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Thursday, 14 April 2016

Gunboat Absurdity: What is the Kremlin up to in the South China Sea?

Chinese and Vietnamese Coast Guard ships confront each other in the South China Sea

It starts with vague rumours circulating among colleagues and then on the internet. The improbability of it leads you to dismiss the story as just more half-baked paranoia that sees the Kremlin's hand in every major event. Yet as the weeks pass more strange incidents, sightings of Russian personnel looking out of place in exotic locales and a sudden interest of Russian media in an issue it had once ignored begin to make you suspicious. Is it true? Could the Kremlin really be willing to take such an irresponsible set of risks? Would Putin really be willing to alienate this ally or that old partner? And then the rumours die down, the social media trail of Russian personnel runs cold and the attention of pro-Kremlin media abruptly moves on to other matters. But every once in a while...

In the past two decades there have been enough instances where initially unsubstantiated rumours dismissed by many journalists and Russia scholars have turned into very real moments of Kremlin escalation. In particular, Vladimir Putin's attempt to reassert Russia's position on the global stage by intervening in Ukraine and the Syrian civil war followed such a trajectory. Initial moves to establish a Russian or pro-Russian presence were developed covertly, often accompanied by mixed messages from the Kremlin to confuse external observers. At the same time a trickle of stories on the specific crisis the Kremlin was targeting turned into a torrent of propaganda to build Russian public support for intervention in an external conflict. Having prepared the ground, in the final stages the Russian military moved either covertly or openly to create facts on the ground that gave the Kremlin a decisive advantage in territory it deemed crucial to sustaining Russia's great power status.

Since the seizure of Crimea by the Russian military this form of strategic sequencing has often been misleadingly called hybrid war. In reality the hybridity of mixing limited military action with civilian activism is only an initial tactic designed to control the sequencing of a shift from peace to war or from non-involvement to intervention. This approach has of course been use by other states seeking to entrench their strategic position. Nevertheless, the autocratic structures that evolved since Yeltsin's shelling of Russia's parliament in 1993 have given the Kremlin a freedom of action that Western or Chinese leaders do not have. The Russian state's control of national media has enabled it to build public support for foreign policy adventures by controlling the domestic information space in a way that is impossible for European or American politicians. With Vladimir Putin centralising control over security strategy, the Kremlin also does not face the kind of collective decision-making that constrained the Chinese leadership until Xi Jinping's ruthless purge of Bo Xi Lai's faction in 2012 signalled the emergence of a new political order.

Though foreign policy adventurism provided the Kremlin with a significant boost in support among the Russian public, as conflict with Ukraine has ground on it has resulted in economic sanctions from the EU and US and alienated a sizeable neighbour with significant military potential. It is still difficult to ascertain the long term impact of Putin's air campaign in Syria. Yet reasserting Russia's seat at the Middle Eastern great power table by sustaining Bashar al Assad has come at the price of alienating Turkey and risking open conflict with Saudi Arabia. Facing economic problems at home, the temptation to seek another major foreign policy coup to sustain public support until the Duma elections (Russia's national parliament) in September 2016 must be strong. 

With the need to distract from the ambiguous outcomes of the conflict in Ukraine, now that Vladimir Putin has decided to limit direct Russian military involvement in Syria, there is a strong likelihood that his inner circle is looking to another geopolitical flashpoint in which to assert his claim that Russia truly is a global power. In the Autumn of 2015 meetings between Russian diplomats and representatives of the Houthi movement as well as supposed humanitarian aid flights to Sanaa indicated that there might at least be some consideration of providing support to Saudi Arabia's enemies in Yemen. More recently Foreign Minister Lavrov's threats to block United Nations consent to any European military operations in Libya as well as contacts with Libyan factions backing the Tobruk-based House of Representatives signal ambitions for a greater role in the Maghreb region.

