The Chinese government has announced that it will hold naval drills with the Russian military in the South China Sea in September, a move following an international court verdict stating that China does not have sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.
The Chinese defense ministry has described the joint military operation as “routine” and “aimed at strengthening the developing China-Russia strategic cooperative partnership.” It has explicitly denied that the drill is a ploy to flex collective military muscle and scare off “third parties.” A defense ministry spokesman affirmed the exercise was necessary for “deepen mutual trust and expand cooperation, raise the ability to jointly deal with security threats, and benefit the maintenance of regional and global peace and stability.”
It is unclear whether the operations will take place in disputed South China Sea territory. China claims most of the major trade route, including areas that are the sovereign territory of Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Earlier this month, China lost a case against the Philippines at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague. The court found that China’s claims were unfounded and that it must cease its illegal military and fishing activities in the region.
China, in turn, called the verdict a “farce,” once again asserted that the territory belonging to its neighbors had been Chinese since “ancient times,” and vowed to ignore the verdict completely. According to Chinese state media, the verdict was orchestrated by “eunuch” American and Japanese officials to embarrass China.
Chinese nationals, meanwhile, protested the verdict not against the Philippines, but against American companies, smashing their Apple iPhones and swarming local KFC restaurants, berating customers that their purchase would be used by American imperialists to impose a new order in the South China Sea.
On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi unilaterally declared that the Hague verdict was in the past and not a part of how the international community would address territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The “page of the South China Sea arbitration has been turned over,” he asserted.
While the Chinese government is denying that the Russian joint drills are intended to scare off the international community, “experts” tell Chinese state media that this is precisely what the drills are about. “Due to the great pressure Russia receives from the West in Europe, Moscow is becoming more motivated to having deeper strategic cooperation with Beijing at this moment,”Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at the Renmin University of China, told the Chinese state-run Global Times. “The drill is an obvious example in the military area.”
Another expert identified as Song Zhongping told the outlet that the countries will “pick a hot spot region” to conduct the military drill because it “has a specific political aim.”
Russia has been cautious in expressing any opinions regarding the South China Sea dispute. In April, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appeared to support China’s position, asserting that Russia would like to see “disputes resolved directly between the countries involved in a peaceful political and diplomatic manner, without any interference from third parties or any attempts to internationalize these disputes.” Such a statement implied a rejection of the Hague arbitration.
In contrast, however, Russian Ambassador to Vietnam Konstantin Vnukov said that his nation would like to see “negotiation at the level of international law” to solve the problem, specifically mentioning the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), on which the Hague verdict is based.
Analysis at The Diplomat notes that, geographically, Russia has little to gain in intervening in the South China Sea dispute: “Russia enjoys good relations with countries bordering the South China Sea and does not need to offend Southeast Asia for the sake of China. As noted above, Russia is not enthusiastic about publicly backing China on the South China Sea issue.”
The nation is nonetheless engaging in drills in the region with China, a sign that it supports China’s international claims.