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  • Writer's pictureOlga Krasnyak

Russia in the South China Sea

Why science diplomacy is the key to the region’s future

The South China Sea issue does not receive a lot of attention in Russian public discourse. However, downplaying Russia’s potential interest in Asia and the Pacific would be shortsighted, not only for China, but for other regional powers like Australia.

Despite Russia’s distance from the hot-spot, there are opportunities for the country to use a science diplomacy approach in the South China Sea to strengthen its geopolitical stance.

Historically, Russia’s naval capacity and interests spread to the Black and Baltic Seas in its West, and towards the Arctic in the North Pacific in its North and East. This area has been important to Russia for centuries and remains one of its core strategic interests.

The South China Sea, naturally, has never been the focus of Russia’s international affairs, largely due to its remote location, the absence of vital economic interests, and the historical presence of other regional powers like China and ASEAN countries who have a long history in the disputed waters.

The official position declared by Russia’s Foreign Ministry on the South China Sea disputes is to preserve the principles of international law and theUN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Clearly, Moscow believes that a diplomatic approach is the only way to peacefully resolve conflicts in the South China Sea.

This at first glance may look logical and understandable – it is the strict perseverance of international law after all – but on further examination reveals more complex intentions. For a start, it gives other powers space to manoeuvre, by creating a vacuum where Russian influence might have been placed if the country chose to intervene.

Indeed, for Russia the contested waters of South China Sea might well provide opportunities. For a start, Russia is in a strategic partnership with China. For instance, both countries, along with Iran, conducted joint naval drills in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman in December 2019. Russia is also steadily increasing its presence in the area as part of its energy strategy policy, which has a focus on the Asia-Pacific market. As such, picking sides is not an option.

Still, Russia is confidently pushing into a new era of influence, and may be compelled to have a presence in what is sure to remain a hot-bed of geopolitically important jostling. If Russia decides to act now, one approach it could use to manage its presence in South China Sea might be science diplomacy.

Science diplomacy is an effective foreign policy tool that harnesses international scientific collaboration to address environmental issues to promote national interests. But how can Russia attempt science diplomacy in the South China Sea?

Consider Russia’s Arctic policy. Russia has great experience in this area, and it has a seat in the Arctic Council, an inter-governmental forum practically entirely based on science diplomacy. The Arctic and the South China Sea are comparable in a few ways.

Both present opportunities for stimulating international scientific cooperation. Bearing in mind China’s involvementin some scientific projects in the Arctic, Russia could position itself as a mediator and facilitator in introducing and leading joint scientific projects between China and ASEAN countries in the South China Sea.

As an example, the waters of the South China Sea are the busiest waters in the world and face serious logistical challenges Russia could help to solve. This could open up economic opportunities for neighbouring states, including China.

This has benefits for Russia too.

By following international law and bringing in scientific expertise, it might be able to gain leverage when pursuing bargains with China and the United States to settle disputes, both in the Arctic and in the South China Sea.

Finally, Russia could gain a foothold in the region by promoting environmental and ecological action. Like in the South China Sea, the Arctic waters are a space for international action that increases risks of environmental and ecological problems, giving Russia much experience in the area.

In the same way, with ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, environmental issues such as damage to coral reefs don’t seem to be a priority for regional powers, and Russia’s experience dealing with environmental protection and ecological problems could help.

Similar to the maritime states of the South China Sea, Arctic Council member states often have ongoing political controversies, so this need not be a significant hurdle. For instance, relations between the United States and Russia constantly need improvement, and cooperation in the Arctic has become a space where scientific collaboration prevails over hostile geopolitical competition between them.

Of course, the geography and regional differences between the South China Sea and the Arctic are significant, but constructive and civilised mechanisms of science diplomacy should not be overlooked in either case, and Russia may see this too.

Sceptics might doubt Russia’s real intentions in either region, but hardly anyone could argue that promoting national interest through scientific collaboration should be condemned, especially when it promotes the common good.

Finally, if Russia is able to eventually facilitate peaceful processes and international scientific collaboration to address environmental and ecological issues in the South China Sea, then in the process of making scientific and diplomatic progress it might be able to set a positive example for other powers and build a norm that would benefit the whole Indo-Pacific region.

As published at APPS Policy Forum of the Australian National University on 18 September 2020.

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