Russo-China Naval Exercises: Dragging Moscow into China’s Territorial Disputes?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 18

From July 5 to 12 the Chinese and Russian navies participated in a joint exercise called “Joint Sea 2013.” This was the first of two exercises conducted by these two militaries in 2013, the second being a ground forces exercise with a Central Asian element, conducted from July 27 to August 15. Despite protestations from China that the drill was not directed at any third party, Japan and the United States responded to the naval exercise by hastily organizing a counter-exercise.

Despite Russia’s clear policy intention to avoid taking a stand on China’s regional disputes, its efforts to maintain and improve its relations with China are unintentionally shifting the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific in China’s favor. This runs the risk of alienating countries with whom Russia is trying to improve its relations, such as Japan, Vietnam and India, and effectively aligning Moscow with Beijing despite its clear desire to avoid entanglement in China’s maritime disputes (For more on Russia’s strategic intentions, see “Russia Plays Both Sides Against the Middle on Senkaku Islands, Eurasia Daily Monitor, November 14, 2012).

The naval exercise took place in the Sea of Japan, and was clearly intended to send signals to the United States and Japan. Russia sent 11 warships, three planes and a submarine, while China dispatched four destroyers, two frigates and a supply ship. Chinese sources described the exercise as the largest in China’s history and the first one during which its fleet had to supply itself exclusively from what it carried (Global Times Online, July 3; China Military Online July 5). One Chinese commentary stated that, while the drill was “an ordinary” one for China in line with its national security interests and international status, “The drill has let other countries know about the military strength of China and Russia” (Ta Kung Pao Online, July 11). Another commentator wrote the exercises were “not for show” (Wen Wei Po Online, July 8). Moreover, Chinese reports state that these exercises are only the first in a program that will be developed, normalized and institutionalized (China Military Online, July 11).

The exercise reflected enhanced Chinese (and Russian) naval capabilities to conduct not only search and rescue operations but actual combat operations. Both navies turned on their radars, including fire control and missile guidance radars, sonar, photoelectric communications and anti-submarine and air defense equipment (China Military Online, July 3). Thus, as one Chinese account put it, the drill involved ship anchorage defense, joint air defense, maritime replenishment, passing a sea area under threat from enemy submarines, joint escort and rescue of a kidnapped vessel, strikes at maritime targets, joint maritime search and rescue, live fire use of weapons and a parade (China Military Online, July 6; China Military Online, July 10).

This exercise, at least as reflected in the Chinese media, marked a major step forward in the mutual trust and coordination of the Russo-Chinese military and political leadership. Variations on this theme appear in virtually every Chinese commentary on the exercise. But beyond that, the exercise clearly represents a major practical advance in Russo-Chinese naval and other exercises. One Chinese report extolled such joint exercises as a “hallmark of the across-the-board, broad-scope, multi-tiered, pragmatic cooperation between the two militaries at a critical time in their ongoing force development (China Military Online, July 4). Meanwhile, Chinese reports piously maintained that the purpose of the drills was to safeguard peace and that they were not directed against any third party (People’s Daily Overseas Edition, July 4).

This is quite literally unbelievable, given the aggressive naval moves that China has taken in the last year against Japan. Indeed, once the exercise, ended China’s ships for the first time returned home through the Soya (La Perouse) Strait between Hokkaido and Russia, a show of force clearly directed at Japan (Jiji Press, July 14). Similarly, some Chinese officers seemed to want to publicize the drill as a sign of Russian support for China’s position on the disputed Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands (Global Times Online, July 3). This does not appear to be grounded in actual Russian policy—the director of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev specifically disavowed interference on the issue, saying that Russia would not take sides in the dispute over the these islands. It is hardly likely that Russia, which is currently seeking a rapprochement with Japan, would offer China military support on that issue. Possibly the most striking example of the Chinese effort to portray a Russo-Chinese entente on Japan came from the Shanghai-based expert Feng Wei. He wrote that if China and Russia joined hands, this would shake the foundations of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Not only are Russia and China drawing closer together, he claimed, but the March, 2013 communiqué of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow meant that both sides would back each other over territorial and sovereignty issues (Feng Huang Wei Shih Chung Wen Tai, July 9).

