China and Russia have begun their first naval exercises in the South China Sea (SCS), setting the stage for a deeper military and political engagement, reinforced by the meeting at Hangzhou between the two heads of state.
Significantly, Chinese state media, without dispelling ambiguity entirely, is signaling that exercises are not being held in a disputed area in the SCS, but within China’s coastal waters.
The state-run China Central Television reported in its Monday morning bulletin that the joint manoeuvres were being held in “waters off China’s Guangdong province”. It then quoted “experts” as saying that “the exercise is likely to take place in coastal waters.”
Russians sending a dual signal
Diplomatic sources had earlier told The Hindu that the Russians and the Chinese had come to an understanding that the exercises would not be held in disputed waters. They added that the Russians have been sending a dual signal. While they are conveying to the United States that they stand by the Chinese, they are at the same time preserving their strategic relationship with Vietnam, which hotly contests Chinese claims in the Spratly islands in the SCS.
The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) quoted Colonel Yue Gang, who retired from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), as saying that Beijing and Moscow had each confronted rising challenges from Washington — from the stand-off with China in the SCS to the sanctions imposed by the West over Russia after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“[China and Russia] understand that they need to cooperate, not just in diplomacy and politics but also in the military as a way to respond to the challenge from the West,” he observed.
The eight-day Joint Sea-2016 exercise is the largest naval drill that the two countries have decided to conduct since their annual naval manoeuvres began in 2012. Analysts say the exercises signal the possibility of joint military assertion by the China and Russia in the Western Pacific Ocean, which would seriously challenge the U.S.-led Pivot to Asia doctrine of force accumulation in these waters.
Chinese state television also reported that the drills are expected to test “landing operations on islands and reefs”— a tangential reference to the possibility of joint defence by Russia and China of some of Beijing’s claims in the SCS. The construction of artificial islands, with the scope of extending Beijing’s military reach, has reinforced the debate, led by the U.S., that China’s growing military clout poses a threat to “freedom of navigation” in waters supporting 5 trillion dollars of annual global trade.
Ahead of the exercise, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, said during this month’s G-20 summit in Hangzhou that Moscow supported China’s rejection of the ruling by an international arbitration tribunal that had rejected Beijing’s territorial claims in the SCS.
Mr. Putin said in a response to a reporter’s question that “as far as the Hague Arbitration Court and its rulings are concerned, we agree with and support China’s position to not recognise the court’s ruling.” He added: “And I’ll tell you why. It is not a political but a purely legal position. It is that any arbitration proceedings should be initiated by parties to a dispute while a court of arbitration should hear the arguments and positions of the parties to the dispute. As is known, China did not go the Hague Court of Arbitration and no one there listened to its position. So, how can these rulings be deemed fair? We support China’s position on the issue.”
The Russian President also praised Chinese President Xi Jinping, the host of the G-20 summit. “I’ve developed a very good relationship based on trust with President Xi Jinping,” he observed.
In Moscow, the website ‘Russia Beyond the Headlines’ quoted Viktor Litovkin, a military specialist, as saying that the Chinese military infrastructure in the SCS will protect Russia in the area “against U.S. Navy ships and the Aegis system and SM-3 and Tomahawk missiles.”