17: Balancing and Hedging: The Two Levels of Russia’s Behaviour in the South China Sea

Russia’s behaviour in the South China Sea (SCS) dispute is a puzzling case for international relations scholars.1 On the surface, Russia’s official approach is to persuade the rival claimants and the broader international community that Russia is an extra-regional player that has no direct stakes in the SCS and, therefore, prefers not to be involved. However, behind the façade of disengagement are large-scale energy and arms deals with the major disputants. Most puzzling are Russia’s relations with China and Vietnam – the two major rival parties in the SCS and, simultaneously, Russia’s closest and most important Asian partners.

Most of the existing assessments interpret Russia-China-Vietnam relations in zero-sum terms. Thus, the strengthening of the Russia-Vietnam partnership is presented as a means for Russia to contain or balance the alleged Chinese threat.2 According to this narrative, Russia worries about overdependence upon an increasingly influential China and tries to arm or conclude economic deals with Vietnam and other actual or potential adversaries of China in the SCS and in Asia more broadly. The other side of such an interpretation is based on the evidence of a growing military entente between China and Russia and pictures Russia as siding with China at the cost of relations with other regional partners, including Vietnam, particularly after the Ukraine Crisis. According to this story, as a China-Russia strategic alignment grows, Russia is likely to snub those of its partners who are at odds with China.3

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