The reality falls short of this hype. There are no signs that Russia either supports China against Japan in the East China Sea or supports China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea. But such statements and the fleet’s actions, as well as the agenda of this exercise, demonstrate a conscious effort to draw in Russian support, or at least the appearance of it, to intimidate Japan and possibly the United States.

While the benefits of working closely with China are evident to Russia, so too are the risks to Russia from too close an association, especially if a Chinese crisis with Japan gets out of hand. Russian commentary on the exercises was much more restrained, although it praised the execution of the mission and the coordination it demonstrated. Typically, since the exercises are seen by Moscow as showcases for its equipment, Russian commentators also pointed out that Chinese air defense ships are equipped with Russian air defense weapons and are capable of using them effectively. Furthermore, they deliberately raised the possibility that this exercise was deliberately tied to Russian exercises in the Russian Far East (Maritime Province-Primorye) using S-400 Air Defense and Pantsir-S air defense missile-gun complexes against enemy aircraft (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 9). In this context, it is probably not a coincidence that immediately after this exercise ended, Russian President Putin ordered a so-called snap exercise involving thousands of Russian forces in the Far East, including an ostentatious drill practicing an aerial and land movement of forces hundreds or thousands of miles to threatened Russian lands. That too is an unmistakable signal, but one directed as much at China as Japan if not more so.

Militarily, Chinese commentators repeatedly proclaimed their satisfaction with the improved trust, coordination, cooperation and integration between the fleets (Xinhua Domestic Service, July 10; Xinhua Asia-Pacific Service, July 11). Whereas the earlier joint naval exercise in 2012 had involved only counterterrorism and piracy, this one marked a major step up for the Chinese, in that they were able to either conduct or observe fleet air defense, antisubmarine warfare and surface warfare (New York Times, July 10). It would appear then that China most likely learned more from the exercise than did Russia, while Russia gained enhanced presence, status and opportunities to showcase Russian weapons (Richard Weitz, “Global Insights: Russia-China Naval Drill Sends mixed Signals,” World Politics Review, July 23).

But these exercises also clearly illustrated the risks to Russia. While it gains status and an opportunity to sell China more weapons, China’s navy is gaining experience in performing complex military and logistical operations far form home and in using those weapons. Chinese sources are well aware that China has no allies and that Russia in particular is not an ally. That means there are many fewer opportunities for China to participate in joint exercises than U.S. allies such as Japan and the ROK (Renmin Ribao Overseas Edition Online, July 13). The exercises provided by the U.S. alliance are more frequent, more sophisticated and more lifelike, resembling actual combat operations. Therefore the PLAN likely needs the exercises more than its Russian counterpart and gains more from them.

At the same time, Chinese analysts hail these exercises as a response to the American strategy of rebalancing the Asia-Pacific, which they describe as squeezing Russia’s strategic space while also seeking to contain China. Many analysts therefore argue that Russia and China should become allies, an increasingly common refrain among Chinese strategists who see the United States as a major threat, although it is not established as official policy (International Herald Leader (Xinhua), July 15). Moscow may be moving closer to China, especially as it feels pressure from the United States on a host of human rights and geopolitical issues, but the independent Russian exercises in the Far East and the steadily accelerating reinforcement and reform of Russian armed forces in the region demonstrate that Russia is eager to push back against Chinese efforts to subordinate Russia as China’s sidekick. Nonetheless, if we look at the totality of Russo-Chinese military relations, including arms sales as well as exercises, we see that China appears to be able to gain support for at least some of its objectives that are not altogether in Russia’s best interests or that reverse past Russian policies.