There are also hints of Russian interest in a very different geopolitical flashpoint that could cement Putin's great power ambitions. Initially announced by Russian defence officials at Singapore's Shangri La security forum in May 2015, plans for a Russian naval exercise in the South China Sea are now beginning to take shape. Though the original announcement was not followed up by any systematic information campaign by pro-Kremlin media, since the beginning of 2016 there has been a trickle of reports and opinion pieces discussing the relevance of Russia to a region that has become a focus for great power rivalries in East Asia. Intriguingly, there also seems to be an ongoing effort to deepen political relations with Brunei, the weakest and most autocratically ruled state on the South China Sea. This includes a startling growth in Russian investment in this oil sultanate from a mere $31 000 in 2014 to over $25 million in 2015. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the planned Russian naval exercise in the spring and summer of 2016 will involve cooperation with units from the Royal Brunei Navy. With an upcoming summit in Sochi between Russia and the Association of East Asian Nations (ASEAN) there are signs of growing Kremlin engagement in a region where the risks of interstate conflict are high.

Even if this expression of Russian interest in developments in the South China Sea remains limited to high profile symbolism, the Kremlin would be wading into a fraught and complex crisis. Though giving the Russian Navy its own starring role after the army's adventure in Crimea and the Air Force's prominence in Syria may make sense in terms of interservice rivalries and domestic political propaganda, intervening in the Asia-Pacific region could land Russia with the kind of complex dilemmas it faces in Ukraine or the Levant. The South China Sea is a geopolitical space in which tensions are escalating between a Chinese state asserting extensive territorial ambitions through military means and other powerful states in the with their own claims to islands and reefs. With sea lanes crucial to global trade with China, Japan and Korea, the United States has come to play a pivotal role in trying to contain this wave of Chinese expansionism. At the same time, regular stand-offs between Chinese coast guard vessels and naval units from the Philippines and Vietnam over the control of islands or the provocative placement of oil drilling platforms have come very close to armed conflict since the summer of 2014. 

For the Chinese, Vietnamese and Philippine governments the South China Sea dispute has become the focus for popular nationalist mobilisation. As the struggle for domination of the Chinese Communist Party between rival factions has worsened, reasserting Chinese claims to a vast part of the South China Sea encompassed by the so-called Nine Dash Line has helped it to sustain public support. A Vietnamese Communist Party struggling to manage the impact of rapid economic change and a politically assertive population has found that resistance to Chinese encroachment on islands that it claims are Vietnam's under international law has helped maintain the Party's credentials as guardian of national independence. In the more democratic environment of the Philippines, defending Scarborough Shoal and other islands and atolls claimed by Manila against Chinese appropriation has become a political football, with no presidential candidate willing to risk accusations of weakness in the face of external pressure. Other states along the South China Sea such as Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Indonesia are pursuing their own claims based on rival interpretations of how far their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) reach from their coastlines.

Competing territorial claims in the South China Sea

China's expansionism has pitted it against every major state in the region. Originally set out legally by the last Chinese Nationalist government in 1947, the Nine Dash Line is based on a set of claims that evolved from the early 1930s onwards to every group of islands and reefs from the Paracels south of Hainan right down to the Spratlys lying between Borneo, the Philippines and Vietnam. The mainland Chinese government has regularly reasserted these claims ever since, developing an elaborate legal case based on supposed evidence of sporadic Chinese settlement of these island groups from the seventh century onwards. In the late 1970s and 1980s tensions between China and Vietnam led to repeated skirmishes over atolls and islands, sometimes leading to casualties for both sides. After heavy clashes in 1988, both sides agreed to de-escalate naval operations without abandoning their disagreements over territorial control. In the ensuing two decades though every major state on the South China Sea filed legal claims over disputed territory to the Permanent Court of Arbitration for the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Beijing's focus on building strong economic ties with its neighbours restrained it from asserting its territorial goals through subterfuge or force.

This relative period of quiet ended with increasingly aggressive Chinese moves from 2011 onwards. Overshadowed by events in Egypt and Libya, East Asia saw a steady escalation of tensions as Chinese ships blocked, rammed and stormed Vietnamese vessels while attempting to cut the Philippine Navy's access to strategic reefs such as the Scarborough Shoal. By 2014 dozens of Vietnamese and Philippine naval vessel were engaging in high risk games of chicken with the Chinese coast guard as Beijing placed oil drilling platforms in disputed waters. At the height of the crisis, anti-Chinese riots sweeping Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City at the height of the crisis. Over the next eighteen months evidence also accumulated of a colossal Chinese land reclamation effort, turning reefs and atolls into full blown islands with naval bases, anti-aircraft batteries and landing strips for fighters that could assert control over every section of the South China Sea's shipping lanes. 

