Is Russia entering the fray in the East China Sea?

Emanuele Scimia says a naval move that seemed to be coordinated with China, near the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, has raised concern about where Russia stands

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 June, 2016, 1:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 June, 2016, 1:00pm

In the lead-up to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s scheduled visit to China later this month, doubts are swirling in Tokyo (and Washington) over a possible coordinated initiative between Beijing and Moscow in the East China Sea.

The Japanese navy detected three Russian naval vessels sailing close to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands on June 8. Russia’s presence coincided with a transit by a Chinese frigate around the contested outcrops, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan.

Japan protests as China’s PLA Navy sails near disputed Diaoyu Islands in East China Sea

Possible naval connections between Russia and China in the East China Sea are now under scrutiny in Tokyo. Until now, Russia has taken a neutral stance on Sino-Japanese territorial spats while welcoming China’s position that South China Sea disputes should not be internationalised.

China’s aversion to international tribunals is shared by the Kremlin. Beijing challenges the Philippines’ case before the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague – which is set to deliver a ruling on Chinese territorial claims over vast swathes of the South China Sea. Moscow, meanwhile, rejects Western and Ukrainian claims that its annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 was in breach of international law.

In the South and East China seas, an anti-China coalition is taking shape

The Kremlin has the means to alter the strategic balance in the region. Russian sales of specific weapons to Beijing could undermine the strength of the US and its allies in the East and South China seas – in this sense, Russia’s interventions in Ukraine and Syria set a precedent.

Moscow is already selling modern weapons to China, but an enhanced defence technology collaboration could further improve China’s capabilities. Controversially, Russia is expected to start delivering Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 missile defence systems to China by the end of this year.

Russia is also suffering a harsh economic downturn. This, coupled with the imposition of US and European sanctions over its Ukraine policy, has prompted the Kremlin to seek support from China. But there may be a price to pay. It is also true that Sino-US strategic competition in East Asia could play into Russian hands geopolitically, as it would divert US focus and resources from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, where Putin is challenging Washington’s long-standing positions.

However, Moscow needs to walk a fine line in seeking an advantage by fuelling Sino-US tensions. With a battered economy, it can at most seek a protracted low-intensity showdown, in which the US and China remain locked in a military stalemate and Beijing’s economic potential is left intact.

Emanuele Scimia is an independent journalist and foreign affairs analyst