China and Russia conducted their first official bilateral naval exercise (variously referred to as “Sea Interaction 2012” or “Maritime Cooperation 2012”) from April 22-27 in the Yellow Sea near Qingdao. The exercise was a reminder of strategic importance of both countries for global politics, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, which is also attracting attention from the Pentagon and U.S. allies.
Russia and China have the world’s two most powerful militaries after that of the United States. China is undertaking perhaps the most comprehensive military modernization program in the world today, while Russia still has approximately as much nuclear weapons capacity as the United States. Although trilateral security cooperation has been strong in some cases (such as securing renewal of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty), it has been inadequate in other instances, such as regarding Iran and North Korea. In confrontation with Washington, Beijing and Moscow could impede realization of important U.S. goals.
When the Cold War ended, many Americans worried that China and Russia would align to counterbalance the United States, the sole remaining superpower. History has regularly seen such balancing. Fortunately, the initial American fears about a China-Russia alliance against the United States appeared excessive, but such a development cannot permanently be excluded.
China and Russia have conducted joint naval maneuvers as part of their larger military exercises conducted under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Peace Mission 2005, essentially a bilateral Russia-China exercise nominally within the SCO framework, featured a much larger naval component than the Sea Interaction 2012, as well as accompanying ground force drills. But the recent Sea Interaction maneuvers occurred outside the SCO.
Regardless of any SCO connection, these Chinese-Russian exercises serve multiple purposes. Russian officials have used the drills as an opportunity to showcase to the PRC defense community certain weapons systems that they want to sell to China. This function appears to have declined in importance in recent exercises since the PLA, benefiting from growing indigenous capabilities of the Chinese defense industry, have been buying fewer Russian weapons.
A more enduring goal is to improve the operational and tactical proficiency of both militaries and increase their level of interoperability. Chinese defense representatives have traditionally cited the advantage of using exercises with foreign countries as opportunities to learn new tactics, techniques, and procedures. They can also use the maneuvers to practice coordinating large and varied forces with some of the world’s leading military powers. The two navies have been operating together in the Gulf of Aden, fighting Somali-based pirates, and they may have wanted to improve their interoperability in such operations.
Another goal of these exercises is to underscore the high level of defense cooperation between China and Russia. The exercises are not explicitly intended for the classic purpose of collective defense. The bilateral Sino-Russian friendship treaty, signed in July 2001, lacks a mutual defense clause. Furthermore, Chinese government representatives have repeatedly stated that they will not join foreign military alliances. But the combined maneuvers do affirm the two countries’ commitment to defense cooperation as an important dimension of their evolving bilateral relationship. Nikolai Markov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, said that “Russia sees great importance in promoting cooperation between the two militaries and the naval exercise shows that bilateral strategic coordination is at a high level.”
Collaborating through joint exercises could also be seen as a form of mutual confidence building. Russia and China have adopted a series of arms control measures along their joint border, including advanced notification of large military exercises in the vicinity. The Russian-Chinese exercises, whether they occur bilaterally or within the multilateral SCO framework, help supplement these formal accords by providing additional information regarding the tactics, techniques, and procedures practiced by the other military as well as its capabilities and intentions. Chen Bingde, Chief of the PLA General Staff, said that the maritime exercises would promote “strategic coordination and mutual trust” between the Chinese and Russian military establishments.
In terms of political signaling to third parties, the maneuvers affirm to the United States and other countries that China and Russia are willing and able to cooperate to advance their joint security interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Sea Interaction 2012 took place amidst growing tensions in the western Pacific over territorial disputes. China has overlapping maritime claims with several of its neighbors, with the disputes centered on islands located within overlapping exclusive economic zones. Meanwhile, Russia’s territorial dispute with Japan over the Northern Territories has become newly acute in recent years.
Chinese and Russian representatives dismissed suggestions that they intended to send a message with their joint exercises. PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin denied that Sea Interaction was a response to the recent U.S.-South Korean drills or any other military exercises. Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said the drill was not directed against “third states” and was not an effort to forge a Sino-Russia military alliance.
Since China and Russia agreed to conduct their first joint naval exercise when Chen visited Moscow the previous August, these denials are probably accurate insofar as they refer to any attempt to match the concurrent U.S. exercises in the Pacific. But the decision to hold the bilateral maritime exercise probably did aim to bolster both countries’ strategic influence in Asia. Chen acknowledged that, through the joint naval drills, China and Russia “demonstrate their confidence to maintain peace and stability in the region and world.” Rear Admiral Leonid Sukhanov, Deputy chief of the Main Staff of the Russian Navy and the commander of the Russian contingent to the Sea Interaction drills, said that the “[p]articipating naval forces will train in the prevention of armed conflicts in exclusive economic zones," implying a desire to affirm these disputed territorial claims.
The exercises also reflect a general Sino-Russian desire to respond to the U.S. Asian Pivot, so they will likely continue as long as the Pentagon is augmenting its presence in the Pacific. Thus far, U.S. strategic analysts have downplayed the dangers of a Sino-Russian military alignment against the United States. But U.S. leaders need to be cautious about needlessly antagonizing China and Russia; instead, they should emphasize the common interests the three countries have in common such as managing North Korea and countering Islamist insurgencies and terrorist groups in Central Asia.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.