Last week, during a much-hyped visit of Russian vessels to the Philippines, reports emerged that Moscow was interested in exercises in the South China Sea (See: “Why are Russia’s Warships in the Philippines?”).
In his remarks in Manila, Eduard Mikhailov, deputy commander of Russia’s Pacific Fleet, raised the prospect of joint exercises with other countries, including China and Malaysia, in the South China Sea.
“We really hope that in a few years, the military exercises for example in your region, in the South China Sea, will (involve) for example, not only Russia-Philippines, but Russia, Philippines, China, and maybe Malaysia together,” he said.
Mikhailov’s comments made headlines and have since appeared in a number of follow-up pieces on the Russia-Philippines relationship. And that was probably to be expected, considering the significant attention devoted to the South China Sea issue over the past few years.
Yet there are a number of reasons why Mikhailov’s comments ought to be viewed with more of a dose of sobriety rather than alarm and sensationalism.
First, as a general note, mentions of “exercises” in the “South China Sea” that are not accompanied by specifics – such as exactly what types of drills these are; where they are located (given the large expanse of water we are referring to and the more limited space within which disputes lie); what framework that would govern it; and who among the claimant states has actively supported it – ought to be viewed more as aspirations rather than actionable deliverables. Mikhailov offered few specifics in this regard, and if you place those comments within the broader context of his overall remarks and not in isolation, he seemed to be thinking aloud about a hypothetical scenario as opposed to outlining a realizable proposal.
Second, even if Russia were to view this as a serious possibility, it is not clear if it would serve its interests. As I have noted previously, Moscow has traditionally adopted a hedged position on the South China Sea, and with good reason as a non-claimant which does have a general interest in broader issues like freedom of navigation and regional stability but also has several partners, including China, Vietnam, and the Philippines, who have disputes among them (See: “The Limits of Russia-Philippines Military Relations”). Wading deeper into those disputes makes sustaining that delicate position more difficult and increases the risk that it could be compromised.
Third, even if Russia were to conclude that this is in its interests and aim to follow through, it is far from evident how all this would work operationally. If you’ve been monitoring the South China Sea closely over the past few years, you’ll know that there has been no shortage of new proposals from actors about joint activities, be it exercises, drills or other cooperative endeavors, in addition to these engagements themselves. Yet at the same time, claimant states have been careful about the way in which they pursue these, in part due to the sensitivity of the disputes themselves.
It is difficult to envision this tendency changing anytime soon. To be sure, apart from China, we have seen individual Southeast Asian claimants undertake exercises in or near the South China Sea in concert with other allies and partners, such as Malaysia participating together with the other members of the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA) – Singapore, Britain, New Zealand and Australia – in Exercise Bersama Lima 16 last October.
But we have also seen some resistance on this front as well. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed his reservations about the real value of joint patrols and drills in the South China Sea – even with Manila’s traditional ally the United States – as he seeks to reach some sort of accommodation with Beijing.
Southeast Asian claimants more broadly have also been wary of proposals for joint drills that include China, a rival claimant – which Mikhailov’s idea called for – given its continuing assertiveness in the South China Sea. To take just one example, China’s proposal to ASEAN in October 2015 – much more specific than Russia’s – for the holding of both a joint drill involving the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) as well as another one involving maritime search and rescue and disaster relief in the South China Sea, got a predictably lukewarm response from several Southeast Asian states (See: “The Truth About China’s New South China Sea Drill Proposal with ASEAN”).
Russia is not unfamiliar with the sensitivities involved in this issue and the need to navigate them carefully. For instance, Russian officials continue to point out that although Moscow did carry out drills with Beijing in the South China Sea back in September 2016, they were also held off the coast of Guangdong and far from any disputed area. Indeed, the Russian ambassador to the Philippines reiterated this point once again when asked about it during a press conference in Manila last week. Russia is choosing to be cautious on this because, contrary to suggestions that it is aligning itself with China on this issue, Moscow understands that it needs to maintain its aforementioned hedged South China Sea policy to realize several of its interests.
Fourth and lastly, it is also important to recognize that Russia’s defense relationships with the Southeast Asian states that would be involved in such an initiative are in some cases too underdeveloped currently to contemplate drills undertaken in flashpoint zones. Take Moscow’s relationship with Manila, for instance. The two sides have not even concluded a basic military agreement allowing for the exchange of personnel, visits and observing exercises, let alone carrying actual multilateral drills out in the South China Sea (See: “A New Russia-Philippines Military Pact?”). Though the momentum for cooperation is building, the point is here is that is still quite an ambitious goal to set for the short term.
Of course, we ought not to dismiss Mikhailov’s comments about the future prospects for joint drills in the South China Sea entirely. And perhaps we could see movement towards such engagements in the longer term due to changing strategic realities that are still not evident today. But as things stand at present, we would do well to view these remarks far more soberly than the headlines would like us to.