Russian President Vladimir Putin and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte meet on the sidelines of the APEC summit last year. Photo: Sputnik / Mikhail Klimentyev via Reuters

During recent top-level meetings at the Kremlin, Russia’s authorities have appeared keen, on the face of things, to continue balancing ties with China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). However, Moscow’s “strategic partnership” with Beijing remains the priority.

Following the Kremlin meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping on July 4, both sides pledged to cooperate with ASEAN to improve regional security and prioritize peaceful resolution of regional disputes. In their joint statement, both leaders also indicated plans to expand dialogue with ASEAN partners. The South China Sea dispute was not mentioned at all.

In contrast, after a meeting in Moscow between Putin and his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Dai Quang, on June 29, both sides stated that the South China Sea dispute must be resolved on the basis of the international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea. However, ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all disagree with its claims, citing UNCLOS. Beijing ratified the convention in 1996; however, it refused to participate in the arbitration case initiated by the Philippines in 2014.

In the context of Moscow’s “strategic partnership” with Beijing, Russia’s discussions of the South China Sea with ASEAN member states citing the Law of the Sea treaty do feel somewhat awkward.

Russia apparently also remains keen to develop naval cooperation with China. On June 30, Russia’s Ambassador to China, Andrei Denisov, said joint Russian-Chinese naval drills in the Baltic Sea would “inject novelty into bilateral military cooperation.” Naval cooperation between the countries has reached “an advanced stage” following similar drills in the South China Sea, the Pacific Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, Denisov was quoted as saying by the official TASS news agency.

In the context of Moscow’s “strategic partnership” with Beijing, Russia’s discussions of the South China Sea with ASEAN member states citing the Law of the Sea treaty do feel somewhat awkward

Last September, the Kremlin sided, to all intents and purposes, with Beijing, when Russian and Chinese naval forces held their first-ever joint military drill in the South China Sea, the countries’ single largest joint maritime military exercise ever. It was not held not in a contested part of the South China Sea, but the symbolism still mattered. Russia was clearly backing China’s claims to the region’s disputed islands there, regardless of possible repercussions on relations with ASEAN nations.

Nevertheless, Moscow has still sought to balance its ties with China and ASEAN. This year, Russia has started implementing a five-year plan to forge stronger ties with the 10-country ASEAN bloc.

In May, by welcoming Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the Kremlin aimed to demonstrate adherence to earlier pledges to expand partnerships with ASEAN member states. It should be noted, however, that talks between Russian and Philippine leaders entailed no breakthroughs in bilateral ties.

Ahead of the trip, Duterte had said the Philippines was interested in purchasing Russian military aircraft, and other types of modern weaponry. During his May 23 meeting with Putin, he reportedly sought Russian loans to buy modern arms. However, no arms deals between Russia and the Philippines were subsequently announced. Both sides also refrained from making statements on the South China Sea.

Moscow’s caution with regard to ASEAN member states would appear to indicate a certain reluctance to be dragged into ongoing disputes in the South China Sea. The “strategic partnership” with Beijing remains the Kremlin’s foreign policy priority, in which context its policy of balancing ties with China and ASEAN has its limits.

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