Russia-China Exercise This Year Likely To Raise Tensions In The South China Sea?

Another Russia-China exercise is in the offing, a show of joint naval powers over the contested waters of the South China Sea in September this year.

Codenamed by Chinese military officials as “Joint Sea-2016,” this year’s Russia-China exercise has been made public via Xinhua, a state-controlled news agency in mainland China.

Quoted by Xinhua was Chinese defense ministry spokesman Yang Yujun, who held a regular monthly press conference Thursday in Beijing.

“The drill will consolidate and develop the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination, deepen pragmatic and friendly cooperation between the two militaries, and enhance the capabilities of the two navies to jointly deal with maritime security threats.”

Russia and China have been noted for holding joint military exercises before, the most recent of which was in the Sea of Japan last year, which, as expected, had proved to have irked Japan, the United States, and their allies.

Russia-China exercise
Vietnamese nationals mount a protest rally against China's territorial claims in the Spratlys group of islands in the South China Sea on July 12, 2016 in Manila, Philippines (Photo by Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images)

The announcement about the upcoming Russia-China exercise came two weeks after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines, who filed a case against China in 2013 to question the communist state’s agressive takeover of some of the disputed territories in the South China Sea.

Chinese officials rejected the ruling, just as it consistently ignored the case when it was still being heard in the court.

Not a participant in the disputes, Russia has reiterated that it will maintain its neutral stance on the ruling, according to The Moscow Times.

“We consider that attempts by non-regional powers to interfere in territorial disputes in the South China Sea are unproductive,” said Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, as quoted by The Moscow Times.

Russia-China exercise
Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, walks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Saturday, June 25, 2016. (Photo by Mark Schiefelbein/AP Images)

As Shannon Tiezzi said in The Diplomat, Russia’s preference to remain neutral on the South China Sea issue has irritated China, noting that the Russia-China exercise is also a bit more awkward for Moscow, given its “close defense ties to Hanoi, which [along with the Philippines] is another of China’s rival claimants in the South China Sea.”

“Russia is currently in the process of delivering two frigates and six submarines to Vietnam – which will undoubtedly be used in part to patrol Vietnam’s claimed territory in the South China Sea,” said Tiezzi who was an associate at the U.S.-China Policy Foundation where she hosted the weekly TV show China Forum.

While the United States has been known for insisting the principle of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as a gesture of support for its allies in the region, White House spokesman Josh Earnest betrays a rather toned down response to this year’s Russia-China exercise in the South China Sea. He maintained however that it still remains “a sensitive diplomatic topic right now,” Reuters reported.

“I don’t know what exercises they are planning, but in the same way the United States and China have a military-to-military relationship, I’m not surprised that Russia and China are seeking to build upon their military-to-military relationship as well.”

Recalling China’s recent participation in the U.S.-led multinational naval exercises in the Pacific, Earnest dismissed the fears that this year’s Russia-China drill will likely impact the U.S. naval operations in the South China Sea.

“We’re not concerned about the safety of U.S. vessels in the region as long as interactions with the Chinese remain safe and professional, which has been the case in most cases,” the White House spokesman added, as reported by Reuters.

Claiming their respective territories in the mineral rich South China Sea are Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, China, and Vietnam, all of whom must have been deeply concerned with this year’s Russia-China naval exercise.

Reportedly passing through the troubled waters are more than $5 trillion worth of trade each year.

[Photo by Ritchie B. Tongo/AP Images]