Russia’s policies regarding the South China Sea (SCS) dispute are more complex than they might seem. Moscow’s official position presents Russia as an extra-regional actor with no stakes in the dispute. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Russia “had never been a participant of the South China Sea disputes” and considers it “a matter of principle not to side with any party.” However, behind the façade of formal disengagement are Russia’s military build-up in the Asia-Pacific region, and the multi-billion dollar arms and energy deals with the rival claimants. These factors reveal that even though Moscow may not have direct territorial claims in the SCS, it has strategic goals, interests, and actions that have direct bearing on how the SCS dispute evolves.
One-fourth of Russia’s massive military modernization program through 2020 is designated for the Pacific Fleet, headquartered in Vladivostok, to make it better equipped for extended operations in distant seas. Russia’s military cooperation with China has progressed to the point that President Putin called China Russia’s “natural partner and natural ally.” The two countries’ most recent joint naval exercise – “Joint Sea 2016” – took place in the SCS, and became the first exercise of its kind involving China and a second country in the disputed SCS after the Hague-based tribunal ruling on China’s “nine-dash line” territorial claims. However, Russia’s relations with Vietnam are displaying a similar upward trend: Russia-Vietnam relations have been upgraded to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” comparable to the Russia-China relationship. Russia and Vietnam are developing joint gas projects in the SCS, and Moscow also is trying to return to the Cam Ranh naval base and selling Hanoi advanced weapon systems that enhance Vietnam’s defense capabilities.