Such successive escalations since the ascension of Xi Jinping to a dominant position in Beijing have drawn a growing number of major powers into the South China Sea dispute. Concerned about the impact Chinese actions may have on international conventions that are fundamental to freedom of navigation, for the last six months the United States has run increasingly aggressive Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). In the process, US Navy ships and aircraft have come close to islands with Chinese military installations in order to demonstrate that Washington does not accept Beijing's attempt to create facts on the ground. Accelerating US naval activity, in cooperation with local partners as well as India, Japan and Australia, also reflects widespread concerns that these Chinese military installations could prove the first step to excluding all other major powers from a key waterway. As James Kraska has pointed out, these operations have become more unpredictable since the Chinese military has come to use fishing trawlers and other seemingly civilian vessels to obstruct US and Vietnamese warships. The increasing frequency and scale of these confrontations have turned the South China Sea into a geopolitical flashpoint where considerable efforts have to be expended by diplomats on all sides to prevent further escalation.

As tensions have worsened in East Asia, the Russian government has been forced into an uncomfortably ambiguous stance. The breakdown in relations with the EU and US after the seizure of Crimea has heightened the Kremlin's focus on building political and economic links with China. Desperate to balance the economic impact of  American and European sanctions, Putin has played a personal role in completing natural gas pipeline deals with Beijing and trying to encourage Chinese investment in Russia's economy. Though this process of economic engagement has had less than satisfactory results for the Kremlin, a whole range of military and naval cooperation initiatives have been put in place to shore up any potential rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing that could help challenge American dominance of the international state system. In the process, the Kremlin has abandoned any qualms it might have had over supplying advanced weaponry to a potential geopolitical rival and has permitted the sale of anti-aircraft systems and the newest Su-35 fighter bombers to China's Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). Particularly in the summer and autumn of 2014, Putin's attempt to court Xi was accompanied by a torrent of reports in Kremlin friendly Russian media praising China's leadership and condemning attempts to contain Beijing's ambitions in the South China Sea and other contested strategic spaces as driven by US jealousy of a rising power.

Yet hampering these clumsy Kremlin attempts to draw closer to a Chinese regime is the fact that Russia also has a long-standing military and economic partnership with Vietnam, Beijing's most intractable adversary when it comes to the South China Sea dispute. In the latter stages of the US-Vietnam War the USSR kept Hanoi afloat with extensive military and economic aid. During the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, Moscow's help proved crucial in enabling the National Vietnamese Army to survive a relentless Chinese assault along the Northern border. Such military assistance led to wider links fostered by the Soviet state, which have remained strong enough after the end of the Cold War to sustain a Vietnamese community of thousands of traders, businessmen and students in Moscow. Despite an economic shift through the Doi Moi reform programme after 1986, Russia has remained Vietnam's primary arms supplier. While the lifting of the US arms embargo on Vietnam in the past months may change this dynamic, in the last half decade Hanoi has ordered and received vast amounts of Russian weaponry, from advanced fighter-bombers and anti-aircraft systems to dozens of ships and submarines designed to give the Vietnamese Navy a fighting chance in any conflict with China.

While successive waves of Vietnamese arms procurement have been a financial boon to Russia's arms industry, the ongoing assistance towards the modernization of the Vietnamese armed forces since 2008 has also been of crucial strategic importance to the Kremlin. For all the recent talk of Sino-Russian friendship, Moscow has remained wary of China's foreign policy ambitions.These anxieties are fuelled by growing Chinese economic influence over states Moscow considers to belong to its Central Asian sphere of influence and the massive demographic imbalance between thinly populated oblasts in Russia's Far East and the large Chinese cities on the other side of the border. Faced with potential challenges from Beijing, the existence of various powers hostile to China's aspirations across the Asia-Pacific region remains useful to the Kremlin. Though Japan, India, Indonesia and the US are not states Russia can rely on, a strong Vietnam whose authoritarian political elite has close ties to the Kremlin is a partner that is more likely to provide some help to Russia if it ever comes under pressure from Beijing. It is no coincidence that Vietnam is one of the first non-Eurasian states to sign a trade agreement with Putin's pet Eurasian Economic Union project. For a Kremlin with few reliable allies, the survival of a strong partnership with the Vietnamese state has remained one of the anchors of stability in a foreign policy framework that has experienced tumultuous changes over the past half decade.

