A joint Chinese and Russian naval exercise, in which a flotilla of 10 warships completed a near circle around Japan’s main island, has been touted by the two countries as a means of ensuring stability in a volatile region.
But analysts say the drills are likely to have the opposite effect, potentially reigniting regional tensions and enhancing claims by the Japanese government that it needs to increase military spending to counter Chinese aggression.
The voyage, billed as the first joint China-Russia naval patrol in the western Pacific, saw the vessels sail through the Tsugaru Strait that separates Japan’s main island and its northern island of Hokkaido, before heading down the nation’s eastern coast and then back toward China through the Osumi Strait off the southern Japanese island of Kyushu.
Though foreign vessels are permitted to sail through the Osumi and Tsugaru straits, both of which are regarded as international waters, the maneuvers were closely monitored in Japan.
“It will reinforce the conclusion that Japan has already drawn that China potentially presents a threat to Japan and therefore it has to increase its own defense spending and readiness to deal with it,” said Drew Thompson, a former United States Defense Department official and a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
In a statement Monday, the Japanese Defense Ministry described the exercises, which ran throughout last week, as “unusual.”
The China-Russia flotilla consisted of five warships from each country, with a mix of destroyers, frigates, corvettes and support ships.
The Chinese military said the two navies parted ways in the East China Sea on Saturday. “The joint exercise and joint cruise have further developed the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for the new era, and effectively improved both sides’ capabilities of joint operations, which was conducive to jointly maintaining international and regional strategic stability,” Rear Adm. Bai Yaoping of the People’s Liberation Army’s Northern Theater Command and the deputy commander of the navy said in a statement.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said the objective of the joint patrol was to “demonstrate the state flags of Russia and China, maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region and also protect facilities of both countries’ maritime economic activity.”
Japan’s military buildup
Tensions between China and Japan have spiked in recent years, amid moves by Beijing to assert sovereignty over Japanese-controlled islands.
China has also been stepping up its military pressure on nearby Taiwan, sending dozens of warplanes near the island. Japanese officials have previously tied the security situation in Taiwan to Japan, noting that 90% of Japan’s energy is imported through the areas around Taiwan.
Though Japanese military spending pales in comparison with China, it has moved to significantly bolster its defenses, adding state-of-the-art F-35 fighter jets and converting warships to aircraft carriers for them.
It’s also in the process of adding high-tech destroyers and submarines – all of which can project its power far from Japanese shores.
The reach of Japan’s Self-Defense Force was clear on Monday, as one the warships that will eventually be outfitted to carry F-35s – the helicopter destroyer JS Kaga – conducted bilateral exercises with a US Navy aircraft carrier strike group in the South China Sea, almost all of which China claims as its sovereign territory.
And over the summer, Japanese naval forces trained with their counterparts in the British Carrier Strike Group 21, led by the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, as well as with US Navy ships in the Pacific.
Beijing has kept a close eye on such events, and the joint Russian flotilla is a sign from China that it also has partners, said Alessio Patalano, professor of war and strategy at King’s College in London.
“This summer, US and partner navies have considerably elevated the level of interoperability in the west Pacific,” he said.”This is something of a weakness for the Chinese, so the joint patrol seems a response to that.”
Russia and China have an ongoing military partnership and have conducted a series of joint drills, the most high profile of which was “Vostok 2018,” a simulated battle in which a Russian-Chinese coalition fought a fictional enemy.
And in August, Russia and China joined forces once again to use a joint command and control system, with Russian troops integrated into Chinese formations, according to a statement by China’s Defense Ministry at the time.
The route taken by the joint Chinese-Russian patrol, through the Osumi Strait at the end of their journey, as well as through the narrow Tsugaru Strait between the main islands of Honshu and Hokkaido earlier in the week, has also attracted a considerable amount of attention.
That’s because when the US Navy or foreign navies transit the Taiwan Strait between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland, Beijing condemns them as destabilizing.
For instance, after US and Canadian warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait earlier this month, the Chinese military’s Eastern Theater Command accused the two sides of colluding to “stir up trouble” and “seriously jeopardize peace and stability” in the strait.
And at 100 miles (160 kilometers) wide at its narrowest point, the Taiwan Strait is huge compared to the passages between the Japanese islands. The Osumi Strait, for example, is just 17 miles (27 kilometers) wide at its narrowest point.
While the Chinese and Russian warships weren’t in violation of international law, a news segment broadcast on Chinese state TV showed just how close they came to Japanese territory.
A reporter seemingly aboard one of the Chinese ships is shown passing through the Tsugaru Strait as the Japanese coastline looms large behind her.
Later, after transiting the strait, the reporter says, “We are now in the western Pacific, and we can see the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force aircraft not far behind us. They have been following us since the beginning of our patrol. In addition to the aircraft, they also sent multiple vessels to track our formation for intelligence gathering.”
Thompson said China can’t espouse one thing then act in the opposite way.
“You either support norms or you support power politics,” he said of the leadership in Beijing. “This makes their virulent anti-foreign rhetoric extremely hypocritical.”
So if it’s good for China and Russia, it must be fine for the US, Canada and other navies that sail in the Taiwan Strait – or even the South China Sea.
“They’re establishing that it is a very accepted international norm,” Thompson said.
CNN’s Vasco Cotovio, Nectar Gan, Emiko Jozuka, Mayumi Maruyama and Yong Xiong contributed to this report.