China welcomes ‘positive’ remarks as Putin speaks on South China Sea

China has welcomed what it called Russia’s “deep friendship” after President Vladimir Putin called for disputes in the South China Sea to be resolved by countries in the region without interference from “non-regional powers.”

Putin didn’t name any particular “powers” in his comments at a conference in Moscow on Wednesday but appeared to be alluding to the United States.

China on Thursday described Putin’s remarks as “positive.” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told a press briefing in Beijing that “the deep friendship between President Xi (Jinping) and President Putin is built on a high degree of mutual trust.”

“China believes that no matter how the international situations evolve, China-Russia relations will stay on the right course,” Zhao said.

Putin spoke at the Russian Energy Week conference in Moscow. He also commented about the tensions between China and Taiwan, saying China did not need to use force.

On the South China Sea, the Russian president said that there are “oppositely directed interests” but Russia’s position is that “we need to allow all regional countries, without interference from non-regional powers, to resolve all emerging disputable issues calmly through negotiations, based on fundamental norms of the international law.”

“In my opinion, there’s a potential for that but it’s not been played out yet,” he said.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam contest China’s claim to almost the entire sea. China’s says it has ‘historic rights’ to the area, a position unsupported by international law.

For its part, China has been criticizing the U.S. involvement in the region, including the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, which has seen Washington and key allies step up their naval presence in the South China Sea.

China has also been critical of the recent announcement of the three-nation defense pact AUKUS between Australia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom, saying it would destabilize and stoke an arms race in the Indo-Pacific.

Neutral position

Russia has been maintaining a neutral position in the matters related to the South China Sea, said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia in Global Affairs journal.

“Russia doesn't want to be involved in the South China Sea disputes and tries to keep distance,” Lukyanov added.

However Ian Storey, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, warned that “while Moscow has been broadly supportive of China’s position, Beijing’s jurisdictional claims threaten Russia’s lucrative energy interests in Southeast Asia.”

Three Russian state-owned energy companies including Zarubezhneft, Gazprom and Rosneft have been involved in a number of oil and gas projects in the South China Sea. Their operations have all reportedly come under pressure from Beijing.

Rosneft’s and Zarubezhneft’s drilling activities have been obstructed by Chinese vessels.

Most recently, two appraisal wells drilled by Zarubezhneft and its partner Harbour Energy in Indonesia’s Natuna Sea have been encircled by Chinese coastguard ships accompanying the survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 10.

According to Storey, China has also been pushing two provisions into the draft text of a Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea that Beijing is negotiating with the 10-nation Southeast Asian bloc, ASEAN, which potentially will cut Russia out of energy projects in the region.

One of them stipulates that “only energy companies from China and Southeast Asia should undertake joint offshore energy development” in the South China Sea; the other asks that “none of the 11 parties to the COC should undertake military exercises with a foreign navy in the South China Sea without the prior consent of all parties.”

“I don’t think Southeast Asian countries will agree to either of these provisions though,” Storey said.

Still, until now Russia’s stance remains “the less engagement in South China Sea disputes, the safer (the) future for Russian economic interests,” according to Lukyanov. And it is yet to be seen whether those disputes will reach the boiling point that forces Kremlin to take action.

Taiwan ‘reunification’

At the same session, the Russian president also commented on Chinese leader Xi’s remark last Saturday that "reunification" with Taiwan "must be fulfilled," and by peaceful means.

China regards the democratic island as a breakaway province and vows to bring it under Beijing’s control. Taiwan however sees itself as a sovereign state.

Cross-strait tensions have heightened in recent weeks, with China sending a record number of military jets into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) ahead of the island’s national day on Oct. 10.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ying-wen responded by saying her government would seek to bolster the island’s military capabilities in order to “defend ourselves”.

Vladimir Putin when speaking about Taiwan said that China “does not need to use force.”

This year, Russia and China celebrate the 20th anniversary of their 2001 Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation. Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated Russia’s stance, that "just like the overwhelming majority of other countries, Russia views Taiwan as part of the People's Republic of China”.

Putin suggested that Taiwan poses no threats to China.

“China is a great, powerful economy and in terms of purchasing power, China has become the number one economy in the world, ahead of the United States,” he said at the Energy Week in Moscow.

“Building up this economic potential, China is capable to achieve its national objectives. I don’t see any threat here,” the Russian president concluded.

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