Assessing the Sino-Russian Naval Exercise “Maritime Cooperation 2012”


by Richard Weitz

Russia and China conducted their first official bilateral naval exercise (variously referred to as “Maritime Cooperation 2012” and “Sea Interaction 2012”) from April 22-27 in the Yellow Sea near Qingdao, China.

The exercise was a genuinely mixed operation, in which both countries made major contributions to the drills.

Although China supplied more ships, some of the Russian vessels were very advanced.

The Russians and Chinese shared important command, control, and communications functions during the drills, which practiced their combat interoperability and the effectiveness of their control, electronics, and information systems.

The combined fleet simulated the rescue of a hijacked ship, escorting commercial vessels in pirate-infested waters, joint maritime air defense, anti-submarine tactics, maritime search and rescue.

The two countries had 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 Maritime Cooperation 2012, as well as accompanying ground force drills. But the recent maneuvers occurred outside the SCO. The SCO plans to hold its Peace Mission 2012 exercise next month in northern Tajikistan.

Although aircraft and special forces did conduct a joint maritime anti-terror task in the exercise,  the two governments declined to formally characterize the drills as having primarily an anti-terrorist purpose, citing a more diverse set of goals, including improving interoperability, sharing techniques, rehearsing skills, and enhancing regional stability.

The exercise was thus comparable in purpose to many of the other naval exercises conducted in the Asia-Pacific region.

Russia deployed four combat ships and three supply vessels from its Pacific Fleet, which is headquartered in Vladivostok. The Slava-class cruiser Varyag, the flagship of the Russian Pacific Fleet, was present, along with three Udaloy-class anti-submarine destroyers–the Admiral Vinogradov, Marshal Shaposhnikov and Admiral Tributs (the last of the three being from the Northern Fleet), the tugboat MB-37, the fleet tanker Pechenga, and the SB-22 supply ship. During the live fire drills, ship-to-ship communications were conducted in Russian. In April 2009, the 11,500-ton Varyag had led the formation of foreign ships on review at the celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the PLAN’s founding.

China contributed 4,000 service members, 16 ships (5 missile destroyers, 5 missile frigates, 4 missile boats, a support vessel and hospital ship), 2 submarines, and 13 aircraft and five shipboard helicopters. These ships likely are part of the Northern Fleet of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which is based at the port city of Qingdao in the Yellow Sea.

The PLAN Type 052 Luhu-class multi-role destroyer Harbin, a domestically-produced, second-generation ship that is the Northern Fleet’s flagship, acted as the command vessel, responsible for directing both sides’ ships, submarines and fighters.

The rest of the Chinese contingent consisted of:

  • four guided missile destroyers, including the Shenyang (Type 051C Luzhou-class ), Fuzhou (of the Russian Sovremenny-class ) and Taizhou (an improved Project 956EM Sovremenny ),
  • the guided missile frigates Luoyang and Mianyang (both Type 053H3 Jiangwei-II-class ),
  • and the Type 054A Jiangkai-II-class frigates Yiyang, Zhaoshan and Xuzhao.
  • The Fuqing-class fleet oiler Hongzhu was tasked with replenishment duties.

The Chinese fleet also included four missile boats, two submarines (at least one of which was a Type 039G1 Song-class ), and a hospital ship.

The exercises were carried out in two phases.

The first being a command-and-control phase, and the second being an “active” phase that included live-fire exercises and other ship maneuvers off the coast of Qingdao in the Yellow Sea.

In this respect it was similar to Peace Mission 2005 in its first two phases, although the SCO exercises included a third phase of amphibious operations. Russian ships arrived at Qingdao, the base of operations for the exercise, on April 21, and the exercises themselves began the next day.

The first phase consisted of preparation of headquarters and naval units and the deployment of ships. The two sides also practiced relaying information between Russian and Chinese naval command stations and the joint headquarters of the exercises.

(Photo: The Type 039 (NATO reporting name: Song class) is the diesel-electric submarine designed by Wuhan Ship Development and Design Institute (701 Institute) for the PLA Navy (PLAN). Construction of the submarine was carried out by Wuhan Shipbuilding Industry Company (also known as Wuchang Shipyard or 438 Factory) in Wuhan, Hubei Province and Jiangnan Shipyard Group Corporation in Shanghai. At least 16 hulls have been delivered to the PLA Navy since 1994. Credit:

On April 25, the active phase of the exercises began, with sailors engaging in tactical drills with small arms and RPGs aimed at defending their ships from hijacking. This was followed by the ships fending off simulated air attacks, resupplying at sea and moving into an area containing enemy submarines. On April 26, the two sides conducted a joint counter-hijacking and naval escort drill consisting of thirteen naval vessels, four helicopters and two special operations teams.

Five of the warships conducted a naval escort for four merchant ships, which, minutes later, were attacked by four pirate boats. The naval escorts and their shipboard helicopters quickly drove the boats away. The two sides also simulated a raid on a hijacked Chinese merchant ship, with 20 Chinese and Russian special operators successfully boarding the ship and rescuing hostages.

