Chinese and Russian navies concluded their week-long “Joint Sea-2016” drill from 13-19 September 2016. These are the fifth Sino-Russian ‘Joint Sea’ drills since 2012. They are the single largest joint maritime military exercise between Russia and China ever[i] and are part of their efforts to strengthen military and security cooperation in recent years. Last year, the joint drills were held in the Sea of Japan and the Mediterranean, and involved the People’s Liberation Army’s North and East sea fleets. This year’s joint exercise, however, finds limelight on account of recent happenings and resulting tensions in the South China Sea.
China and Russia have carried out joint naval exercises in the resource-rich South China Sea off China’s southern Guangdong province away from the disputed areas, nearly two months after an international tribunal dismissed Beijing’s claims to most of the waters. The drills featured a number of warships including a missile destroyer, anti-submarine vessels, missile frigates, ship-based helicopters and conventional submarines among others, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.[ii]
Senior Captain Li Xiangdong, who commanded the Chinese warships, told state-run China Daily, “The exercises demonstrated the Chinese and Russian navies’ capacities in command management, telecommunications coordination, and intelligence and information sharing”.[iii] The Chinese and Russian navies engaged in a range of activities, including search and rescue drills, anti-submarine warfare, and “joint-island seizing missions.” The latter appears to be a new addition to the Joint Sea drills in 2016.[iv]
Russia and China have steadily increased their defence cooperation and Moscow has refrained from criticising Beijing’s position on the South China Sea, where it claims almost 90 percent of the waters under its ambiguous nine-dash line clause.
What makes the naval drill exercises remarkable is, however, the fact that they have come at a time of heightened tensions between China and the West regarding the disputed South China Sea following a ruling by The Hague arbitrational tribunal finding against Beijing’s historic claims to the water. Russia’s neutral stance, voicing neither support nor outright opposition, opens a lurching face-off in South China Sea where the US has already been circumspect of China’s moves. At the same time, many believe that this joint exercise will help China in not getting alienated as was supposedly argued after the tribunal’s judgement.
China and Russia, while not formal allies, have steadily increased their military-to-military contacts and cooperation. Although China announced that it had called the “routine” naval exercise in July, saying the drills were aimed at strengthening cooperation and not aimed at any other country[v], with this just concluded naval drill, it would be interesting to see how the third parties, especially the US, reacts to this symbolic and strategic move by Beijing whose claims over the South China Sea was struck down by an international tribunal. Moreover, the drill though, to some extent, downplays China’s international isolation, the converging interests of China and Russia are still far from being a strategic alliance as China would like to showcase. It is, more so, just a period of shared mutual interests with both China and Russia moving in an opposite direction in terms of strategic manoeuvrings and portraying comprehensive national power globally.
The joint exercise is bound to make waves in the US, Japan and Australia. The naval drill, for them, might disturb their current military deployments in the South China Sea.[vi] This military drill is also going to alert the Philippines whose recent willingness to seek a rapprochement with China proved a one way bridge.
The deputy commander of the Chinese Navy, Wang Hai lauded the exercise as successful and to have achieved the desired aim.[vii] Wang said the drill had improved the actual combat capabilities, informationisation and standardisation of the two navies, adding that they would expand practical cooperation and boost communication.[viii] With China’s stance in South China Sea and East China Sea and with growing US engagement in the region, the desired aim (cooperation and convergence or sending a strong signal?) remains to be discerned.
Finally, this naval drill is indicative of the fact that the 8-day exercise was conducted to benefit both China and Russia, i.e. to calm down their nerves after economic sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea and after Chinese containment by US and Japan in the East and South China Seas. This can also be seen as further solidifying the growing China-Russia military ties, drawing Russia into South China Sea where China is bereft of any allies. But at the same time, Russia would not risk its relations with other countries in the region, including Vietnam. This alignment, therefore, is more diplomatic and suits the two countries for the time-being.
[i] China, Russia conduct Air Defense, Anti-Submarine Drills in South China Sea, 18 Sept 2016. URL: https://sputniknews.com/military/20160918/1045444296/russia-china-naval-war-games.html
[ii] China, Russia conclude joint naval drill, 19 Sept 2016.
[iii] China, Russia conclude joint naval exercise, 19 Sept 2016.
[iv] Chinese, Russian Navies to Hold 8 Days of Naval Exercises in the South China Sea, 12 Sept 2016. URL: http://thediplomat.com/2016/09/chinese-russian-navies-to-hold-8-days-of-naval-exercises-in-the-south-china-sea/
[v] China, Russia naval drill in South China Sea to begin Monday, 11 Sept 2016.
[vii] China, Russia conclude joint naval drill, 19 Sept 2016.