For all the superficial attractions of taking a more prominent seat at East Asia's great power table, a more interventionist approach in the Asia-Pacific region would put both emerging pragmatic cooperation with China and decades of friendship with Vietnam at risk. As long as Moscow has scrupulously avoided deeper commitments to geopolitical flashpoints between China and rival regional powers as well as the United States, it has not had to choose between either collaborating with Beijing or maintaining its alliance with Vietnam. Yet even a largely symbolic commitment such as a small base in Brunei or regular naval patrols in crisis zones in the South China Sea would radically change this equation. Where previously a distant Kremlin could simply get away with recommending de-escalation and negotiations, every regional and great power directly involved in the conflict would demand that newly arrived Russian interlopers pick a side in complex disputes. 

As Bonnie Glaser has pointed out, for external players trying to balance Chinese expansionism such as India, Japan or the United States the challenge the South China dispute represents is relatively straightforward. In trying to reassert freedom of navigation in the area while avoiding becoming too heavily associated with individual Vietnamese, Philippine or Malaysian territorial claims, these major players have converging interests that have led to intensified naval and intelligence coordination against perceived Chinese threats. At the same time, these external powers can focus on strengthening collective legal frameworks that could help reduce general military tensions in the region. With pre-existing commitments to both China and Vietnam, if Russia increases its presence in the South China Sea to assert great power ambitions the Kremlin will find it difficult to plot a similar course. 

Simply joining US led freedom of navigation operations together with Japanese,Indian and Australian ships would effectively subordinate any Russian contribution to an international effort co-ordinated by Washington. The sight of Russian admirals taking orders from the commanders of far larger US or Japanese naval contingents would jar with Vladimir Putin's efforts to present Russia as an adversary and geopolitical equal of the United States. Though Russian engagement in a wider effort to counter Chinese expansionism would bolster the Kremlin's relationship with Vietnam, it would also place relations with Beijing in which Putin has invested considerable personal prestige under unsustainable strain. Such a path to great power influence in East Asia would only provoke the ire of a state with which Russia shares a long land boundary that is almost impossible to defend. The costs of such a move would therefore be far greater than any benefits the Kremlin could possibly accrue.

By contrast, a more likely course even symbolic Russian intervention in the South China Sea would take would be one designed to obstruct the US Navy's attempts to defend key American strategic goals in the Asia-Pacific theatre. Running regular patrols in highly contested territory could disrupt efforts by the United States to run more aggressive FONOPs against islands under Chinese control. With Russian ships in the immediate vicinity, US or Japanese naval officers already dealing with aggressive Chinese counter-measures would be faced with a further unpredictable variable that could make access to key areas more difficult. With the ability of the British government to fully maintain its base in Brunei in question, a Brunei government looking for additional protection could be willing to provide the kind of permanent facilities the Russian Navy would need to sustain any effort in these waterways. In the process, the Kremlin could both strengthen an increasingly crucial relationship with Beijing as well as force itself in to a wider consultation and negotiation process that could determine the future of one of one of the most important sea lanes for global trade. Not only would such an approach based on disrupting an issue crucially important to US global strategy provide a further opportunity to reassert Vladimir Putin's obsession with great power status, it would also complement Kremlin propaganda targeted towards the Russian population that continues to portray Washington as Russia's primary adversary.

