The South China Sea might be one of the most contested places on earth, but until last week, at least, one regional player had been conspicuously absent from the fray. Russia had staked out a precarious neutrality, maintaining a longstanding friendship with Vietnam while providing general support for China’s regional positions. On September 12, however, the balance came into question when Russia joined China for eight days of joint naval exercises in Chinese waters near Zhanjiang in the south of Guangdong province, which is the headquarters for China’s South China Sea fleet.
China and Russia have held joint naval drills annually since 2012, but the Joint Sea-2016 is the first to take place in the South China Sea. Although Russian diplomats reportedly negotiated with their counterparts to ensure that the drills would be held in waters that are indisputably Chinese, the eight-day exercises involved island and reef seizure maneuvers, as well as anti-submarine operations, air defense, and naval and air operations. Wang Hai, deputy commander of the Chinese Navy, who is directing the Chinese fleet during these exercises, said that they were designed to enhance Sino-Russian cooperation in countering “common security threats.”
Adding to regional worries about Russia’s motivations was the fact that Joint Sea-2016 came just after the July 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in favor of the Philippines’ claims in the South China Sea. Immediately after the ruling, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement asserting Russia’s neutrality. At the September G-20 meeting in Hangzhou, China, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia stood “in solidarity with China’s position” of not recognizing the court’s decision and opposing the interference of third parties in the South China Sea dispute.
All the while, Russia has sought to deepen its influence in the region generally. On May 19-20, 2016, it hosted the conference marking the twentieth anniversary of Russia-ASEAN dialogue in Sochi. The resulting declaration called for exploring cooperation between ASEAN, the Eurasian Economic Union, and