By Abhijit Singh
One of the more interesting aspects of Asian maritime politics is the Russia-China naval relationship. Both are major maritime powers with considerable stakes in regional security. Like Beijing, Moscow has sought to safeguard its maritime interests in strategically vital spaces in the Asia-Pacific by initiating a military modernisation programme aimed at projecting a strong national image. Significantly, despite having common areas of interest and operations, the PLA Navy and the Russian Navy have managed to maintain a smooth working relationship, which has only been getting stronger with time.
The nautical synergy was on ample display when the Russian and Chinese navies embarked on their latest maritime interaction. “Joint Sea 2015 II”, which began in the Sea of Japan on August 20, is a naval exercise of unprecedented operational integration and a workout menu that features live-firing drills, anti-submarine operations, close-support combat drills and even joint-beach landings. The sheer magnitude of the exercise – in terms of the size of the fleets involved, the duration of engagement, and the nature of joint drills – makes it a remarkable undertaking. With 16 surface ships, two submarines, 12 naval aircraft, nine amphibious vehicles fielded by the Russian navy, and six warships, six helicopters, five fixed-wing aircraft and ambitious assets from the Chinese side, this is arguably the largest maritime exercise the two navies have ever been involved in.
It is the presence of 500 Chinese marines, however, that is the event’s most striking feature. After the Chinese defence white paper announced an expeditionary template of operations in May 2015, recent PLA-N exercises have had an amphibious component, including ground assault drills by marine forces. The PLA-N has also conducted a series of island defence exercises, involving the deployment of dedicated amphibious assets in the Western and Far-Eastern Pacific. In keeping with the new focus on expeditionary operations, the participating contingents are scheduled to stage a joint amphibious and airborne landing.
A follow-up to ‘Joint-Sea 2015’ – a smaller naval exercise held in the Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea in May 2015 – the ongoing interaction is ostensibly aimed at countering America’s strategic dominance of maritime-Eurasia. Russian and Chinese leaders believe that the US is the central destabilising factor in the region’s geopolitics and that it is involved in a systemic containment of Moscow and Beijing. By staging close-combat naval exercises, they hope to warn Washington that its days of lording over maritime-Asia are numbered.
To be sure, China and Russia have their political differences. Russia has had its concerns about Chinese encroachments in the Russian Far-East and the loss of Central Asia to China’s growing influence. However, following Moscow’s isolation in Europe after its annexation of Crimea, President Putin has had to acquiesce to growing Chinese ambitions in Russia’s zone of influence. In return, he hopes to clinch massive oil and gas deals, albeit at terms favourable to Beijing. In order to diversify Russian energy export markets away from Europe, Putin has had little option but to develop an asymmetric strategic partnership with China, granting the latter vital concessions and the status of a special ally.
Yet, Russia isn’t unduly worried. Ever since Moscow and Beijing signed an agreement in December 1992 on military technology cooperation, China has purchased more defence items from the Russian Federation than from all other countries combined. These include Kilo class submarines, Su-27 aircraft, Sovremenny class destroyers, and many varieties of munitions and missiles. Although Beijing’s dependence on Moscow for military platforms has reduced since 2006, Russia has continued the supply of vital maritime stores and equipment. For Russia’s strategic elite, growing maritime operational ties with China are a logical progression of the military relationship.
The trajectory of recent maritime exercises, however, suggests that the partnership has exceeded the original template of military cooperation. The naval drills are significant not only for the size of the contingents involved, but also for the quality of interaction, which now seems as comprehensive as the US Navy’s many structured drills with its Asia-Pacific partners. Needless to add, the maritime relationship has benefited from a huge political investment. Chastened by the West for Russian aggression in Ukraine, particularly the seizure of the Crimea, Putin has taken a personal interest in nurturing maritime ties with China. Beijing, in search of an ally to mount a counter-US Pivot strategy, has been happy to play along.
The nautical parleys also reveal the abiding connection between geopolitics and maritime strategy. The Sino-Russian maritime relationship is the product of a certain geopolitical context in which both countries have been feeling strategically vulnerable to US military pressure. Their evolving maritime strategy has been a reflection of regional maritime politics, which they sense is being orchestrated to Washington’s advantage. With territorial disputes in littoral-Asia serving as a focal point of maritime strategy, Russia and China have also watched US allies – Japan Philippines and Vietnam – bolster their military presence in the Asia-Pacific with a growing sense of alarm. Russia has responded by formally co-opting China as a ‘core partner’ in its new maritime doctrine, thus signalling a desire for greater maritime influence in the Asia-Pacific.
The symbolism of recent Sino-Russian maritime engagements is both notionally and functionally instructive. The military exercises have helped bolster the Sino-Russian strategic relationship, while reinforcing deterrence against perceived adversaries. By conducting the interactions in spaces dominated by America and its allies, Russia and China have sought to defy the US-led maritime order. Their choice of venue for the joint exercises has been equally symbolic. The May 2014 interaction was held in the Mediterranean and Black Sea – a NATO preserve, and a theatre virtually alien to the Chinese navy. And the Sea of Japan where the present exercises are being held has rarely seen a full-fledged Chinese naval deployment. Not only are these theatres considered politically off-limits for the Russian and Chinese navies, these are regions where the participating contingents run the risk of an accidental skirmish with other regional navies.
In material terms too, the drills have a significant implication. Through close-combat exercises, the Chinese and Russian navies have been able to bolster their ‘interoperability’ in the Asian littorals. Harmonising equipment functioning and standard operating procedures, the two navies have gained familiarity with functional methodologies specific to each other, while also finessing maritime doctrine for territorial defence and developing a logistical plan for joint operations.
The material and operational gains are, however, dwarfed by the strategic pay-off for Russia and China. The maritime exercises have provided a framework by which Russia and China can develop their individual and collective defensive capabilities. Intensive combat-oriented operations also serve to signal a shift in the strategic balance of Asia. While the US is still the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific, growing Chinese and Russian nautical interaction heralds the beginning of a multi-polar maritime order in Asia.
For India, maritime intimacy between Russia and China holds significant implications. In recent times, both Russia and China have expanded their strategic interaction with Pakistan. China’s decision to include the development of Gwadar port in the first phase of the proposed $46 billion corridor, as well as the impending contract for the transfer of eight Yuan class submarines make it Pakistan’s principal maritime partner and patron. Russia too has been deepening its defence ties with Pakistan, much to India’s chagrin. A growing Sino-Russian-Pakistani maritime nexus in the IOR poses a challenge to India’s influence in the Indian Ocean and heralds a potential change in the Asian balance of maritime power.