President Rodrigo Duterte‘s invitation to Russia’s top energy player to drill for oil in the Philippine waters also claimed by China is a “smart move,” a Forbes columnist said, but some analysts warned that Russia’s presence in the disputed territories might further complicate tensions in the region.
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Teaming up with oil giant Rosneft signals another shift in Manila’s stance in South China Sea dispute, columnist Panos Mourdoukoutas said, adding that Russia’s presence in the disputed waters will pit Moscow against its ally—Beijing—which claims virtually the entire South China Sea.
“Duterte is trying something different. He’s teaming up with a Russian company, whose primary shareholder is the Russian government, [it] is a smart move for Duterte,” Mourdoukoutas said.
Duterte recently visited Russia where he met with Igor Sechin, chief executive officer of Rosneft, and invited him to participate in oil and gas exploration in Philippine waters.
During their meeting, Duterte underscored that any agreement with Rosneft will undergo domestic processes and comply with applicable laws to avoid allegations of corruption or irregularity.
Their meeting comes at a time when the country’s gas resources at the Malampaya fields are set to run out by 2024 and it is believed that there are 11 billion barrels worth of oil under the South China Sea along with 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Before this, Duterte also met Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss joint oil exploration in the South China Sea under a 60-40 scheme.
Rosneft is the same company Vietnam had partnered with to search for oil and gas in its own waters disputed by China a few months ago.
Beijing, in response, sent coast guard ships to try and block an oil rig’s construction near Vanguard Bank, a reef which it also claims.
It also demanded that Vietnam abandon its oil exploration projects with foreign companies.
Undeterred by warnings, Rosneft has continued to explore for oil, but the joint venture lost some $295 million due to Chinese interference.
Rosneft’s insistence fueled speculations that Vietnam’s strategy of bringing outside powers such as Russia in the maritime dispute would be a blow to China’s dominance.
Artyom Lukin, an associate professor in Russia’s Far Eastern Federal University, said that Moscow may want to keep its traditional bonds with Vietnam, but it is unlikely to expand its presence in the South China Sea since it “tacitly recognized” the waters as China’s geopolitical sphere of influence.
But he doubted if Moscow will risk its relationship with Beijing.
“Albeit a friction point between Beijing and Moscow, the activities by Russian firms in the South China Sea are unlikely to destabilize the all-important Sino-Russian ‘strategic partnership’, and Moscow and Beijing need each other on much bigger issues,” he told the South China Morning Post.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has developed strong political and economic ties with Xi.
Putin also publicly sided with China and questioned the validity of the 2016 arbitral ruling by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration which backed the Philippines’ sovereign right to explore oil and gas reserves in its territories.
Global economist Cailin Birch said in a television interview that “there’s a growing consensus that a partnership between Russia and China is quite a powerful force, led by China rather than Russia, but that between the two of them they could represent quite a powerful bloc.”
Observers say that the Russia-China alliance is the perfect way to counterbalance United States and Nato influence on the global stage.
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