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

    © Sputnik/ Vitaliy Ankov
    Asia & Pacific
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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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    Tags:
    territorial claims, land reclamation, analysis, Chinese Navy, US Navy, East China Sea, South China Sea, China, United States, Russia
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