2017-08-24 By Richard Weitz
Although Sino-U.S. military ties have showed surprising residence in the phase of numerous China-U.S. security differences, they lag considerably behind Beijing’s defense relations with Moscow.
During the last week of July, the Chinese and Russian navies conducted a week of joint drills in the Baltic Sea, representing the first stage of their planned two-phased bilateral maritime exercise for 2017.
These drills, held from July 21-28, are part of a comprehensive joint program to deepen Sino-Russian defense cooperation.
The July 2017 exercise in the Baltics was the latest iteration of a series of drills termed “Joint Sea” by the Chinese and “Naval Interaction” by the Russians.
The second phase will take place in the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk in mid-September.
Following an opening ceremony and land-based planning phase, the active stage of the July Baltic exercise included a drill in which the dozen ships (three Chinese) formed two tactical groups, consisting of mixed Chinese and Russian detachments, which simulated offensive and defensive operations included ship-to-sea gunnery, maritime search and rescue, liberating vessels seized by pirates, joint air and anti-submarine defense, and underway cargo replenishment.
The Russian Defense Ministry stressed how these joint drills contribute to furthering the Sino-Russian defense relationship and improving binational naval interoperability.
The Chinese side held the same perspective. Wang Xiaoyong, deputy captain of a participating PLAN destroyer detachment, concurred that an operational objective of the exercise was “enhancing coordination and tacit understanding between commanders of the two countries.”
Russian analysts also emphasized the defense and deterrence value of drills.
Konstantin Sivkov, director of the Russian Academy of Geopolitical Problems, said that the participation of Chinese warships at such distance exhibited a historic level of cooperation with Moscow on maritime issues.
In his view, “China is demonstrating to the world that in the event of conflict, it will conduct military operations on Russia’s side as its ally.”
Russian political commentator Alexander Khrolenko likewise commented that the exercises “demonstrate the significant potential for cooperation between the two countries in the area of defense, and will be sure to cool the hot heads of admirals and generals in Brussels and Washington.”
The Russian ambassador to China, Andrei Denisov, said that “the degree of cooperation in the military sphere is a reflection of the degree of political affinity and trust” between Moscow and Beijing. “If we see the same threats facing us and have a similar assessment of those threats,” he added, “it will be natural to attempt to compare our respective methods to counter those threats.”
Russia benefited from having the joint drills occur, for the first time, in the Baltics, an area of great military and political significance for Moscow. At the time of Naval Interaction 2017, some of Russia’s largest ships were maneuvering into the Baltic Sea for the July 30 naval parade at St. Petersburg.
Russia was then also preparing to hold its latest ZAPAD drill with Belarus in September; which, with a predicted 100,000 troops, worried NATO governments.
The Baltics are a vital region for the Alliance, due to NATO’s need to send reinforcements through the territory to protect Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
NATO has expanded its air and troop presence since the 2014 annexation of Crimea. NATO held its own military exercise, BALTOPS-2017, near the Polish-Lithuanian border in June 2017.
NATO had also recently announced its largest upcoming joint exercise with Sweden, “Aurora 17,” scheduled for September 2017. NATO leaders have criticized Russia for conducting provocative military maneuvers in the region, with military ships and aircraft operating close to the border without adequate notification or transparency.
The Russian and Chinese governments understand that the high-profile drills attract the attention of third parties. On this occasion, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius expressed concern that the Baltic drill could elevate regional tensions.
NATO allies monitored the PLAN flotilla as it moved through European waters-–for example, British, Dutch, and Danish warships accompanied China’s fleet through the North Sea and English Channel.
At the time of the drills, the Russian government issued a new doctrinal statement –“Fundamentals of Russia’s State Naval Policy Through 2030” –which profiles the importance of the Russian Navy in the defense of Russia’s global economic and security interests.
According to the doctrine, these interests include maintaining access to the energy-rich Middle East and Caspian Sea regions, as well as sustaining a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean.
Although the Chinese Navy will likely surpass the size and diversity of the Russian fleet, the Russian Navy should be able to project power in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East –as confirmed by its extensive combat support role in the Syrian War.
The Chinese Navy also will strengthen its capacity and presence in coming years.
A 2015 Chinese government white paper states that “It is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security and development interests […] so as to provide strategic support for building itself into a maritime power.”
According to the PLA, China commissioned 18 ships in 2016, with a total displacement of 150,000 tons. In April 2017, China launched its first domestically built aircraft carrier; in June, its first destroyer took its maiden voyage.
In late June 2017, moreover, the PLA Navy launched its first Type 055 destroyer which, at 12,000 tons, is larger than the U.S. Navy’s Ticonderoga-class cruisers. The Type 055 ships are expected to serve as the air defense control centers for future Chinese aircraft carrier battle groups.
China’s second carrier is expected to enter into service in 2020.
China plans to build four more carriers, giving the PLAN the second-largest carrier fleet after the United States.
Some forecasts indicate that the PLA will have a 500-ship fleet by 2030, compared with an estimated 350 vessels for the U.S. Navy unless U.S. shipbuilding rates increase significantly in coming years.
In short, the mass and reach of the Russian and Chinese Navies is on the upsurge.
What the impact of this will be in the future is a work in progress.
Editor’s Note: And the Russians are innovating with regard to their concepts of operations.
For example, they have operated their own version of a kill web with missiles launched from frigates in the Caspian sea against Syrian targets obviously guided by target acquisition and C2 nodes in Syria.
Chris Cavas wrote about the Caspian fleet in this piece while he was at Defense News:
Few naval strategists would count Russia’s Caspian Sea flotilla among significant units in an order of battle. The inland sea features naval forces from the four bordering countries — Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkmenistan in addition to Russia — but most vessels are small missile-armed or patrol craft, nearly all well under 1,000 tons. The forces have been viewed purely as local craft.
But that changed on Oct. 7, when four Russian warships in the Caspian Sea launched a reported 26 Kalibr SS-N-30A cruise missiles at targets in Syria, nearly 1,000 nautical miles away. While most analysts dismissed the military effects of the missile strikes, the fact that such small, inexpensive and relatively simple craft can affect ground operations that far away is significant.
“It is not lost on us that this launch from the Caspian Sea was more than just hitting targets in Syria,” said a US official. “They have assets in Syria that could have handled this. It was really about messaging to the world and us that this is a capability that they have and they can use it.”
And to remind everyone that they are a Pacific power, recently the Russians flew their bombers into the face of South Korea and the United States as their own statement against US and South Korean military drills.
Russia, which has said it is strongly against any unilateral U.S. military action on the peninsula, said Tupolev-95MS bombers, code named “Bears” by NATO, had flown over the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea, prompting Japan and Seoul to scramble jets to escort them.
The flight, which also included planes with advanced intelligence gathering capabilities, was over international waters and was announced by the Russian Defence Ministry on the same day as Moscow complained about the U.S.-South Korean war games.
“The US and South Korea holding yet more large-scale military and naval exercises does not help reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula,” Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the foreign ministry, told a news briefing in Moscow.