New trends in Russian arms sales reflect China’s growing power vis-à-vis Russia. Sales of aircraft engines and, most recently, advanced fighter planes and submarines have totaled $2 billion annually since 2011. These sales could seriously destabilize Asian security. Like earlier Russian sales, they expand Chinese military capabilities that could one day be used against Russia. The newest sales, of four Lada-class diesel submarines, as well as the agreement in principle to the sale of Sukhoi Su-35 multi-role combat jets, are particularly egregious examples of this trend, representing a major boost to the quality of the weapons system available to China (Asia Times, June 3).

These arms sales, and the rapid growth of Chinese capabilities, are already beginning to incite an arms race in Asia. This obliges us to consider why Russia has taken the risk of inciting such tensions, especially as it is drafting a military partnership with Vietnam, and has just concluded a new deal to sell the country Su-30 Fighters (Interfax, August 29; Jane’s Defense Weekly, August 23). Even though Russian arms exporters clearly still harbor resentment against China for its violations of Russian intellectual property (or, to be blunt, piracy of their designs), the Russian government believes it can make a lot of money selling weapons to China—and that, if it surrenders an arms market, the West will simply step in and take it over. Moreover, arms sales provide Moscow with a window on China’s highly opaque defense development. Third, these arms sales reflect China’s continuing dependence on Russia for at least some key military technologies and weapons systems. Therefore, for Russia, they represent a way of “anchoring“ China to Russia, as called for in the famous 2010 foreign policy blueprint published in Russky Newsweek (May 11, 2010). China has been making efforts to buy several divisions of the advanced S-400 air defense missiles and Su-35 Fighters since at least 2009 (Yuri Baskov and Andrei Pinkov, “Prospects for Russia-China Military Cooperation in 2010,” Kanwa Intelligence Review Online, December 10 – 18, 2009; March 9, 2011; Interfax-AVN Online, May 10, 2012). Russia has promised to sign a contract for exporting 24 Su-35s, but as of September it is still being negotiated—given the pace of Sino-Russian negotiations on other major deals, it is likely that there are still major issues to be resolved.  The latest indication of the state of negotiations is a statement from a Rosoboronexport executive, who said that the contract will not be completed in 2013, but will probably be signed in 2014 (RIA Novosti, September 9).

The S-400 system could have a major impact on the East China Sea, since its 400km range is longer enough to cover Taiwan or the Diaoyus from the Chinese mainland (Defense News, May 25).  However, it is not scheduled for delivery to the Russian army until 2017, and it is not clear whether Russia is interested in a deal (WantChinaTimes, May 30).

These sales will surely increase Taiwanese, Japanese and other allied pressure on Washington to provide yet more weaponry, increasing the risk of a classic Cold-War-style arms race in the region. Russia’s arms sales also aggravate India’s situation, as they reverse Russian policy not to sell China better weapons than those it sells to India (The Hindu, March 8).  The Su-35 deal is already raising concerns among Indian commentators:

New Delhi could also lose out in the emerging Russian-Chinese arms transfer relationship. So far, India has held the technological edge in terms of the quality of its fighter aircraft. The SU-35 will begin to tilt the balance against us, unless we pay for the expensive upgrade of the SU-30MKI or begin receiving the Russian fifth generation fighters in significant numbers. The Chinese-Russian entente could also mean that there could be an agreement for the supply of Russian engines for Chinese-designed and built fighters which would make them much more capable than they are at present (India Today, April 1).

Under sea, the Lada is far more silent and powerful than India’s Kilo-class submarines. This would help China compete with India in the Indian Ocean, and maybe the South China Sea. Neither can its SU-30MKI match the Su-35, which has a higher thrust engine and more sophisticated radar, avionics and weapons (The Hindu, March 8). Furthermore, the Indian Rafales, to be acquired from France, are thought to be no match for the Su-35, so this sale may “shoot down the value of Rafale for India” (The Hindu, March 8).  And China will probably acquire many more than just the initial 24 Su-35s, as has happened in previous fighter sales (The Hindu, March 8).

However wary it is of taking sides in China’s regional disputes, Russia is increasingly having an impact on them in ways that effectively align it with China, creating risks for its relations with other regional players.  China is realizing tangible strategic gains from these arms deals and naval exercises, but can the same be said for Russia?