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Foreign Policy

Thoughts on China-Russia Joint Military Exercise in South China Sea

Sep 08 , 2016
  • Yu Sui

    Professor, China Center for Contemporary World Studies

China and Russia will conduct a joint naval exercise codenamed Joint Sea 2016 in the South China Sea from Sept 12 to 19. According to the spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, the routine exercise is not directed against any third party, rather it is aimed at consolidating the comprehensive partnership of strategic collaboration between China and Russia, deepening pragmatic and friendly cooperation between the two militaries and enhancing the two navies’ capability to jointly dealing with maritime security threats.

The news has caused much attention, excitement and misgivings.

The Joint Sea series of military drills started in 2012 and has been conducted on an annual basis in sea areas close to China and Russia alternately. The 2012 exercise took place in the Yellow Sea near Qingdao. In 2013, it was in the Sea of Japan near Vladivostok. In the following year, the two navies did the exercise in the sea and air in the north of East China Sea to the east of Yangtze River estuary. Last year’s exercise took place in two phases, first in the Mediterranean Sea, then a live fire drill in the sea of Peter the Great Bay, on the coast of Cape Klerka, and in the air and sea of the Sea of Japan.

It is fair to say that joint maritime military exercises between China and Russia are already institutionalized. Since the exercise is routine, it should be treated as such.

Nonetheless, this time the exercise will take place in the much disturbed South China Sea, which unavoidably causes speculation and guess work.

According to a report of Wall Street Journal website on Aug 1, the joint military exercise signals that China and Russia will increase military cooperation in South China Sea affairs, probably in response to attempts by external military forces (such as those of the US, Japan and Australia) to intervene there. Japanese media linked it to the recent announcement by the U.S. and the ROK to deploy THAAD in the ROK, and the Chinese and Russian opposition to such a move, and thus concluded that China apparently wanted to pin down the US.

Although quite different from the original intention of parties concerned, these comments in American and Japanese media frankly revealed the thoughts of the U.S. and Japan.

This author thinks differently.

First, the joint exercise will testify to the deepening comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Russia, which covers five areas, including political mutual trust, economic mutual affinity, cultural exchanges, military interactions and diplomatic consultations. Maritime exercises are part of military interaction and give more details to comprehensive strategic coordination. It fully demonstrates the two countries’ understanding, agreement and mutual support in safeguarding their respective core interests.

Second, joint exercise is a common practice in the world. China has had and will have joint military exercises with the U.S. For example, the U.S. has formally invited China to the Rim of Pacific Exercise 2016 and China has confirmed its participation. The two sides have conducted multiple rounds of consultation on this and are in close touch and coordination with each other on relevant matters. It equally makes no sense to understand China-US joint military exercise as against Russia or any other country. It is not difficult to predict that when China and Russia conduct their exercise, American and Japanese aircrafts will gather in the South China Sea to conduct close-range reconnaissance for both strategic and tactical purposes. Russia may not necessarily do the same thing when China and the US conduct their exercise.

Third, the exercise will play a necessary role to deter external forces attempting to violate China’s sovereign security. The routine exercise will be at least to a certain extent a response to the so-called arbitration concerning the South China Sea. No wonder that some people believe that the timing is chosen to counter the pressure from the US, Japan and Australia for China to implement arbitration decisions as well as on the DPRK issue. Russia also has its considerations to a certain extent as Russia is also under pressure in Europe.

Fourth, the joint China-Russia exercise should indeed cause the American authorities to reflect over its actions. Although its strength is decreasing, the US has never given up the style of a mighty hegemon. On the one hand, the U.S. is rather ready to sacrifice Ukraine interests and allow Russia to benefit from its conflict with Ukraine, thus strengthening pressure on Russia. On the other, it evades or only perfunctorily responds to China’s sincere proposal to create a new model of major-power relations and creates trouble for China from time to time. These unwise moves objectively contribute to deepening strategic coordination between China and Russia. Leaders of some other countries should also rethink profoundly. Is it worthwhile for them to be used as tools and follow the US to make trouble out of nothing on the question of the South China Sea?

Fifth, admittedly, it is natural to have different positions, viewpoints and methods. Be it the U.S. or Japan, so long as they don’t have ulterior motives, they will naturally regard the China-Russia joint military exercise calmly. Further, China’s exercising and maintaining sovereignty in the South China Sea has nothing to do with the US or Japan. Well, maybe the US, as the sole superpower, is used to poking its fingers everywhere. Where does Japan’s confidence come from in doing so? The US bluffs and blusters while Japan plays the fox assuming the tiger’s power. Isn’t it a two-man comic show? This will definitely not scare the Chinese people, who are contemptuous of the performance

Finally, it is impossible to conclude from the joint exercise that China and Russia are becoming or preparing to become allies. Recently some people in academia and media have been playing up the topic of China-Russia alliance. This is indeed groundless conjecture. President Xi has pointed out repeatedly that the Chinese government follows a non-alignment policy.

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