CHINA & RUSSIA – COMRADES OR COMPETITORS IN ARMS?
Byline: Gordon Arthur / Hong Kong
On the basis of their communist heritage, one might expect Russia and China to be allies. However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) possesses unhappy relations with fellow ideologically driven neighbours such as Russia and Vietnam. In April, though, a significant event in the pathway of Sino-Russian cooperation took place – an unprecedented exercise between the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and Russian Navy. The bilateral exercise in the Yellow Sea involved 18 Chinese and seven Russian vessels. In this article we outline the scope of the exercise, and also some strategic implications. Oddly, the exercise name was not widely publicised, but “Maritime Cooperation 2012” seems the best fit.
Held from 22-27 April in waters near Qingdao, a coastal city in Shandong, this exercise was remarkable in its scale and for the fact that it occurred outside the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) framework. It was the first Sino-Russian naval exercise since Peace Mission 2005. Xinhua, China’s state news organ, lauded it as “path-breaking cooperation” and “an important sign of further deepening of the China-Russia comprehensive strategic and cooperative partnership”.
The Russian Navy task force was headed by the Varyag, flagship of the Pacific Fleet. The Russian participants were:
– Slava-class guided missile cruiser Varyag (011);
– Udaloy-class anti-submarine destroyers Admiral Tributs (564), Marshal Shaposhnikov (543) and Admiral Vinogradov (572);
– fleet tanker Pechenga;
– tugboat MB-37;
– SB-22 supply ship.
China’s complement comprised 4,000+ personnel, with Harbin, the North Fleet’s flagship, serving as command vessel for the exercise. China’s fleet comprised:
– Type 052 Luhu-class destroyer Harbin (112);
– Type 051C Luzhou-class air defence destroyer Shenyang (115);
– Project 956A Sovremenny-class destroyer Fuzhou (137);
– Project 956EM Sovremenny II-class destroyer Taizhou (138);
– Type 053H3 Jiangwei II-class frigates Luoyang (527) and Mianyang (528);
– Type 054A Jiangkai II-class stealth frigates Yiyang (549), Zhoushan (530) and Xuzhao (538);
– four missile boats;
– Fuqing-class fleet oiler Hongzhu;
– hospital ship;
– two submarines, at least one of which was a Song-class Type 039G1.
The two countries additionally fielded five ship-borne helicopters and 13 aircraft. It was significant that Russia dispatched its most advanced warships, these passing through the Tsushima Strait that separates Japan from Korea and arriving in Qingdao on 21 April. The first phase from the 22nd saw a three-day table-top command exercise to allow the two sides to hone communications and practise relaying information from ship to joint headquarters. The second phase of at-sea training commenced on 25 April with the focus on joint maritime air defence and protecting sea lanes.
Tasks on 25 April included small-arms and RPG tactical drills to defend ships from hijackers. Then the ships resisted air attacks, conducted replenishments and moved into an area containing hostile submarines. On the 26th, there was a counter-hijacking operation against ‘pirate’ boats and a naval escort drill involving 13 ships, four helicopters and two special operations teams. This featured a raid on a ‘hijacked’ Chinese merchant ship. Later that day, six ships conducted live firing at air, surface and underwater targets up to 30km away. Next were antiaircraft and anti-submarine warfare drills, as ships tested their submarine detection abilities against a sonar target and dropped depth charges. Russian Ka-27 helicopters searched for the sonar target and relayed coordinates to ships. Later on there was a fleet review before the event officially ended on 27 April. Also thrown into the scenario were maritime search and rescue missions plus electronic countermeasures.
Vice Admiral Ding Yiping, the Chinese exercise general director, described Maritime Cooperation 2012 as a “complete success”. This sentiment was echoed by Rear Admiral Leonid Sukhanov, his Russian counterpart, who said the two sides would “further strengthen cooperation.”
Simultaneous to these war games, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin met with Guo Boxiong, China’s vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), in Beijing. “Bilateral relations have maintained sound development, and have greatly promoted global and regional peace and stability,” stated Guo. Perhaps one example in mind is the Gulf of Aden anti-piracy mission where both Russia and China are engaged.
Strategic military cooperation has certainly deepened under the auspices of the SCO, an organisation established in 2001 and with the additional membership of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Previous Sino-Russian exercises have all occurred under the umbrella of the SCO, and the four previous events were “counterterrorist” in nature. However, this naval exercise occurring outside the SCO context was more complex. General Chen Bingde, chief of General Staff of the PLA said, “Friendly military-to-military cooperation is an important aspect of the China-Russia strategic partnership.” Chen said the drill would strengthen the naval forces’ ability to jointly confront new regional threats and demonstrate their confidence to maintain peace and stability in the region and world.
