by Sergey Strokan, Journalist, Essayist, Political Commentator and Poet
May 12, 2012 (TSR) – May Day celebrations, with their global anti-imperialist drive, coincided with the “big two” of the non-Western world – post-communist Russia and communist China – exercising in foreign policy pirouettes and military drills to boost their all-weather ties.
High-level contacts in Moscow and large-scale naval exercises in the Yellow Sea came as the riddle of Russian-Chinese cooperation and its implications for the world.
To start with, Chinese Deputy Premier Li Keqiang, who is to succeed Prime Minister Wen Jiabao next March, paid a long-awaited visit to Russia, meeting President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin amid upcoming power transition in Moscow and Beijing.
The would-be Chinese Premier, who will hold the top job in Beijing for the next 10 years, confessed that his second visit to Russia in 20 years served as a curtain-raiser, enabling him to see “a totally new face of Russia”.
However, there was not much progress made on the crucial gas deal as both sides failed to agree on the price for Russian gas to be sold to China. The thorny gas issue made ambitious plans to build a pipeline from Russia’s Altai Region to the world’s largest energy consumer still a dream.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away from Moscow, tensions were mounting high in the Asia-Pacific region, where regional powers were conducting large-scale naval exercises amid a growing territorial dispute in the South China Sea and warnings over the risk of armed confrontation between China and its neighbors, backed by the US.
First, there were joined US-Philippine naval drills “Balikatan” or “Shoulder-to-Shoulder” in the South China Sea, which started April 17 and ended last Friday. Apart from that, there were also US-Vietnamese naval exchange activities off the Vietnamese coastal city of Da Nang aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Chafee.
The Shoulder-to-Shoulder drills were followed by joined Russian-Chinese naval exercises in the Yellow Sea off China’s east coast. The six-day drills were held under the code name “Interaction 2012” and also ended last Friday. The exercises focused on joint air defense, anti-submarine tactics and search and rescue operation. While China and Russia have held four military exercises since 2005, including joint war games in 2005, these were their first joint naval exercises.
So as there were too many drills in the region, from the very start it evoked heated debate on whether it was just a routine military training or muscle-flexing with overlapping political messages to show “who’s who” in Asia, who is running the show in the Pacific.
On one hand, if we compare the Yellow Sea and the South China Sea drills, we will discover that these were very different naval exercises. Different in many ways: different by their geography, as there are several hundred kilometers from one sea to another, and different by their agenda.
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Finally, the most important thing is that unlike China, Russia is not involved in the tense territorial dispute with South-East Asian countries which were conducting military exercises with US navy.
On the other hand, to quote The Washington Times, Russian-Chinese naval exercises “could also be seen as a response to United States’ new defense strategy, announced in January.” Just to remind our readers: the new US defense strategy unveiled by the While House early this year is making emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region. What we witness today is the dramatic shift of President Obama’s foreign and defense policy priorities from Iraq and Afghanistan to Asia-Pacific.
It is an open secret that America’s number one rival in the region is China. To put it bluntly, President Obama’s new Asia-Pacific doctrine is the strategy of how to deter China. Ironically, it is through the prism of this rivalry and growing tension between the United States and China that some are trying to look at the Russian-Chinese partnership of which military-technical ties is one of the pillars.
Symbolically enough, US -Philippine naval drills, along with the US-Vietnamese naval exchange, though planned before, coincided with the aggravated territorial dispute between China and the Philippines. It all started early April some 120 miles (200km) from the Philippine coast in a quiet lagoon at Scarborough Shoal.
A Philippines navy surveillance plane spotted eight Chinese fishing vessels. The Philippines side said the Chinese had intruded into their waters. The Philippines’ largest warship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, which was recently acquired from the United States, rushed to the place.
They wanted to arrest the Chinese fishermen, but two Chinese surveillance ships arrived at the sport and blocked the access to the fishing vessels. They were standing face to face – the Filipino and Chinese navies for several days and one single accidental shot could have triggered a military conflict.
It took enormous diplomatic efforts to withdraw the ships and avoid military confrontation. Meanwhile, the conflict is far from over. Both sides claim this is their indisputable territory. China even has its own name for Scarborough, calling it Huanyan Island.
To me the present stand-off was a manifestation of escalating US-Chinese rivalry in a strategically-located region incredibly rich in oil and gas. What added more tension to the situation is that under the framework of the drills American and Filipino troops stormed a South China Sea island in close proximity to Scarborough which could have turned into the scene of a real-life naval battle.
Not surprising that China’s official Liberation Army Daily warned that US-Philippine exercises in disputed waters “could boil over into outright conflict”. The Chinese paper put the blame for the escalating situation at the United States.
US-Chinese new standoff has put Russia in a delicate position. Some would probably like to interpret the current military drills in the Yellow Sea as a sign of Moscow’s unequivocal support of the Chinese stand on the territorial issue in the South China Sea. However, such interpretation is not credible at all. Russia was conducting naval drills with China bearing in mind its own security interests and considerations, nothing else. There were no second thoughts on America and the primary task was to improve the performance of the Russian Navy in the Pacific.
China is Russia’s undisputable close partner. But so are several ASEAN states, Vietnam among them, with which we are involved in multi-million-dollar projects of oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea. So, when today China is quietly trying to tell Russian companies to stay away from the disputed waters, my question is: why should we do this? Let us not mix business and politics.
All in all, we have to agree with the Chinese where we can agree, and disagree where we have different or conflicting interests, be it price for Russian gas or exploration of South China Sea.
This is the same pragmatic stand Moscow adopts in its relations with President Obama.
AUTHOR: Sergey Strokan
Sergey Strokan is a journalist, essayist and a poet. He is also a political commentator with Russia’s “Kommersant” Publishing House. Mr. Strokan hosts “Red Line”, a weekly analytical program broadcast by The Voice of Russia in New York City and a columnist for Russian Today. He is the author of three poetry collections, a winner of the Maximilian Voloshin International Literary Award (2010) and a member of Union of Russian Writers.