On April 14, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave an interview to Chinese, Japanese, and Mongolian media outlets, in which he outlined Russia’s position in the ongoing South China Sea territorial disputes. Lavrov reiterated Moscow’s traditional stance on the issue, expressing support for a diplomatic solution, commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and compliance with the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). He also welcomed an early conclusion of a binding Code of Conduct (COC).
However, quite unusual for a media statement, Sergey Lavrov also touched upon the issue of internationalization of the South China Sea dispute. He said:
Our position is determined by the wish, natural for any normal country, to see disputes resolved directly between the countries involved in a peaceful political and diplomatic manner, without any interference from third parties or any attempts to internationalize these disputes.
Lavrov then went on to criticize attempts to internationalize the issue in international forums like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summits, and the Asia-Europe Meetings and called upon non-claimants to “refrain from taking sides or using these ongoing disputes to get any geopolitical unilateral advantage in the region or to isolate one country or another.”
What happened next is a textbook case of how an old statement can get re-framed and amplified amid heightened international tensions. The Chinese Foreign Ministry reacted by heralding the two countries’ converging position on the South China Sea, a remark that the state-run Xinhua News Agency dubbed “applauding.” Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry also followed suit, with spokesman Le Hai Binh saying that the dispute should be settled by “all countries concerned.”
Many pundits saw this heated exchange as proof that the booming Russia-China partnership may take a toll on Russia’s strong ties with Vietnam. This is something the Vietnamese have been concerned about for some time now. Hanoi fears that Russia’s pivot to Asia is becoming too focused on China and that Beijing may use the growing interdependence between the two countries to cajole Russia into supporting Chinese policies in the South China Sea.
Let us get one thing straight from the start: Russia’s opposition to the internationalization of the South China Sea disputes is not new. This has been a point repeatedly made in bilateral diplomatic exchanges and has been featured in a press statement at least once – in Sergey Lavrov’s interview to Channel News Asia in August 2015.
One explanation for the attention that Lavrov’s interview received is that the South China Sea conflict is once more right in the international media spotlight. We have heard strong statements on the issue from the latest G7 Summit. Also, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague is about to announce a ruling on the Philippines’ case against China’s nine-dash line. Furthermore, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has just visited the Philippines.
All of this combined made for an unfortunate background for the Russian foreign minister’s statement, as it got mixed up in the crossfire in the war of words between China and the rest of the claimants. Bad timing aside, does this mean Russia is siding with China on the South China Sea?
Though both Moscow and Beijing oppose internationalization of the territorial disputes, they are doing so for different reasons. China wants to be the strongest party in the dispute, preferably one-on-one with any other claimant. For Beijing, internationalization also includes legal arbitration and an increase in the all-out China-bashing that the smaller states have purportedly been engaging in with the help of the extra-regional states.
Russia, on the other hand, opposes internationalization because this is quite within the overall philosophy of contemporary Russian foreign policy. Moscow has repeatedly criticized other states, especially the United States, NATO and the EU, for interference in other states’ affairs – in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and elsewhere. Russian policymakers most likely see internationalization as the first step toward interference.
The South China Sea is not a priority for Russian foreign policy. Burdened by economic difficulties at home, continuing engagement in Syria, and conflicting interests with the West, Russia is focusing its renewed attention in Asia on China and does not appear too eager to get involved in the South China Sea territorial dispute. One can argue that Moscow’s main interest here lies in preserving the bilateral relations and walking the line between two of its strategic partners – China and Vietnam.
While Vietnam is certainly upset with the recent remarks from Moscow, especially coming just a month before the 20th Anniversary Russia-ASEAN Summit, Hanoi is unlikely to apply any further pressure. Russia remains Vietnam’s key arms trade partner, providing the very weapon systems that are raising the costs for a hypothetical Chinese attack.
Moreover, the South China Sea is a complex and multifaceted issue and internationalization is far from being the only and most important thing. Sovereignty, factual control, militarization, reclamation, freedom of navigation, and resource management are all issues that Russia does not take a stand on. Abstaining from these issues allows Moscow to keep away from a dispute that has the potential to escalate rapidly in the future.