Energy deals in South China Sea are off limits if Russia wants strong China ties
- China-Russia relations have benefited from having a common rival in the US and shared positions on many global issues. However, Russia’s interest in oil exploration in the South China Sea is a potential flash point
Such events might seem significant, but in reality they have very little impact on the China-Russia strategic partnership. Public opinion, after all, does not represent the official positions of both countries, which are determined to join forces to oppose US unilateralism.
But this may change. In 2018, Russian state energy giant Rosneft upset Beijing by launching an oil drilling project with Vietnam in South China Sea waters claimed by China. At the time, Beijing warned all parties concerned against making any provocative action, without pinpointing Russia.
By July this year, the situation had changed significantly. China was reported to have pressured Vietnam to halt its project with Rosneft, on the grounds that the drilling activities violate Chinese sovereignty.
There is a kind of a gentleman’s agreement between Russia and China over matters of sovereignty: Russia does not support or argue against Chinese sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, while China does the same vis-à-vis Crimea.
But it may be that China, now a target of US containment efforts and facing a more hostile external environment, expects more support from Russia. But it won’t get any on South China Sea issues. Russia would not wish to set a precedent that could backfire later, especially amid growing Chinese nationalist sentiments about the Russian far east.
Notably, when China leans on foreign companies to halt their business activities in disputed waters, it is doing so not to target a particular country. However, to forcefully articulate its key interests and unambiguously designate its sphere of influence, China feels it must react to any provocative manoeuvres – even if a close partner like Russia has to be reprimanded.
Thus, the close Russia-China partnership is sustainable as long as the red lines are not breached. In today’s tense global political environment, Moscow is unlikely to risk Beijing’s displeasure by pushing on with its oil and gas projects.
But what if these red lines are expanded one day, as China’s influence grows? Then, Russia will have no choice but to protect its own strategic interests, even at the expense of damaging ties. If managed badly, such frictions could produce cracks in the seemingly almost-flawless Russia-China relationship.
Danil Bochkov is an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council