Since the mid-2000s, Russo-Chinese military cooperation has been symbolized by the regularly-held large exercises, codenamed the Peace Mission. Presented as ‘anti-terrorist’ activities, their scenarios and the forces employed (regular army units supported by tactical and strategic aircraft) have been a clear indication of the aim to practice conventional warfare. Although the Peace Mission exercises have continued, the second decade of the 21st century has been marked by the naval drills (Joint Sea 2012, 2013), which have become yet another hallmark of the change in Russo-Chinese relations.
In the 2000s the joint military exercises served to strengthen Russia’s image of a re-emerging great power and to demonstrate to the West its close partnership with China. In the face of growing tensions with the West, Moscow was eager to play the Chinese ‘military card’, suggesting the possibility of forging an alliance. Beijing, at that time, was focused on presenting itself as an almost exemplary peacefully-rising power.
For the last two years the roles have reversed. Now it is China who is playing the Russian military card, both against the U.S. and its East Asian allies. Asserting its claims in the contested waters of the East and South China Seas in a more robust way, China has turned to Russia for political support. The 2012 Sino-Russian naval drills, which took place in the Yellow Sea, were interpreted as a response to the exercises conducted by the US with the Philippines and South Korea. The Joint Sea 2013 mirrored the US-Japanese drill.
One should not over-estimate the importance of the Russo-Chinese naval cooperation. Both navies are hardly ready to fight against the U.S. or its allies. The main goal of the joint exercises is political. It has been intended to send a message to Washington and its partners in the region. Russia – at least formally – maintains a neutral stance with regard to the territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. The engagement in military co-operation in the potential conflict area demonstrates, however, Moscow’s clear political support for Beijing’s position.
For the last couple of years Russia has been eager to show off, deploying its vessels in the Mediterranean Sea or in the Gulf of Aden. The naval drills with China become yet another opportunity to strengthen Russia’s image as a global naval power and an important actor in East Asian security. At the same time implicit support for China’s assertive policies undermines Moscow’s ability to act as a potential counter-balance against Beijing’s ambitions (which has recently been suggested by Elizabeth Wishnick) and limits Russia’s attractiveness to smaller East Asian states.