China and Russia held large-scale naval exercise this week. Is this a dire warning of a new power axis designed to recalibrate the balance of power in Asia? It is hot enough this summer, so spare yourself the hyperventilation.
This exercise, like all the others that the two countries have held before, is no cause for concern. Beijing and Moscow are testing their readiness and sending a signal that the two countries are forces to be reckoned with in Asia.
Forget the puffery that typically accompanies such high-profile military maneuvers and take the spokespeople at their word: This is a routine naval exercise.
China and Russia have held joint military exercises under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the six-nation regional security grouping that they anchor, since 2003. The members of the SCO — China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — have united to counter terrorism, extremism and separatism through military capacity building and economic cooperation.
The SCO is focused on stabilizing Central Asia to insulate Beijing and Moscow from the Islamic contagion. It also controls the competition between the two governments for influence in a region that is critical to both their national interests.
This year’s exercise focused on the navies of Russian and China. The seven days of Joint Sea 2013 in the Sea of Japan involved eight water surface vessels, one submarine, three fixed-wing aircraft, five ship-borne helicopters and two special operation units, and took place in a dozen locales as the two countries practiced anti-piracy cooperation.
The seven-vessel Chinese task force was the largest ever to visit Vladivostok, the main base of Russia’s Pacific fleet; in fact it is the largest-ever Chinese naval drill with a foreign partner. A second exercise, Peace Mission 2013, will be held from July 27 through Aug. 15 in Russia’s Ural mountains.
While this is the first time that China has dispatched People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships to Russian waters to join a drill, Chinese officials insist that it does not signal a change in Chinese defense policy. They also say that the timing of the drill is not significant. It is not a response to the Japan-U.S. joint exercise that was held last month, nor is it a signal concerning Chinese thinking about the disputed Senkaku Islands.
As always, the Chinese remind the world that such exercises are not aimed at any third country.
It is best to take them at their word. After all, such exercises have to be planned months, if not years, in advance and thus there is no chance that it has anything to do with the joint exercise Japan joined last month. Moreover, Russia has no desire to be sucked into China’s disputes with Japan.
Moscow and Beijing find rhetorical common cause in challenging the political status quo. Both governments feel as though they do not receive the respect that they deserve nor have the power and influence that each seeks in shaping international politics. They both see the United States as the primary obstacle to the realization of their ambitions and they will act to tweak Washington if the cost of doing so is not high.
In acting together, they can deflect blame and responsibility for negative outcomes.
But there are very definite limits to their cooperation. As noted, while Beijing and Moscow see Central Asia as an area of shared concern, each government also believes that it is the rightful leader of that contested region. Their economic relationship is also fraught with problems. Russia is aggrieved because it is seen by China primarily as a source of raw materials. For its part, Beijing takes issue with Russia’s readiness to squeeze every last ruble from a trade partner, especially when it comes to energy deals, as well as Moscow’s reluctance to sell China its top military equipment. Even though both countries have territorial disputes with Japan, neither government is going to spend any capital — political or otherwise — on the other’s behalf.
Both governments also know that they need the U.S. more than they need each other, that it is the more desirable trade and geostrategic partner. It is telling that Beijing does not seek a “new type of great power relations” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but only with U.S. President Barack Obama.
Japan should believe China and Russia when they say Tokyo should not be concerned by their military activities. After all, China will join the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific exercises next year; Russia joined RimPac last year. Japan has been a regular participant.
In fact, in last year’s RimPac, Japanese Rear Adm. Fumiyuki Kitagawa served as vice commander of the Combined Task Force, the second in command of a force that included 48 ships and submarines, more than 200 warplanes and 25,000 troops.
The U.S., along with Japan and all other participants, have insisted that those exercises are not aimed at any nonincluded party and justify them in the same terms as the Chinese and Russians do concerning their joint naval exercise.
Japan and the U.S. should set an example and take China and Russia at their word and wish them success as they work on ways to promote safety and security at sea.