The principal antagonists over control of the western Pacific Ocean – China and Russia on one side, the United States, Philippines, Australia, Japan and South Korea on the other – are due to hold almost simultaneous naval drills over the next month.
In what could become the largest drill ever held by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy in the West Pacific, the Chinese North Sea fleet and the Russian Pacific Fleet are to hold joint naval maneuvers in the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea beginning in late April, running into May.
At almost the same time, 4,000 km to the south in the South China Sea, US and Filipino forces will stage their annual Balikatan drills as they have since 1991. For the first time ever, the militaries of Japan, South Korea and Australia are to be involved, with combat practice to be held at much more sensitive spots than in the past.
While both sets of maneuvers are fraught with symbolism, their significance differs greatly.
On Mar. 29, Chinese military spokesman Yang Yujun announced that China and Russia would hold joint maneuvers under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization framework. Russian and Chinese forces had previously trained together in 2005, 2007 and 2009 under the Shanghai pact, a multilateral body that also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
The drills are expected to include 10-plus Russian warships led by a guided missile cruiser which will join a mixed Chinese fleet centered around a guided-missile destroyer. They will assemble at Vladivostok, the largest Russian port on the Pacific Ocean and home of the Russian Pacific Fleet, and conclude at Qingdao, the Chinese North Sea Fleet’s headquarters, looking out to the Yellow Sea.
The Russian Navy announced that the exercises will focus on the joint testing of command-and-control, armament, support and protection systems, as well as combat systems’ interoperability. Both surface and underwater exercises will be included. The maneuvers have been described as the largest ever held by the PLA navy in the West Pacific.
As Beijing and Moscow play up their “Strategic Partnership” in the North, the Balikatan exercises will be held from April 16 to 27, involving approximately 4,500 US personnel and 2,300 personnel from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). A so-far undisclosed number of members of foreign forces and 385 local health professionals will support various human and civic assistance activities. Balikatan is Tagalog for “Shouldering the Load Together.”
Combined planning, combat readiness and interoperability between the US Filipino forces usually stand at the center of the exercise, along with disaster response. What’s new is that Japan’s Self-Defense Forces will send two field-grade officials. The militaries of Australia and South Korea will be represented while Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia are reportedly planning to join.
Intriguingly, the geographical focus of this year’s combat drills has been shifted from the northern island of Luzon, the Philippines’ main island, to Palawan in the South China Sea, nearer to the disputed Spratly islands, various parts of which are claimed Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines – and all of it by China. The ocean floor is believed to contain huge deposits of oil and natural gas.
To avoid directly antagonizing China, Japanese officers won’t get anywhere near the contested waters of the South China Sea. They will instead participate in a simulated disaster relief exercise premised on a major earthquake in Manila.
It is tempting to assume that the Sino-Russo naval maneuvers are meant to send a message by Beijing to counter US President Barack Obama’s pivot toward Asia. After all, the first batch of US marines began their deployment in Australia on April 4, sparking serious concern in China over a supposed US strategy aimed at encircling it and hindering the country’s rise toward becoming a global power.
But analysts agree that the maneuver carried out by the Chinese and Russians can hardly be taken as an aggressive counter-move against Balikatan.
“It would be more telling if Beijing and Moscow choose to present this as a specific parallel event or an unrelated event being held simultaneously by accident,” said Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, adding that it’s still too early to expect such statements.
The Chinese and Russians, he said, aren’t short of practical motives for joint naval maneuvers. Neither country is in a position to be overly picky with its sparring partners, he added.
“Since the PLA is unwilling to let the US or European navies to gain firsthand knowledge of their operational procedures and effectiveness, it really doesn’t have many choices for partners in major joint naval exercises apart from the Russians,” Tsang said. “The Russians are in a somewhat similar though less acute situation.”
Exercising together in a major blue water exercise makes sense for the Chinese because it sends a signal to the US and its allies that China is not alone and furthermore that its navy is no longer merely a coastal defense force.
“But the most powerful message being sent is that China and Russia are strategic partners willing and able to work together when and where desired by both sides,” Tsang said.
James Holmes, an associate professor at the US Naval War College, called the Sino-Russo naval maneuvers serious endeavors only from a purely tactical and operational standpoint.
“Both sides see value in exposure to friendly navies’ tactics, techniques, and procedures, which furnishes lessons they can use to improve their own practices. So in a limited sense, they do ‘really prepare to fight together,” Homes said.
He emphasized that the significance of the cooperation between Chinese and Russians pales considerably against what is about to go on in the Philippines where local forces together with their counterparts from up to seven other nations will close ranks to bring about Balikatan.
“Alliances work best when the allies have powerful interests in common, in particular when they face an imposing security threat; when ideological and cultural affinities bind them together; or when one of the partners can furnish incentives or use strong-arm tactics to induce lesser partners to join in,” Holmes said.
“But for what common strategic and political aims would Moscow and Beijing fight together? China and Russia have a common interest in looking defiant vis-à-vis the West, but that’s a flimsy foundation for a serious military alliance.”
More pressing interests in Central Asia or the Russian Far East could stir trouble between Beijing and Moscow on short notice, Holmes said, noting that ideological kinship between the two countries has been weak at least since the Sino-Soviet split of the 1970s.
“There’s more pulling the two countries apart than pushing them together. Juxtapose that against the Philippine exercises in order to see the disparity. These are powers that have pressing interests in common and have developed a culture of security cooperation over the course of decades. Such exercises have real political purposes and aim to achieve real operational results,” Holmes said.