Following these drills, both sides conducted live-fire anti-ship exercises later that day aimed at targets roughly 30 kilometers away. Then they conducted joint anti-aircraft and anti-submarine drills. The anti-submarine exercise employed a sonar target to test submarine detection capabilities as well as anti-submarine munitions, specifically rocket-propelled depth charges. The drill was conducted with the Admiral Tributs’ shipboard Ka-27 helicopters searching for the sonar target, and then reporting its coordinates to the anti-submarine ships, which deployed countermeasures.

According to the Chinese, all the live-fire exercises were completed with “perfect precision.” Later that day, a fleet review was held, marking the end of the active phase of the exercise. The exercises officially ended on April 27 with a closing ceremony.

The latest exercise, like previous Russian-Chinese drills within the SCO and bilaterally, serve multiple purposes.

In the past, Russian officials have used the drills as an opportunity to showcase to the Chinese defense community certain weapons systems that they want to sell to China. A more enduring goal is to improve the operational and tactical proficiency of both militaries and increase their level of interoperability. 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 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.

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.

Maritime Cooperation 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, including with Japan over islands in the East China Sea. Meanwhile, Russia’s territorial dispute with Japan over the Northern Territories has become newly acute in recent years.

The China-Russia exercise occurred at the same time as a U.S. amphibious exercise with the Philippines involving nearly 7,000 troops, which included high-profile island landings a few days before the Sino-Russian drill was scheduled to start. Contingents from Australia, Japan, and South Korea also participated in these exercises.

PRC analysts saw the U.S.-Philippines drill as directed against China, considering it part of the wider “pivot” towards Asia.

The Peoples’ Liberation Army Daily wrote that “the mentality behind this sort of military exercise will lead to the road of military confrontation and armed force as a resolution.”  Chinese and Filipino warships have been locked in a standoff since April 10 over territorial disputes concerning the Scarborough Shoal. While the recent spat over the Scarborough Shoal could not have been a factor driving China and Russia to hold Maritime Cooperation 2012, the U.S.-Philippines maneuvers were planned months in advance, and some analysts have suggested that Beijing may have wanted to make a statement by holding contemporaneous exercises.

The drills with the Philippines are not the only U.S. military activity concerning China in the region. Three U.S. ships began a five-day visit to Vietnam on April 23, which included salvage and disaster training, although no live-fire drills were conducted. The exchange is an annual event, and this year’s exchange had been planned for months, although U.S. officials deny that it was coordinated with the U.S.-Philippines drill.

They also follow a series of U.S.-South Korean military exercises that some Chinese and Russian commentators have denounced as exacerbating tensions on an already tense Korean Peninsula. PRC officials have been especially incensed that some of these exercises have occurred in the China’s Yellow, near China’s industrial heartland and along routes where imports reach key Chinese coastal cities. Yana Leksyutina, associate professor of international relations at St. Petersburg State University, said that the exercises serve as a warning to the U.S. to avoid military expansion at the expense of Russian and Chinese interests, and that “the joint drill is a response to recently intensified military drills in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea by the US and its allies.”

Chinese and Russian representatives dismissed suggestions that they intended to send a message with their joint exercises. PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimi denied that Maritime Cooperation 2012 was a response to the recent U,S.-South Korean drills or any other external military actions. “As a big country in the Asia-Pacific region, China has a great responsibility to use this drill to contribute to regional stability and peace,” he said. “We hope the various parties will view this drill objectively and not link it with other events.”

“China and Russia holding joint military exercises is normal,” said Defence Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng. “The exercises are not considering a third party as an enemy.” 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 the 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.

In addition, the Russian government and influential Russian companies like Gazprom are working closely with Vietnam, South Korea, and other Asian countries besides China, so Moscow would not invariably side with Beijing in any territorial dispute.

In particular, Gazprom has reached a deal with PetroVietnam that will allow the Russian energy corporation to explore natural gas reserves off the Vietnamese coast. The Chinese government subsequently warned “third countries” to stay away from the South China Sea.

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 Maritime Cooperation 2012, 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.

Chinese and Russian analysts also attribute the exercises to a general Sino-Russian desire to counter the announced augmentation to U.S. military power in the Asia-Pacific region. Russian sources cited retired PLA generals as describing Maritime Cooperation 2012 as a manifestation of deepening Sino-Russian military cooperation in response to the Pentagon’s Asian pivot. Igor Korotchenko, chief editor of the National Defense magazine, added that while “China is not Russia’s military ally …. as strategic partners, we want peace and stability on our borders.”

Even so, the executive director of the Chinese navy for the drill, Rear Admiral Duan Zhangxian, deputy chief of staff of the PLA Navy, gave notice that, “The Chinese navy strives for peace. However, if anyone infringes on the country’s peace, we will not be afraid to fight for it.”

Featured Image: PRC destroyer