The ongoing China-Russia naval exercises code-named Joint Sea 2013, dubbed by the PLA Navy as the ‘single biggest deployment of military force in any joint foreign exercise’, merits attention. The Chinese flotilla comprising of seven ships, three helicopters and a special warfare unit sailed through the Tsushima Strait into the Sea of Japan and then to the Port of Vladivostok. The stated aim of the exercises is to simulate ‘recapturing ships seized by pirates, as well as search and rescue operations [and] a number of air defence, anti-submarine and anti-ship exercises’. The Chinese defence ministry has been quick to clarify that ‘the drills are not targeted at any third party, and that the aim is to deepen cooperation between the two militaries’.
China and Russia have conducted regular bilateral and multilateral military exercises since 2003. These include: (a) Coalition-2003; (b) Peace Mission-2005; (c) Peace Mission-2007; (d) Peace Mission 2009 (e) Peace Shield 2009 (f) Peace Mission 2010; (g) Joint Sea 2012 and (h) Peace Mission 2012. The Coalition-2003 and the Peace Mission series are anti terror exercises under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), while the Peace Shield 2009 (held on September 18, 2009 in the Gulf of Aden in the Indian Ocean where both navies were deployed for counter piracy operation) and the Joint Sea series which started in 2012 are naval exercises.
The China-Russia joint military exercises are being watched with great interest by the US and its alliance partners, i.e. Japan and Republic of Korea. There is a belief that the Joint Sea 2013 is in response to the unprecedented US-Japan amphibious war games code-named Dawn Blitz conducted in June 2013 on San Clemente Island off the coast of California which were apparently designed and conducted with China as the target. Interestingly, the exercises began two days after the June 8, 2013 Summit meeting between President Obama and President Xi Jinping in California.
There is also a perception that the exercises are in response to the United States’ rebalancing strategy to Asia and China’s maritime disputes with Japan over the uninhabited Sankaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea and Vietnam and Philippines over the Spratly Islands in South China Sea. Further, these exercises provide China and Russia the opportunity to reaffirm as significant regional powers and project power at sea.
Russia and China cooperative security partnership appears to be pitted against the US led collective security alliance in the Asia Pacific region. There were a number of reasons that resulted in the China-Russia rapprochement after the end of the Cold War. The two sides signed the Sino-Russian strategic partnership and in 2001 the Treaty for Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation. Besides consolidating their partnership, China and Russia pushed forward their common agenda of a multi-polar world apparently to balance US hegemony emerging in the post Cold War period. The synergy also arose from the Chinese and Russian perception that the US had continued to deal with these states with a Cold War mentality. For instance, the RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) exercises that began in 1971 had China and Russia simulated as enemies. However, in recent times, these two countries have participated in RIMPAC and this is a good example of competition and engagement.
The Sino-Russian partnership has been extremely beneficial to China and has resulted in military modernisation and upgrading its defence production capacity particularly the strategic submarines, missiles, fighter jets, and naval systems. Some of these have resulted in indigenous designs that are similar to Russian systems. Although China’s quest for advanced weapons systems from Russia continues, Moscow has been reluctant to provide it critical access to state-of-the-art military technologies due to fears that as China rises it may pose serious challenges to Russia. However, during the visit of President Xi Jinping to Moscow in March 2013, the two sides may have inked a defence deal and Russia agreed to supply Sukhoi multirole fighters i.e.. Su-35, and joint development and construction of four Lada-class diesel-electric submarines, two for each country.
The Russia-China partnership premised on Political-Economic-Military-Technological cooperation has the potential to emerge as an alternate to the US led alliance which currently dominates the region. It would be useful to see if Iran, given its good diplomatic, economic and military links with China and Russia, would be a collaborator. Likewise, the members of the SCO i.e. China Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and the strategic location of Central Asia with its large reserves of energy may provide substance to the China-Russia partnership. It will not be farfetched to suggest that China and Russia may even court Teheran, Damascus and Pyongyang to balance the US.