China and Russia have just held their first round of joint exercises in the South China Sea, including an island-seizing and island landing drill as well as anti-submarine and air defense maneuvers.
In China, the exercises have been hailed as a key milestone in ever closer ties between the two countries, but analysts cautioned while Moscow and Beijing are seeing their interests converge and opportunities for cooperation, the relationship is still far from being a strategic alliance, even if China would like to package it that way.
Passing ships in the night
The joint naval training between China and Russia was held nearly two months after an international tribunal ruled against Beijing’s claims to most of the disputed and resource-rich waterway. One key aim was sending a signal to the United States and others.
“[This is] clearly a demonstration of new strategic interests and that Russia and China, and both together if need be, will be stakeholders of the South China Sea,” said Alexander Neill, a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.
This year's exercises in Asia were the fourth the two navies have held. Last year, the two conducted joint maneuvers in the Mediterranean Sea, part of what China sees as a regularized effort to forge cooperation between the two militaries.
While China’s President Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin may see eye-to-eye on regional security environment, be it challenging the U.S. role in the South China Sea or opposing South Korea’s deployment of the U.S.-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD missile system, their convergence of interests is more like ships passing in the night, Neill said.
"As Russia strategically declined in its comprehensive national power, China has arrived strategically on the globe and there is a sort of a crossing point, a period of time where there will be shared mutual interests,” he said.
Russia has been shifting its attention more to the Pacific and to Southeast Asia in recent years, as the sting of sanctions has started to have an impact on Moscow. Its decision to participate in the drills in the South China Sea is but the latest highlight of that shift.
“Russia has been beginning to build up its presence in the Far East during the past few years and they want to have a footprint somewhere in the South China Sea,” said Alexander Huang, an assistant professor at Taiwan’s Tamkang University.
“It may be a gesture, may not militarily meaningful, but that is definitely [aimed at sending] a signal to the United States.”
That common interest in challenging the United States does not necessarily mean that Moscow wants to cooperate solely with Beijing. Huang noted that while Russia agreed to participate in this year’s joint exercises in the South China Sea, the drills were held away from more contentious hot spots, perhaps in a bid or in part not to antagonize the Philippines or Vietnam, which have competing claims in the area.
“Also, when you move forces far away from the coastline or land-based projection area, then you would need [aircraft] carriers, Huang said. “And that is more complicated. So, probably they were not comfortable with doing that this year.”
Aligned, but not
Chinese analysts argue the relationship will only become stronger and it is U.S. containment that is drawing the two closer.
A commentary in China's party-backed Global Times Monday said the joint exercise highlighted how China and Russia can cooperate on core interests.
“Russia was met with economic sanctions for annexing Crimea, and only China can alleviate Moscow’s burdens. China was contained by the United States and Japan in the East and South China Seas, and only Russia is strong enough to ease China’s pressure,” the commentary said.
The article also said the drills highlighted how the China-Russia strategic collaboration was more than just an alliance, adding that bilateral cooperation and mutual political trust have developed to a high level.
Just as state media focus on the opportunities both sides have to grow relations, analysts note the relationship has always been plagued with mistrust and undercurrents, and continues to be, regardless of whether it is China’s expansion into Central Asia or Russia’s arms sales to Beijing.
“It suits China to play up the degree to which Russia is aligned with them in the South China Sea at this point in time; but, that doesn’t mean that they are aligned,” said Ashley Townshend, a research fellow at the United States Research Center at the University of Sydney. Townshend said the alignment in interests the two are seeing is more of a diplomatic one.
If Russia was seen as an alliance partner with China in the region, that would hurt its defense interests in the region, he adds.
“Russia sells sophisticated, not just any old weapons, sophisticated weapons to the Vietnamese who are obviously on the other side of the South China Sea disputes with China, and so Russia certainly doesn't want, as well as others in the region, to come down too strongly on China’s side of the dispute,” he said.
Joyce Huang contributed to this story.