By Sadhavi Chauhan
In the background of America’s much-discussed pivot to Asia, there have been talks about a Russian “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific. Crucial developments occurred last month, which highlight the accentuating pace of Russia’s greater involvement in Asia. Surprise drills in Russia’s Far East immediately followed Joint Sea 2013, Russia’s largest naval drill with China till date. The simultaneous occurrence of both these events are perplexing; while the former is seen as a sign of Moscow’s increasing closeness to Beijing, the surprise drill are believed to denote the contrary.1 These seemingly vague policies of Russia in the region make it important to identify Russia’s maritime interests in the region. In this context, an analysis of recent trends in Russia’s maritime cooperation with Vietnam, one of its oldest allies in the Asia-Pacific and a former host to one of its few naval bases abroad, suggests Moscow’s growing southward drive.
Russian Defence Minister General Sergei Shoigu’s visit to Hanoi in April this year proved crucial for Russo-Vietnamese maritime ties. Both sides formally agreed to Russian help in revamping Vietnam’s centrally situated Cam Ranh port. Although Vietnam’s Minister of Defense Phung Quang Thanh tried to underplay Moscow’s involvement by stating, “it is a normal issue. Other countries [also] want to cooperate with the Vietnamese Navy”, the strategic and military importance of the port for Russia cannot be overlooked.
Located near key shipping lanes in the South China Sea, and close to the oil-rich Truong Sa (Spratly) and Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelagos, the Cam Ranh Bay is of immense strategic importance. Historically, the port’s strategic relevance can be gauged by the fact that several countries including Japan, France, the US, and the former Soviet Union have had bases here. Russia’s renewed interest in the strategically important Bay is a significant element in an array of events that reinvigorates its maritime relations with Vietnam.
Demonstrating the strategic importance of Vietnam for Moscow, Russia’s former Chief of Navy General Staff, Admiral Viktor Kravchenkoonce said, “if Russia still considers itself a maritime power, restoring bases like the Cam Rahn one is inevitable.” Along with an agreement for the use of Russian personnel and support ships for the upgradation of naval facilities at Cam Ranh, leaders of the two countries have also decided to set up a commercial repair facility at the port. According to official statements, the Vietnamese Navy-owned Tan Cang Company will build the commercial repair facility. Russia’s involvement in this project will include Vietsovpetro, a joint venture between Russia’s Zarubezhneft Company and PetroVietnam, which will take a stake in the project. Although the facilities would mainly serve Vietnam’s own navy, officials in Hanoi are hoping that services provided to foreign navies could help offset operating costs.
While these developments are important, it was Russia’s conclusion of an agreement to supply Vietnam with six Kilo-class diesel submarines last year that marked a watershed moment in Russo-Vietnamese naval cooperation. Worth $3.2 billion, this is the largest deal in Russia’s history of defence exports. What makes it all the more crucial is that it comes in the wake of Vietnam’s ongoing territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea2- one of the major Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) in the Asia Pacific.
This defence deal has its impact on the South China Sea dispute. It has been observed that “quantitatively the Kilo Submarines cannot keep pace with China’s growing naval might due to the latter’s economic preponderance…. qualitatively, Vietnam’s new undersea capability provides a credible asymmetric counter-poise to China’s growing naval might in the South China Sea.”3 Notably, the Chinese have operated the Kilos class submarines since the 1990s, and therefore Vietnam’s possession of these does not pose a major threat to them. However, this fact cannot undermine the concerns being generated in China’s naval planners who in the past did not have to consider a Vietnamese undersea capability.
Understandably, Vietnam looks favourably at its military ties with Russia and is in favour of further increasing naval cooperation. Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh has been cited saying: “We will buy more weapons, mostly from Russia. Politically, Russia is a reliable partner. Technologically, Russian weapons are modern and we have got used to using them. Russia remains one of the world’s major weapons exporters. Moreover, they have cheaper prices than Western countries.”4
Beijing is uncomfortable by the nature of Moscow’s involvement in Hanoi. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin has said, “China hopes [that] companies from countries outside the South China Sea region would respect and support negotiation efforts made by parties directly involved, and that they could avoid taking actions interfering with these efforts.”
Russia on its part has been very careful of not antagonising China, which has emerged as Moscow’s second largest trading partner in the Asia-Pacific. In 2011, their total trade turnover summed up to US$ 83.5 billion. Additionally, with a constantly rising energy demand, China has emerged as a lucrative market for Russia’s energy exports. China’s National Petroleum Corporation has signed a deal to import at least 743,000 barrels of crude oil a day from state-run Rosneft by 2018.
Evidently, China has become extremely crucial for Russia’s economic integration with the region. Simultaneously, however, Vietnam too is emerging as an important economic partner of Russia in the Asia-Pacific. In 2012, Russia was ranked 18th among 101 countries and territories investing in Vietnam, with a combined registered capital of more than US$ 2 billion in 93 projects. Supplementing these bilateral economic ties, FTA negotiation between Vietnam and Customs Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan were launched in March this year.4
Officials in Moscow have chosen to justify Russia’s maritime cooperation with Vietnam on the basis of its support for the principle of freedom of navigation, provided for by article 87(1) a of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Russia’s Defence Minister General Sergei Shoigu during his visit to Vietnam explained Moscow’s position: “but Russia, like other maritime powers, has a stake in freedom of navigation. Russia will react to any challenge to this freedom in the same way that the United States, Japan, and India have done by asserting Russian rights under international law.”
Despite such official explanations and statements establishing Moscow’s intentions to stay out of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the nature of its involvement, particularly its maritime cooperation with Vietnam, suggests otherwise. Russia’s pivot towards the Asia-Pacific is guided as much by its desire to economically integrate with the world’s economic powerhouse as also to find new allies in a region that is seeing rising geopolitical contestations.
1. Alexander Khramchikhin, described by the BBC as an independent Moscow-based military analyst, told the UK broadcaster “the land part of the exercise is directed at China, while the sea and island part of it is aimed at Japan”, cited in Zachary Keck, “Russia Holds Massive Military Drill Aimed at China, Japan”, The Diplomat, 17 July, 2013. Available at http://thediplomat.com/flashpoints-blog/2013/07/17/russia-holds-massive-military-drill-aimed-at-china-japan/
2. China and Vietnam hold contesting sovereign claims over the Paracels and the Spratlys Islands in the South China Sea, and the historical claims made by both the countries to establish their sovereignty over the Islands is making the dispute intractable.
3. KohSwee Lean Collin, “Vietnam’s New Kilo-class Submarines: Game-changer in Regional Naval Balance?”, RSIS Commentaries, 28 August, 2012. Accessible at http://dr.ntu.edu.sg/bitstream/handle/10220/8900/RSIS1622012.pdf?sequence=1
4. See “Shipyard will not put military secrets at risk”, Thanhnien, Accessible at: http://www.thanhniennews.com/2010/pages/20101105222629.aspx
5. It is expected that the FTA between Vietnam and the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan will help increase bilateral trade turnover to US$ 10 billion before 2020. See “Vietnam, Customs Union kick off FTA talks”, Vietnam Plus, 28 March 2013. Accessible at http://en.vietnamplus.vn/Home/Vietnam-Customs-Union-kick-off-FTA-talks/20133/32917.vnplus
(Sadhavi Chauhan is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)