The Western Pacific is witnessing more naval exercises than ever, but it would be fair to say this drill was more about defining Chinese and Russian roles rather than sending overt messages to the world. The 1996 Sino-Russian Strategic and Cooperative Partnership ushered in a rather vague relationship, and it requires definition and shaping through joint activities such as this. The two are neighbours rather than strategic or military allies. While global realities are gradually drawing them together, China and Russia need to delicately balance this while maintaining good relations with the West. Russia relies on energy exports to Europe, and China on Western markets for its manufacturing products – neither country can afford to lose this custom.
Some among the ruling elite are calling for a shift in Chinese strategic policy towards a military alliance with Russia. For example, Qian Wenrong of the Institute of World Issues stated: “We must change the no-alliance policy without openly announcing it. We must consider the issue of forming alliances. Otherwise, in future wars, in both political and military confrontations, we by ourselves will not have the slightest chance of overcoming the global network of alliances that the US has constructed.” However, a formal alliance would be taken the wrong way in the region. China’s military rise is already creating tensions, plus it threatens Russia’s under-populated Far East. Russia is already wary of Chinese inroads tapping Central Asia’s energy wealth.
The Yellow Sea exercise took place close to where the USA and South Korea have drilled in recent times following North Korea’s 2010 torpedo attack. It also coincided with war games on the South China Sea rim between the USA and Philippines during the annual Exercise Balikatan. A PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “We hope the various parties will view this drill objectively and not link it with other events.” Indeed, it should not be seen as a knee-jerk reaction to recent territorial disputes. The long-planned exercise emanated from a visit by General Chen to Russia last August.
Of greatest concern to China and Russia is the American “pivot” to Asia as it strengthens regional alliances and builds military capabilities to defend maritime arteries. Though officials claimed the exercise was not aimed at any third party, the only conceivable foe is the USA. Peng Guangqian, a PLA strategic affairs expert said: “In the future, the bilateral relationship will intensify. The cooperation will help boost the implementation of international principles and break the intervention of outside powers in regional issues.” These drills can be viewed as a response to intensified US activity, but essentially they were a mutual confidence-building measure.
Russia has not been active in the Far East since the Soviet Union ended, but it is now expanding its military presence. One example is the deployment of an S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) regiment to the Eastern Military District. With a massive programme of new-build submarines and modernised cruisers being initiated in recent months, the Russian Navy is clearly on the move. However, the country must overcome a rundown military-industrial complex, and so it requires an influx of Western technology. Possessing 23% of known global oil reserves and 33% of gas deposits, Russia is seeking to protect resources in the Far East and Far North from would-be aggressors.
While Russia and China are military self-reliant, they recognise the need for a stronger partnership in an increasingly ‘hostile’ world. Both wish to express unhappiness with the USA’s “return to Asia” policy because it will impinge upon their spheres of influence. For instance, after North Korea’s recent ‘rocket’ launch, President Barack Obama called for a joint missile shield with Japan, South Korea and Australia. A proposed European shield has already angered Moscow, as will one in the East. While plausibly targeting North Korea, such an American-backed shield would create an Asian ‘firewall’ and reduce reaction times for Chinese and Russian missile launches.
Territorial disputes are sensitive issues for both countries. Ten days before Maritime Cooperation 2012, 40 Russian Air Force bombers exercised near Japan’s border. Japan and Russia argue over the Kuril Islands, while the Diaoyu Islands get China and Japan hot under the collar. Furthermore, China is at loggerheads with half a dozen ASEAN nations over the South China Sea. Neither country can count on the other’s support in their individual territorial disputes. For example, Russia’s Gazprom signed a deal with Petro Vietnam in April to drill 16 wells off Vietnam’s coast. Additionally, Russia has important aircraft, submarine and warship deals with Vietnam. Russia’s friendship with India as a major arms supplier should also be added to the mix. Russia has recently leased a nuclear-powered submarine and will soon finish refitting the INS Vikramaditya aircraft carrier. Russia certainly sees India as a means of counterbalancing Chinese influence. It recognises regional equilibrium hinges on the USA and China, so Moscow will be careful about leaning to either side.
Chinese maritime hegemony
The total tonnage of new-generation PLAN warships is starting to exceed that of the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF). Maritime domination requires control of airspace too, and the PLAN Air Force (PLANAF) is receiving one new J-10A and one J-16 regiment per year, as well as one JH-7A regiment every 2-3 years. China is on a much faster track than Russia in key military production, and the PLAN owns the world’s largest diesel-electric submarine fleet. Meanwhile, sea trials for the Varyag continue but a major ‘snag’ is obtaining arresting wires for this refurbished carrier.
