be a disastrous legacy caused by Chinese and Russian overweening ambition and lust for power, same as the last lot in the '30s and 40s.
  • rasojin reply toroycomfort(Show commentHide comment)
    roycomfort, I'm not sure if you're serious or trying to be humorous. You have everything exactly backwards as any honest, non-brainwashed person living through the 21st century would tell you. It is the US that is ignoring laws to suit itself in its lust for world domination and bringing about WWIII or at least a new Cold War.
  • roycomfortin reply toFlorianGeyer(Show commentHide comment)
    FlorianGeyer, you are not reading and understanding what is in front of you. The issue is about free and legal passage for vessels and navies through international waters. It does not signify one jot whether that merchant, war or fishing vessel is American, Russian, Japanese or anything else.

    It has nothing to do with it being a long way from the USA, it is a long way for most countries. It has everything to do with lawful passage in international waters.

    Russian bloggers seem to have particular problems understanding this novel concept of international law. They can often sound very ISIS-like, pent up with angst wishing on the final apocalyptic clash of Russian or anyone else's power against the evil USA. It's a bit pathetic really, for educated people anyway.
  • roycomfortin reply tov76(Show commentHide comment)
    v76, very intelligent and well-argued contribution to the debate - NOT. Do you actually have a view or a point, are you capable of expressing it, do you actually know anything about the subject at all?
  • roycomfortin reply tochoticastile(Show commentHide comment)
    choticastile,, big allegations there, pray expand and justify. Whose hegemony? What dreamworld? And where does your world-view fit in with international law?

    Or is your allotted role in Kremlin Central just to denigrate anyone who does not view Russia's world view too positively?
  • FlorianGeyerin reply toroycomfort(Show commentHide comment)
    roycomfort,

    It is in China's interests to have a free flow of trade in its waters. What gives the US the god given right to police the worlds oceans far from home ?
    As for the concept of 'Free Passage' , the US navy has been very fast to embargo those nations who do not agree with them. Frankly, the rest of the world is getting rather tired of what 'America ' wants. Rather like a spoilt child, the USA stamps its feet and screams until they get given a sweetie. China is saying NO.

    And since you were rude to me, I regard your comments as ' a marriage of ignorance and confidence ' . Rather akin to current US foreign policy really.
  • Is it because I am black?in reply torasoj(Show commentHide comment)
    rasoj, I do not think China is any worse than the West, I just don't think it is much better, also if you look at their internal economic practices.
  • iamgogmagog666
    Defeat the west de-dollarize now, all over the world.
  • iamgogmagog666
    Defeat the west de-dollarize now, all over the world.
  • backfromthegraavin reply toBlackie(Show commentHide comment)
    Blackie, So you are saying all those eventsin China are down to AmeriCuns ??

    So if that is teh case then I can counter that AmeriCuns Grid goes down dayly ... and that is China .. a warning that they can take down the who AmeriCun grid and every Nuclear Power Station in AmeriCu land will go into Meltdown !!
  • Darcy Lee
    There goes the US again; warmongering, being the self styled world policeman. The US disrespects international law, and the UN charter constantly, and relentlessly. Their spin of 'protecting' the world is a sad joke. There's no one who believes them anymore, (except maybe some people in Texas). I feel bad for a lot of US citizens who have been relentlessly brainwashed ( hands over their hearts and all that) for decades and decades; and all the while their country is reviled as a tyrant. There are people there though who are finally waking up I think.
  • choticastilein reply toroycomfort(Show commentHide comment)
    roycomfort, Roycomfort, About hegemony and a dreamworld -- for you and yours and for all my many good friends' sake in the States -- I can only hope from my heart, that the thousands upon thousands of fine calibre American writers, journalists, political analysts and scientists and the many high ranking retired military personnel -- all of whom in full agreement with their equally respected global peers -- that the USG's local and particularly its global hegemony and its full spectrum spectrum global dominance policy, NWO, and one world government agenda, is gravely endangering global peace. But that unfortunately the gross of their own countrymen and women, continue to live in a dreamworld, oblivious to their government's ambitions of owning and controlling every country on the planet and since end of WWII, virtually at war continuously with many countries, achieving it by leaving mindless death and destruction in their wake.

    No Roycomfort, things don't look good for ordinary Americans or the world right now at this point, but its up to you to research it for yourself, as I did too and then for you to arrive at what works for you. I give my opinion here on SNN, because I feel free and at home to do so.

    I did not challenge you or anybody and therefore need not justify my opinion. I don't believe in insulting others as it leads nowhere. Many Americans and citizens from all over the world comment here, because they too feel at one with the general opinion or come to search for the truth, which they too, find to be absent in western MSM.

    Even when contrarian opinions are voiced, its fine, but generally insults are ignored. Hence I took a long time to decide whether I should respond to the impolite comment you made to me. I wish you well.
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