Russia and China intend to hold naval exercises in the South China Sea, according to comments by Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov. The exercises will include Russia’s allies in the Asia-Pacific region, though Antonov did not clarify which countries, beyond China, would participate in the exercises. Russia maintains close relations with several Southeast Asian states, especially with Vietnam, for which Russia is an important provider of arms. China, however, is involved in territorial disputes with four Southeast Asian states — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei — over the sovereignty of various islands and reefs in the South China Sea.
A major point of agreement between China and Russia, per Antonov’s comments in Singapore, is that the United States is the primary destabilizing factor in the South China Sea. Antonov suggested that Russia and China were being singled out for criticism by the United States: “We are concerned by U.S. policies in the region, especially since every day it becomes increasingly focused on a systemic containment of Russia and China.” Antonov’s remarks reflect the broader cooling of bilateral relations between the White House and the Kremlin since Russia’s invasion of Crimea and subsequent backing of anti-government rebels in Ukraine last year.
“Despite our concerns about the U.S. global missile defense architecture, they continue a policy of disrupting strategic stability, adding a regional segment of an anti-missile ‘shield’ in the Asia-Pacific,” he added.
Antonov went further and accused the United States of interfering in the international affairs of other states. “An epidemic of ‘color revolutions’ swept the Middle East and, like a hurricane, wiped out several states in the region. This disease went across several European countries, where events are freely controlled from the outside,” he remarked.
Russia and China have been steadily increasing their bilateral maritime security cooperation, and the interoperability of their navies. The development is a result of several trends in China’s naval posture and overall ties with Russia. Over the past two years — since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power — relations between Russia and China have grown closer and deepened strategically. Additionally, China’s military is in the process of readjusting the country’s historic military focus on land-based assets to its navy. As a result, China’s navy is looking toward global operations. As The Diplomat noted recently, Russia and China concluded a naval exercise in the Mediterranean just two weeks ago.
The details of any bilateral Russia-China exercise in the South China Sea remain sparse. Russian state media notes that the likely time frame for the exercise is May 2016. Events are moving swiftly in the South China Sea — particularly with regard to China’s land reclamation and construction activities on disputed islands and reefs in the Spratly and Paracel Islands.
China has strongly emphasized that its construction activities in the South China Sea are primarily “for civilian purposes,” but as recent events have shown, the People’s Liberation Army is present in the region. A bilateral naval exercise next year between the Russian and Chinese navies could showcase the utility of some of the new features China has established on the disputed islands, including airstrips and radar installations.