Russia to Join U.S.-China South China Sea Faceoff After Vietnam Pact

Russia has agreed to a new military cooperation roadmap with Vietnam, which could bring Moscow into the ongoing power struggle between the China and the U.S. in the South China Sea.

The deal was signed by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Vietnamese counterpart General Ngo Xuan Lich in Moscow on Wednesday, Russian news agency TASS reported.

The agreement—signed on the sidelines of the seventh Moscow Conference on International Security—set out the details of military cooperation between the two countries from 2018 until 2020. Gen. Ngo told Shoigu he was pleased that Russia and Vietnam were taking steps to increase their military and naval coordination.

As part of the agreement, Russia will deploy a rescue boat from its Pacific fleet to Vietnam, which will take part in search and rescue operations in the region. Moscow will also send a delegation to Vietnam to continue work on a draft deal on search and rescue operations for disabled submarines.

Sergey Shoygu and Ngo Xuan Lich Russia Vietnam
Russia's Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu (R) and his Vietnamese counterpart Ngo Xuan Lich review an honor guard during a welcome ceremony in Hanoi on January 23, 2018. HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images

Though Moscow and Hanoi have a defense relationship dating back to the Vietnam War, Russia is now promoting a stronger and public presence. The Russian and Vietnamese navies are an important element of this relationship. In February, two Russian-built Gepard-class frigates entered service in Vietnam's navy, joining two others that had been delivered in 2011 as part of a $350 million contract.

The two countries have agreed to conduct joint military training and Gen. Ngo said 176 Vietnamese soldiers would travel to Russia for instruction. At the end of January, it was announced that the Russian and Vietnamese militaries were drawing up plans for joint military drills to be held over the next three years.

In March, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russian-Vietnamese military alignment was working towards "an architecture of cooperation that would ensure sustainable development and meet interests of security" in Asia.

The diplomatic offensive is party of a wider Russian effort in southeast Asia, where Moscow is also pursuing closer relations with Vietnam's western neighbour Laos. In January, Shoigu visited the landlocked country to build on an increasingly close military relationship. After the visit, Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith said virtually "everything the Laotian Armed Forces now have is linked with Russia."

Russia clearly considers southeast Asia a fertile ground for closer diplomatic ties and arms sales. With Vietnam and Laos, Moscow also seems to be cultivating ties to fellow authoritarian governments.

Sergei Lavrov with Tran Dai Quang Russia Vietnam
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) shakes hands with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang (R) at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on March 23, 2018. Lavrov has said that closer ties between the two countries will improve the security of the entire region. MINH HOANG/AFP/Getty Images

Closer relations between Moscow and Hanoi could give Russia direct access to the hotly contested South China Sea. In April 2017, three ships from the Russian Pacific Fleet conducted a five-day visit to the Vietnamese port of Cam Ranh. As military cooperation grows, such visits are likely to become more regular.

Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan all have territorial claims on the South China Sea's rich fishing grounds, vital sea routes and potential natural resources. China has come under fire for creating artificial islands to enforce its claims, and the U.S. has conducted several "freedom of navigation" operations nearby to re-assert its authority.

China is investing heavily in modernizing its naval and air forces to challenge U.S. influence and enforce its regional policy. Russia now looks to be throwing its significant influence into play, though whether it will pick sides or strike out alone remains to be seen. China and Russia have previously held joint drills in the South China Sea, showing that the two navies can work together.

Chinese and Russian warships conduct drills
A fleet of ships sail out at sea as China and Russia's naval joint drill concludes in Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province, China, September 19, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

There is a chance that Russia will be caught between Chinese and its own interests in the South China Sea, but for now Beijing and Moscow are getting on well. On Tuesday, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Feng said he was attending the Moscow conference "to show Americans the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia… We've come to support you."

Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese premier Xi Jinping have consolidated their domestic power in recent months. The two authoritarian governments reject democratic western liberalism and see each other as useful counterweights to America's superpower clout, not to mention its network of western and NATO allies.

Thanks to the efforts of Xi and Putin, Shoigu said, relations between Russia and China are reaching "unprecedentedly high" levels. In November 2011, President Barack Obama said he had taken a "deliberate and strategic decision" that the U.S. "will play a larger and long-term role in shaping [the Asia-Pacific] region and its future."

With Chinese soft and hard power growing ever-stronger and Russian influence spreading, the future shape of Asia Pacific will not be decided by the U.S. alone.