China and Russia began eight days of naval drills in the South China Sea on Monday, a sign of increasingly tight links between the world’s second and third largest militaries as they seek to counter US influence in the region.
The latest Chinese-Russian exercises, dubbed “Joint Sea-2016”, are the largest joint operations ever by the two navies, according to Chinese navy spokesman Liang Yang. “Island seizing” activities, including anti-submarine operations, will feature alongside live fire drills and island defence.
The manoeuvres — the fifth Sino-Russian joint naval exercises in various regions since 2012 — come at a time of increasing tension in the South China Sea. China claims 85 per cent of the contested waters while Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have competing claims.
In July, an arbitration court in The Hague criticised China’s efforts to build man-made islands in the waterway and said there was no historical basis for its sovereignty claims. China’s government rejected the ruling.
“By holding the exercise with China regardless of the sensitivity of the issue, Russia is effectively showing its support for China,” said Wang Haiyun, a retired major general previously stationed in Russia who is now a senior adviser to the China Institute for International Strategic Studies, while cautioning against over-interpretation.
Russia and China back each other politically on some internationally controversial issues. While the drill could prove detrimental to Moscow’s bid to balance its over-dependence on China by deepening ties with countries such as Vietnam, the Kremlin sees it as a means of rebutting US-led intervention in regions that are the spheres of influence of other countries.
The latest exercises feature naval surface ships, submarines, fixed-wing aircraft, ship-borne helicopters, marine corps, and amphibious armoured equipment from both navies.
Last year the two countries held joint exercises in both the Sea of Japan and the Mediterranean. This year they will occur off the southern coast of Guangdong province, near the city of Zhanjiang, where the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s Nanhai fleet is based.
At the Group of 20 summit in the Chinese city of Hangzhou earlier this month, Russian president Vladimir Putin told reporters that Russia supports China’s stance on The Hague court’s ruling. Echoing China’s stance, he said non-regional powers should not interfere in the South China Sea issue, calling it “counterproductive”. When the exercises were announced in July, China defence ministry spokesman Yang Yujin called them “routine” and said they were “not directed against third parties”.
For Moscow, the drills help the country’s navy rebuild capabilities and reach it had partly lost since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Russian defence experts said in this respect the South China Sea exercise was similar to last year’s joint manoeuvres in the Mediterranean. “Those are waters where the Chinese are newcomers, and at the time our joint activity there also raised eyebrows,” said a Russian military analyst who asked not to be named.
Li Xing, director of the Eurasian Studies Center at Beijing Normal University, said the timing and sensitivity of the naval exercise exemplify the high degree of co-operation between China and Russia. “The fact that China and Russia are hosting military exercises jointly shows that the two countries have a very high level of mutual trust.”
Additional reporting by Kathrin Hille in Moscow and Luna Lin in Beijing