Illustration: Liu Rui
It's not new for Russia to jointly explore oil and gas resources in the South China Sea region with Vietnam, but in the context of increasingly complicated disputes over the South China Sea, Russia's intentions and exploration activities deserve attention. China must clarify Russia's strategic intentions in the South China Sea: In fact, over the past decades, Russia's attention has never moved away from the region and it has a vested interest in the area.
Vietnam was an ally of the former Soviet Union. Russia's interests in the South China Sea region are mostly related to Vietnam. When Russian leader Vladimir Putin met Vietnamese Premier Nguyen Tan Dung at the end of 2009, he stressed that the bilateral relations between Russia and Vietnam have special strategic significance.
The Cam Ranh Bay was one of the forward bases of the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. There were over 10,000 soldiers and their family members stationed in Cam Ranh Bay at the closest relations between the two.
Military expansion was followed by economic interests. In the early 1980s, Vietsovpetro, a joint venture company of the former Soviet Union and Vietnam, began oil exploration in the continental shelf of Vietnam. To some degree, the oil and gas industry of Vietnam grew under the support of the former Soviet Union. In 2010, Bui Dinh Dinh, the then Vietnamese ambassador to Russia, praised oil exploration between Russia and Vietnam as the most effective and promising field of cooperation.
As Vietnam is introducing more foreign investment into the oil and gas industry, more Russian enterprises have engaged in oil exploration with Vietnam. Besides cooperation over oil, the Russian government provided a loan of $8 billion with the construction of Vietnam's first nuclear power station. Meanwhile, Russia is one of the biggest weapon exporters to Vietnam.
In recent years, Vietnam has purchased lots of advanced weapons from Russia and has replaced China as the second largest arms importer from Russia. However, the trade volume between the two was only $2.45 billion in 2011. All the cooperation, no matter in oil exploration, nuclear power station construction or arms imports, goes beyond economic interests and is chiefly related to political and security concerns. That's the main considerations of Russia when developing the strategic relationship with Vietnam.
The importance of the South China Sea depends not only on the abundant resources but also its strategic significance, where the Russia strategic foresight lies. With the economic recovering and military reform advancing, Russia has begun to move eastward and it certainly won't neglect the south. Vietnam is definitely the springboard. Russian presidential aide Sergei Prikhodko once said it wasn't necessary for Russia to restore the military base at Cam Ranh Bay, but it was logical to use the infrastructure and facilities there.
In essence, Russia, standing behind Vietnam, is not that different from the US, which is coveting the South China Sea behind the Philippines. But Russia doesn't have as strong overseas military power as before and has many common interests with China, so it could not be so hasty over the South China Sea issue.
Russians can confidently claim that their oil exploration with Vietnam is not involved within the controversial area between China and Vietnam. However, the more interests Russia has in the South China Sea, and the bigger the joint programs, the higher the possibility that these activities could dampen China's interests. It's normal in international politics for interests to drive countries into irrationality.
China must improve its own strength and seek as many common interests as possible with Russia. National strength is the premise and assurance for a mutually respectful relationship, and with the constraint of common interests, Russia could be cautious in any decisions related to China.
The author is a researcher at China Center for Industrial Security Center. firstname.lastname@example.org
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