The Recent Russian-Chinese Naval Exercise: A New Phase for the Partnership?


2013-07-31 by Richard Weitz

The PRC-Russian relationship is the process of further development.

Three recent measures of that development are the following:

  1. Their growing energy trade,
  2. Their collusion in helping NSA leaker Edward Snowden gain asylum,
  3. and their renewed arms sales.

In another sign of a deepening relationship, they recently concluded a significant bilateral naval exercise.

These drills, which the Russians term “Sea Interaction 2013,” were larger and more sophisticated than last year’s Sino-Russian naval exercise. But these exercises are still far from establishing a Russia-China capacity for joint maritime combat operations, which does not appear to be a goal of either government in any case.

Early this month, Russia and China conducted an eight-day naval drill in the Sea of Japan. Following some social exchanges, the “active phase” of the drills took place July 8-10 in the Gulf of Peter the Great off Vladivostok.  The exercise comprised 18 surface vessels, including four guided missile destroyers, a submarine, two missile frigates, a supply vessel and three helicopters. The PLA Navy contingent was the largest ever sent on a joint maritime exercise.   The drills involved a total of 4,000 military personnel, including Special Force units from both countries.

This year’s joint maneuvers exceeded the scale of the April 2012 Russia-China exercise in the Yellow Sea.

A naval vessel is seen during the “Joint Sea-2013” drill at Peter the Great Bay in Russia, July 10, 2013. (Xinhua/Wang Jinguo)

Seven Russian warships and support craft took part in Naval Interaction 2012, whereas 12 Russian vessels from the Pacific Fleet participated in this year’s drill.  China sent fewer ships than last year, a total of seven vessels from its North Sea and South Sea fleets, but they included some of the PLA Navy’s most advanced warships, including a guided-missile destroyer with Aegis-type radar that track and guide weapons to destroy enemy targets, and missile frigates with antisubmarine abilities.”

The Russian and Chinese naval partnership has also encompassed reciprocal port visits, some personnel exchanges, and extensive Russian naval weapons sales to China.

Russia and China also conducted joint naval maneuvers before 2012, but only as a maritime component of the large “Peace Mission” series of military exercises they conducted under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The two recent maritime drills occurred independent of the SCO, a trend that looks to continue.

Furthermore, the declared purpose of the Sea Interaction exercises is different from those of the SCO’s Peace Mission drills, whose stated purpose is enhancing the counter terrorism capabilities of the member governments’ militaries. Russian and Chinese officials sometimes describe their Sea Interaction series as having a counter terrorism dimension, but they more plausibly acknowledge other goals, including enhancing interoperability, strengthening skills, exchanging techniques, and augmenting regional stability.

Like all exercises, the Russia-China maritime drills aim to improve the participants’ operational proficiency and interoperability. The participating ships practice their tactics, techniques, and procedures as well as their control, electronics, and information systems.

The Russian and Chinese warships that participated in Sea Interaction 2012 simulated rescuing a hijacked vessel, protecting commercial ships from pirates, waging anti-submarine warfare, and conducting joint maritime air defense and search and rescue.

This year’s exercise practiced a wider range of skills, including search-and-rescue, at-sea replenishment, anti-piracy convoying, fleet air defense, and surface as well as anti-submarine warfare.

The Russia-China naval drills explicitly aim to enhance their ability to fight maritime piracy.

The two navies have been operating together in the Gulf of Aden protecting ships against Somali-based pirates. At the time of Naval Interaction 2012, Anatoly Klimenko, deputy head of the Center of Strategic Problems of Asia and Shanghai Cooperation Organization countries, observed that “pirate attacks are not uncommon in the Yellow Sea, the South China Sea and the southern part of the Indian Ocean, which is why the current Russian-Chinese drills are taking place in the Yellow Sea.”

Another traditional aim of Russian-Chinese military exercises, both within the SCO and bilaterally, has been to promote Russian arms sales to China.

Russians have taken advantage of exercises with China to showcase weapons systems that they want to the PLA to buy. This function appeared to have declined in importance in recent exercises since the Chinese armed forces, benefiting from growing indigenous capabilities of the Chinese defense industry, have been buying fewer Russian weapons. But the Russia-China arms sales have rebounded markedly in value in the last few years.

Another goal of these exercises is to affirm the two countries’ commitment to military cooperation as an important dimension of their evolving relationship, notwithstanding their lack of a formal defense alliance. Collaborating through joint exercises could also be seen as a form of mutual confidence building. Rear Admiral Yang Junfei, commander of the Chinese contingent in Naval Interaction 2013, said that the drills sought to reinforce ‘’strategic trust’’ between both navies.

The Russian and Chinese governments regularly affirm that their military exercises are not aimed at any third party. But the Russian and Chinese denials that they intended to send messages to others with their joint exercises appear pro forma. Using military exercises to send signals to third parties is common. These activities typically attract greater attention than simple political declarations or other routine civilian government activities.

Although there are many possible targets of these exercises, at a minimum they affirm to other countries that Russia and China are willing and able to cooperate to advance their joint security interests in the Asia-Pacific region.

In 2012 and 2013, Russian and Chinese sources referred to a general shared desire to counter the Obama administration’s Asian Pivot. China certainly had an interest in reinforcing its position vis-a-vis Japan given the escalating tensions between the two countries.

A Russian-language web site controlled by the Chinese government described Naval Interaction 2013 as “‘an attempt to resist the ongoing U.S.-Japan alliance.’”

Perhaps the clearest sign of China’s anti-Japan intent was how, following the end of Naval Interaction 2013, five PLA Navy vessels conducted their first known passage of the Soya Strait located between Khokaido in northern Japan and Russia’s Sakhalin Island.

In contrast, Russia’s participation mostly reflects Moscow’s recent efforts to raise its global naval profile. Russian fleets are increasing their presence on the high seas and, after years of falling budgets, finally acquiring newly built warships. Most recently, President Putin established a standing Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean, with responsibility for Syria and other regional hotspots.

Following Sea Interaction 2013, senior Russian and Chinese officers affirmed their intent to conduct additional joint naval exercises and rehearse more skills. A Chinese source referred to the “normalization and institutionalization” of “this kind of exercise.”  Meanwhile, their next joint exercise will occur in a few days. From July 27 to August 15, Russian and Chinese army personnel will conduct an anti-terrorist exercise in Chelyabinsk in Russia’s Ural mountain region.

One should not exaggerate the significance of these Russia-China exercises.

The United States and other countries regularly engage in many comparably large and often more challenging naval exercises with foreign partners. The Chinese and Russian navies are not yet capable of conducting complex multinational combat operations. At best, they might be able to employ a sectoral approach in which they would conduct parallel but geographically separate campaigns. Yet, Russia and China do not have a formal defense alliance and there is no pledge or expectation that they would conduct joint combat operations anytime soon.

Furthermore, Russia and China’s intend to join the United States and Japan in the upcoming Pacific-Rim naval exercises, the largest drills in the Pacific.

For a presentation of a PRC perspective on the naval drills see the following:

Credit: CCTV News. 7/5/13

CCTV News formerly known as CCTV-9 is a 24-hour English news channel, of China Central Television (CCTV), based in Beijing. The channel grew out of CCTV International, which was launched on 15 September 2000. CCTV News coverage includes newscasts, in-depth reports, and commentary programs, as well as feature presentations. Its Free-to-air satellite signal can be received by more than 85 million viewers, in over 100 countries and regions.[1] It is also carried by Cable, DTH, IPTV, and Terrestrial TV platforms or systems in many nations. It caters to a global English-speaking audience, including overseas Chinese and English speakers in China.