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In South China Sea, War Games Set Sail In Troubled Waters

The Russian destroyer Admiral Tributs arrived in China's Guangdong province for eight-day joint military exercises with the Chinese navy in the South China Sea. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
The Russian destroyer Admiral Tributs arrived in China's Guangdong province for eight-day joint military exercises with the Chinese navy in the South China Sea. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The Chinese and Russian navies are conducting military exercises in the South China Sea, which has been the subject of territorial disputes between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with Stephen Nagy of the International Christian University of Tokyo about whether they are risking a provocation.

Interview Highlights: Stephen Nagy

On what the exercises are about

“First of all, it’s important to understand that China doesn’t claim the entire South China Sea. It claims about 90 percent of the territory that is protruding from the sea as well as some different areas that have resources. So that’s important to know.

Second, I think it’s important to know that the drills that’re going on between the Russian and the Chinese coming to different categories. Some are categorized as search and rescue. Some are more controversial in terms of taking on an island that perhaps was captured by another force, another military. And there’s some other coordination that’s going on in terms of building more cohesiveness between their navies.”

On the exercises’s meaning and implications

“I think it’s important to know that the relationship between China and Russia is precarious at best. They’re having a joint military drills right now in the South China Sea between China and Russia. But at the same time, Russia is selling Vietnam — another claimant in the South China Sea — submarines, and those submarines are directly targeting at the Chinese navies and military. So it’s a very complicated relationship.

But the message that Russia is sending to the United States is that they can play a very destructive power working with China to cause problems for American foreign policy and American foreign policy specifically dealing with China and the South China Sea and the East China Sea. For China, on the other hand, it’s important to see that they’re also playing a similar game. They’re saying that, ‘Look, we can work with the Russians.’ And this will complicate the American foreign policy within the region and complicate some of very balanced and very nuanced relationships with different countries, such as the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries within the region.”

On the ramifications of the South China Sea dispute ruling

“In the short term what we’re going to see is putting all these claims under the table trying to de-sensationalize, trying to get it out of the media. What we’re seeing from the American side and the Filipino side is to try and save face and give China some political space so that it can go back to its public and get some support and perhaps calm nationalists’ tensions within the region.

And what we’re going to see in the midterm is that more diplomatic engagement from the United States side and from many players within the region to find some kind of compromise, which will probably be along the lines and terms of joint resource development, avoiding the Senkaku [Islands] issues — the Japanese expression is throwing it down for future generations… And most likely it won’t be future generations. But what current policymakers are thinking is that a confrontational approach with regard to these territory issues are not productive.”

On U.S. bombers flying near North Korea

“It’s an approach to demonstrate that the Unites States not only has the capacity but the will and the determination to stand up to this brinkmanship by North Korea. It’s also a message to say that the Unites States has a significant presence that can apply pressure to countries within the region that can also pressure North Korea to a certain extent.

That being said though, I think this showing off forces [is] somewhat counterproductive for the United States, in that, it heightens the tensions in the North Korean region and heightens that sense that United States is out to get them. It heightens the sense that the United States is in particular is trying to cause the collapse of North Korea, or potentially the North Korean reunification. So from the North Korean standpoint, it only emboldens them to further build their nuclear arsenals and their other missile technologies to prevent the United States from forcefully pushing unification in South Korea’s favor.”


Stephen Nagy, professor of international politics at the International Christian University in Tokyo. He tweets @nagystephen1.

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