China was surprised when a military weakling, the Philippines, stood its ground west of Palawan. In such territorial disputes, China does not deploy PLAN vessels – for obvious public-relations reasons. Instead, it entrusts such tasks to the China Marine Surveillance agency, part of the State Oceanic Administration (SOA). This organisation currently operates 400+ law enforcement vessels, and the director announced in June that 36 new patrol vessels will be built in the next two years, indicating serious expansion of the SOA remit.
Some experts say China should underscore its territorial claims via deep-sea oil exploration rather than by naval confrontation. In May, the National Energy Administration announced deep-sea drilling platform Ocean 981 began pumping oil 320km south of Hong Kong. There are 1,380 oil wells in the South China Sea, but this is China’s first.
Maritime Cooperation 2012 demonstrated China’s ability to replenish vessels at sea, an important skill for an aspiring blue-water navy. China is nervous about the USA’s containment strategy as it establishes bases in Darwin and Singapore, and a stronger presence in the Philippines and Guam. Amidst this gradual shift in the balance of power, it is interesting that the USA invited Russia to participate in this year’s RIMPAC exercise. Obviously the US is keen to exploit the mistrust between China and Russia, and to even use Russian help in containing China. On 21-22 June, the US, Japan and South Korea conducted their first ever trilateral naval exercise.
Chinese business practices
Deep suspicion exists and simmering Russian resentment stems from China’s unabashed copying of military technology. China has unashamedly imitated J-11B (Su-27SMK), J-15 (Su-33) and J-16 (Su-30MK2) fighters. It has done the same with radar and missile technology. Such practices clearly impact Russian sales and maintenance contracts. For instance, China drastically has reduced Sukhoi part imports, worth US $200 million annually before 2009, to around US $40 million now. In 2008, China and Russia signed an Intellectual Property Agreement for Military-Technical Cooperation but this has done nothing to stem reverse engineering. Unsurprisingly, Russia is refusing to sell many sensitive technologies – for instance, Su-35 fighters or S-400 SAMs. China thirst for modern military equipment is unquenchable so these unethical practices will not abate anytime soon.
Russia estimates technological imitation places China approximately ten years behind Russia. Notwithstanding, Chinese industry is making huge strides and the technological gap is slowly closing. One source claimed Russia had come close to completely suspending military cooperation with China on several occasions. Simultaneously, Russia must be careful not to anger China as this will affect important contracts for struggling Russian industries. China and Russia are now competing in international arms sales too, although Russia publicly says it does not fear Chinese competition because its products are superior in quality.
Middle East connection
Russia and China have closed ranks regarding Syria’s ‘civil war’ and Iran’s ‘peaceful’ nuclear programme. They vetoed UN resolutions regarding Syria, Russia being loath to intervene against its closest Middle Eastern ally. Syria imports large amounts of Russian weaponry, with current arms sales estimated at US $3.5 billion. Furthermore, Russia maintains its only Mediterranean naval base in Tartus, Syria. Russia sees the Syrian conflict as a chance to reassert its authority, plus it is highly suspicious of the Western ‘policy’ of regime change.
While China does not have significant ties with Syria, a major source of its oil is Iran. And Syria’s closest ally is Iran. China will therefore not do anything to disrupt this arterial energy flow. China is safeguarding its “key interests” in Iran by preventing a domino effect that may start with the downfall of the Syrian regime. Furthermore, Iran is China’s biggest arms importer in the Middle East.
The recent Sino-Russian naval exercise demonstrated new levels of bilateral cooperation. Both nations are cementing their positions in the Pacific hierarchy, but inherent suspicion remains, something a six-day exercise cannot dispel. Nevertheless, the degree to which they are cooperating highlights the tensions that are being produced by the US pivot into Asia. Interestingly, the Chinese press blustered more about this exercise than its Russian counterparts. Russia has been more discrete, perhaps subtly signalling that too much American influence will only push Moscow closer to Beijing.
The Chinese flagship was the destroyer Harbin, essentially a forerunner to the Type 052C Haikou seen in this photo. (Gordon Arthur)
The standard ship-borne helicopter for PLAN vessels is the Harbin Z-9C, basically a Eurocopter Dauphin modified for naval use. (Gordon Arthur)
The 4,053-ton Type 054A frigate Xuzhou from the East Sea Fleet participated in the recent exercise in the Yellow Sea. (Gordon Arthur)