Recently, Russia and China announced that they will be holding joint military drills in the South China Sea in September. The announcement comes in the wake of the recent unfavorable Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling against China. While, from the Chinese perspective, the move may be an attempt to show that it is not totally isolated on the issue, Russia’s involvement has the potential to impact Japan’s security calculus as well.
Regarding the South China Sea disputes, a prime argument of China has been that the issues should be limited to only those parties directly involved. Because of this, China has been particularly hostile to the U.S. on the matter, specifically with respect to its “freedom of navigation” maneuvers (FONOPS).
Technically, Russia has not communicated a clear viewpoint with respect to the various conflicts in the region. Because of this, China might escape the charge of hypocrisy in inviting Russia for joint military drills in the area. This stands in contrast to the U.S., which has communicated its viewpoint focused on the maintenance of rule-of-law, while stating a preference for joint military drills with its own partners in the region.
However, this Sino-Russian drill will do absolutely nothing to diffuse tensions in the area. While Russia has held these drills before in conjunction with China’s North and East Sea fleets, this will mark its debut with China’s South Sea fleet. Russia is also put into a difficult position itself because of its relationship with Vietnam, an adversary of China in the South China Sea disputes. Nonetheless, Chinese messaging is more political, than military.
It is most likely a direct response to U.S. involvement in the area, capitalizing on poor U.S.-Russia relations. Additionally, it can be seen as China’s answer to some European countries’ proposal, most notably France, to become more militarily involved in the region. This idea was espoused at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
As has been mentioned many times before, the alliance system has been identified as one of the primary catalysts of World War I, “The Great War”. Even though China and Russia are not technically allies, the two states have clearly drawn closer together in their pursuit of a truly multi-polar world order. This will correspondingly increase pressure on the U.S. to draw in more of its regional allies, like the Philippines to support its own vision of world order.
Japan, by no means an idle observer to this growing standoff, has some of the largest stakes in the game. It is the U.S.’ primary ally in the region and its importance has only grown concordantly with the U.S.’ “pivot”. Because of this, it has already faced pressure from the U.S. to perform more joint military operations in the South China Sea.
The situation is both highly fluid and dangerous. At one point, no joint U.S.-Japan drills in the area had been announced. Literally a week later, some in the Japanese government stated that joint drills with the U.S. could commence if hostilities in the South China Sea reached critical mass.
Japan, like all modern states, has to maintain a complex equilibrium in its foreign policy stance. Not only must it balance between military security and economic security, it must also be careful not to rule out possible cooperation with other states in its bid to better balance China.
Russia is key to these efforts and its inclusion in the South China Sea drills has made Japanese balancing even more difficult. Most likely, China knows this and is sending a message to Japan that its involvement in the South China Sea may jeopardize its efforts to enlist Russia to help it contain China. In summary, Japan’s desire to become a more “normal” power through South China Sea proclamations has just become more complicated thanks to Russia.