Is Russia on Vietnam’s side in the incident at Vanguard Bank?

vietnam-south-china-sea-vanguard-bank-map-wikimedia-commons-e1565076209217Researchers have questioned whether Russia sides with Vietnam in the Chinese incursions at Vanguard Bank. The question arises as the Putin administration has not publicly spoken about the incident though China's acts in Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and continental shelf take place since the beginning of July 2019 threatening the safety of oil and gas cooperation project between Vietnam and Russian Rosneft Company in Block 06-1 in Vietnam’s continental shelf.

First and foremost, Russia and Vietnam has a long history of oil and gas cooperation. The former Soviet Union cooperated with Vietnam to set up Vietsopetro Joint Venture to conduct oil and gas exploitation in the continental shelf of Vietnam since the early 80s of the 20th century, which was a success (in 1981, Vietsopetro Joint Venture enterprise began operating in oil fields marked by the Americans in 1974). After the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90s of the previous century, Russia took over oil and gas cooperative projects between Vietnam and the former Soviet Union. Major Russian oil and gas corporations continued to expand cooperation with Vietnam. Vietsopetro Joint Venture makes obtained huge achievements in oil and gas exploitation in Vietnam and encourages the largest Russian oil and gas companies to invest in Vietnam such as Gazprom, Zarubezneft and Rosneft.

Russia's longstanding and consistent policy is to   respect the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea , to which it is a party. Russia is always keen on encouraging and supporting Russian enterprises to start oil and gas cooperation projects with Vietnam in the latter's exclusive economic zone and continental shelf in accordance with the provisions of the 1982United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In the past few years, the relationship between Russia and China grows strongly as both are under huge pressure from the United States. As such,   it is understandable that Russia does not publicly criticize China’s incursions and violation of Vietnam’s waters and disruption of oil and gas activities between Vietnam and Rosneft. However, it can be seen that Russia's stance on oil and gas cooperation with Vietnam remains unchanged. Rosneft's persistence in doing oil and gas cooperation with Vietnam in Block 06-1 despite intimidation from Chinese coast guard ships shows that it must have support from the Putin administration.

Strategically speaking, Russia has a great interest in upholding international-law-based order in the South China Sea, and major economic benefits in oil and gas cooperation with coastal countries in the South China Sea in general and with Vietnam in particular. It is these projects with Vietnam that help Russia strengthen its position in the South China Sea, especially when it is encountering difficulties in its relations with the US and the West. Russia's closer ties with China recently are just a tactical response to the economic challenges it is facing. China itself is a potential opponent of Russia in the region. Many difficulties and conflicts still exist between the two, including Russia’s Siberia issue which China always keeps an eye on.

Historically, the former Soviet Union (present Russia) once opposed, even fought a border war with China. This is a lesson that Russia cannot forget while developing relationship with China. On the other hand, a strong development of Russia-China economic-trade relations is also presenting many social and economic challenges to Russia.

The Russian administration has not raised its concern openly about China’s incursions at Vanguard Bank does not mean that Russia changed its stance on the South China Sea. Russia chooses to persistently undertake cooperation activities in reality while letting righteous Russian scholars and researchers voice their opinions.

Marina Trigubenko - a top expert of the Russian Strategic Center in Asia, Institute of Economics, and Russian Academy of Sciences strongly criticized China’s behavior. She argued that China violated Vietnam's sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction, going against the 1982 UN Convention on theLaw of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982) and Declaration on the Conduct of parties in the South China Sea (DOC); China's escalating actions seriously threatened the maintenance of peace, security and freedom of navigation in the region, obstructing Vietnam's long-standing oil and gas exploitation activities, including a number of Russia-Vietnam joint ventures.

In her words , in July 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his gratitude (shown in a Presidential decision) to Hoang Vu Nam - Director of Rosneft Vietnam, a subsidiary of Rosneft Russia, one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world, for the contribution in the endeavor to develop cooperation in the fuel-energy industry with Russia. This can be considered as a strong support of the Russian administration to the oil and gas cooperation in Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

Trigubenko also said that the activities of the Chinese coastguard vessel group increased tension in the South China Sea, violated Vietnam's sovereignty and jurisdiction, contradicting the principles of UNCLOS 1982; the oil and gas exploitation activities of Russia-Vietnam joint ventures in Vietnamese continental shelf is completely legal and have a long history of successful development, playing an important role for Vietnam and Russia. Marina Trigubenko emphasized that Chinese coastguard and fishing vessels must stop threatening Vietnam and obstructing the normal activities of Russian oil companies in the South China Sea.

Marina Trigubenko is one of the first people to lay a foundation for cooperation in oil and gas exploitation between Russia and Vietnam; she understands the history of oil and gas cooperation between the two countries during the past 40 years as well as the legality of the areas that Russia and Vietnam are working with each other in the South China Sea. Her opinion clearly shows Russia's view on the Vietnam-Russia oil and gas cooperation in general and the issue of China’s aggression in Vietnam's continental shelf and exclusive economic zone in particular.