March 5, 2016 – The US-Chinese standoff in the South China Sea is heating up, with Washington dispatching a small armada to the area following reports that Beijing had reinforced a key island with fighters and air defenses. Much has been said and written about the dispute, with Russian analysts left pondering: if push comes to shove, what will Russia’s role be?
On Thursday, the Navy Times reported that the US had dispatched an aircraft carrier, the USS John C. Stennis, two destroyers and two cruisers from the US’s 7th Fleet to the South China Sea, ostensibly in response to reports that China had sent fighter jets to Woody Island, the largest of the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
China’s response did not take long in coming. On Friday, Fu Ying, spokeswoman for the National People’s Congress (China’s legislature), commented by suggesting that this US “show of force” “arouses a feeling of disgust among the Chinese people,” adding that Washington’s “actions seem to be aimed at agitating tensions.”
The territorial dispute surrounding islands in the South China Sea has gone on for decades, and includes the Paracels, the Spratlys, and Scarborough Shoal. The groups of islands are contested by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. The US, for its part, cannot directly contest China’s claims with sovereignty counterclaims, but has involved itself in the dispute under the guise of protecting its allies.
Last month, the United States accused China of militarizing the South China Sea by placing anti-aircraft missile systems, advanced radar and jet fighters on Woody Island, thereby ostensibly expanding Beijing’s control of sea territories through which nearly a third of global trade passes. With Washington suggesting that the move would “raise further tensions in the region,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded by stressing that Beijing has every right to maintain defensive military systems within its own territory.
Commenting on the ongoing dispute in an article for independent Russian newspaper Svobodnaya Pressa, columnist Andrei Ivanov suggested that amid the rising tensions between Washington and Beijing, one thing is obvious:
“That the dispute between the two great powers is not just over the islands. China is fighting for global leadership, something which the US will not let go of so easily. After all, so long as Washington is recognized as the world’s hegemonic power, US debt obligations can be exchanged for the fruits of the labor of countries all across the world.”
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At the conference, Fu emphasized that “Chinese-Russian relations are at their best stage in history,” adding that their further “development will be sound as they meet our mutual interests.” Beijing and Moscow, she noted, do not have any serious disputes between them, “do not exert pressure on each other,” and “can fully concentrate on discussing cooperation, as well as the exchange of ideas.”
Asked to comment on the situation in the South China Sea, Mikhail Alexandrov, the head expert at the Center for Military and Political Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, told Svobodnaya Pressa that the processes taking place in the region are taking place according to the laws of geopolitics.
“A reconfiguration of forces is taking place around the world. The strength of power centers independent from the West, among them Russia, China, India, Iran and Brazil, is growing. And the United States can no longer control the entire planet. Once they get involved in some kind of confrontation with any one power center, the others take the opportunity to spread their influence.”
Subsequently, the analyst noted, “the Chinese took full advantage of the conflict between Russia and the West. American resources were diverted to the European direction, and to Syria, Turkey and Ukraine. There was even talk of the possibility of war in Europe. The Americans escalated the situation around the Baltic. [Subsequently] they overlooked the fact that China might be strengthened as a result.”
From the strategic point of view, Alexandrov noted, China’s moves “are absolutely correct. Beijing saw that US resources were concentrated elsewhere, and placed aircraft and air defense systems in the South China Sea. The US realized this, too late, and now attempting to remedy the situation will be difficult.”
“What can the US do? Provoke a confrontation? Any collision with the Chinese would not be a cakewalk for the Americans. China now has enough strength to repel the attack of two or three [carrier-based US] aviation groups. Moscow could give the Chinese sea-based cruise missiles. So a US victory in a sea battle cannot be assured. And if the Americans lose, or even tie, US hegemony around the world would collapse like a house of cards. Therefore, Washington is taking a serious risk, and they know it.”
China, in the analyst’s words, has yet to achieve military parity with the Western alliance, “but as far as a naval battle on its shores goes, China can win. Moreover, the Chinese military has been equipped with new submarines, new aircraft, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles to attack carrier groups. In other words, China is well armed for this kind of battle.”
Asked what role, if any, Moscow might play in the ongoing US-Chinese drama, the analyst emphasized that China is already receiving Russian support. “Russia is the only country selling modern weapons technology to the Chinese. Were it not for Russian assistance, China would be lagging significantly behind the West’s aircraft and cruise missiles.”
Furthermore, “Russia and China have a treaty of friendship and cooperation, in which there is an article on consultations in the case of a threat to one country. And in the case of conflict with the United States, Russia may provide assistance to China; the treaty allows for such an eventuality.”