This more likely Russian approach towards the South China Sea dispute would not be cost free. For all the claims made by Russian analysts loyal to the Kremlin, it is unlikely that the Vietnamese government or public would accept any justifications that would portray a Russian Navy presence as purely designed to counter US attempts to assert global hegemony. Rather, the sight of Russian naval vessels openly or tacitly colluding with the Chinese would inevitably put at risk a close partnership with Hanoi that has lasted for sixty years.  As Jonathan London has pointed out, the Vietnamese public as well as much of the political elite have come to see the struggle for control of islands in the South China Sea as fundamental to the survival of Vietnam as a sovereign state. With a newly reconfigured Politburo in Hanoi under the continued leadership of Nguyen Phu Trong dependent on delicate compromises between factions, the Vietnamese government will find it difficult to resist wider pressure for some form of retaliation against Russian involvement in any further Chinese escalation. 

Though the Vietnamese Communist Party would be very reluctant to see a collapse in relations it would be unlikely to continue providing support to some of the Kremlin's key strategic projects. At the very least, continued indulgence in Hanoi of Vladimir Putin's pet Eurasian Union project would not survive such tensions. If Beijing manages to encourage Russian naval visits to Chinese bases on disputed islands in the region by playing on the Kremlin's obsession with great power status, it is quite probable that the Russian armed forces will lose access to Cam Ranh Bay and other facilities on Vietnamese territory. Recent moves by the United States to drop the remnants of its arms embargo on Vietnam also mean that if there is a crisis with the Kremlin Hanoi now has a clear alternative to Russian weapons systems when it comes to modernizing its military. Most significantly, in alienating Vietnam and pushing it into a regional alliance system co-ordinated by Washington and Tokyo, the Kremlin would lose an ally that would be willing to help if a more expansionist Chinese regime turned its attention to Russia's Far East. Losing Vietnam in a short term bid for great power status would in the long term make Russia dependent on Beijing in a part of the world in which the Kremlin has no other firm friends.

As is often the case, despite the hints and fleeting interest it is equally likely that in the foreseeable future the Kremlin decides to look for it's foreign policy successes elsewhere. The Russian naval exercises in the Asia-Pacific region could simply be another opportunity to advertise military equipment in a region with a growing number of potential buyers. And no doubt there are many in Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defence that have a strong commitment to friendship with Vietnam. Yet despite all the risks, the South China Sea is exactly the kind of geopolitical space in which Vladimir Putin would try to sustain popularity at home through the aggressive assertion of great power status abroad. As Stephen Blank has pointed out, much of Vladimir Putin's adventurism in Ukraine and Syria is driven by a need to mobilise the support of the Russian public for a Kremlin elite that is no longer able to guarantee economic prosperity or political stability. With Duma elections in September 2016 and presidential elections in 2018, the need for grand foreign policy successes is becoming more pressing. However absurd it seems, the Kremlin may see further gunboat diplomacy as the only way out of trouble. Facing a stalemate in Ukraine and a volatile equilibrium in Syria, military adventurism in the Asia-Pacific region that forces other great powers to engage with Russia would provide the Kremlin with the exotic TV footage and exciting headlines that can help keep the Russian public distracted from economic woes. 

Yet the dilemmas that the Kremlin would face if it chose the South China Sea as its next geopolitical crisis to achieve a short term foreign policy high illustrate how Vladimir Putin's quest for global prestige is sabotaging Russia's long term security. By disrupting an established regional order his gambles in Syria and Ukraine may force other powers to take Russia into account. But they also alienate states that benefit from the status quo. With his gambits in Crimea and Donbas, Vladimir Putin shot to unprecedented levels of public support at home at the expense of alienating key political actors in Germany that have begun to see Russia as a strategic opponent rather than a friendly partner. Through his brutal Syrian adventure Putin may have reasserted Russia's position in the Middle East by saving Bashar al Assad from defeat, yet he also destroyed previously cordial relations with the Saudi and Turkish elites for an unsteady alliance with an Iranian regime whose interests may diverge from those of Russia. Whether in Libya, Yemen, the South China Sea or Venezuela, an attempt to reassert global power status by disrupting a regional status quo would simply repeat a dynamic whereby short term successes alienate powerful states that had previously been friendly towards Russia. Yet whether Vladimir Putin will ever learn that there are some geopolitical tables that are just not worth sitting at remains an open question.