Moscow plays on fears of China in global quest for naval bases

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By Brian M Downing

Russia recently announced its intention to obtain naval facilities in various parts of the world, including Vietnam, the Seychelles, and Cuba.

Acquiring naval bases has historically been a means of signaling rising power. Theodore Roosevelt knew this when he sent the Great White Fleet on a global tour. China knows this today as its vessels show the flag along its periphery.

Russia's second Borey class strategic submarine, the Alexander Nevsky, is to be commissioned by the end of 2012

Moscow’s announcement signals determination to reassert its great power status which declined rapidly and seemingly irreversibly when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 – an event Russian President Vladimir Putin called one of the greatest geopolitical calamities of the twentieth century.

Putin’s new navalism will play well inside his country where reassertion of great power status has won him support in large portions of the population and helped position him as a great ruler in the tradition of Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Joseph Stalin, who still enjoy substantial respect as men who guided the country through parlous times.

Such prestige will, Putin hopes, help counter emerging demands for reform and democracy. These demands, however, are based in younger portions of the population who see naval bases and power prestige as vestiges of older times with little relevance in their lives.

Russia’s move is chiefly international and aimed, at least for the present, most directly at China.  The two countries share a long border that was formed in wars over past centuries when China was weak and Russia could impose its will.

Russia is the weaker of the two states today and it must worry that China’s ascendence will include efforts to right past wrongs.

Russia is allying, informally, with other Asian countries that also worry about China’s ascendance. South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and India have seen Chinese ships assert sovereignty over contested areas in East and Southeast Asia.

Russian bases in Vietnam and the Seychelles will be welcomed by those countries along the Chinese periphery. Indeed, Russia’s moves probably come after quiet diplomacy by several of them to strengthen their hand against China – diplomacy certainly supported if not initiated by the U.S.

Russian bases in Vietnam and the Seychelles counter the Chinese presence in Burma and Sri Lanka and makes China’s shipping lines to oil sources in the Persian Gulf even more vulnerable in the event of full hostilities. Russia is also a key source of China’s oil, which has thus far muted Beijing’s objections, considerable though they doubtless are. The bases will also strengthen Russia’s ties to India, which go back decades when Indian-Pakistani tensions were worsened amid the Cold War.

Bases in Vietnam and the Seychelles will also be welcomed by the U.S., which looks warily at China’s recent muscularity and equally warily at its own budget restraints.

A Russian base in the Caribbean, however, will not be welcomed in Washington. It will soften the impact of the Asian moves to Beijing. More importantly, it will inform the world that Russia is establishing itself as a power in its own right – one that will act as a critical balancer between the U.S. and China in coming years and one that can side with either power, as circumstances warrant.

All three states, after all, are well aware that forty years ago the U.S. and China partnered against the Soviet Union.  Circumstances change, often unexpectedly.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at

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