Russia, China ready for joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean

Russia, China ready for joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean

-Dr. Abdul Ruff


US led Western powers with a formidable military alliance known as NATO target the emerging strong Russo-China alliance against the unilateral war plans of Pentagon led militaries of the west. The efforts by USA to divide Russia-China alliance have failed, although Moscow and Beijing have not formed, at last as yet, a military block to counter the NATO’s eastward expansionist moves.

Against this background, according to Chinese military sources, Russian and Chinese warships will hold joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean Sea later this month. This unprecedented decision of the disoriented ideological allies reveals the sharp tensions between the major world powers arising from the US-led “pivot to Asia” against China and the NATO war drive against Russia over the Ukraine crisis.

Reckless imperialist policies are clearly pushing the Russian and Chinese towards a strategic alliance. Last year, Russia and China signed a $400 billion pipeline deal allowing Russia to export its oil and gas towards China, bypassing a cut-off of Russian energy exports to Europe, should this arise. At the same time, Moscow and Beijing held joint naval exercises off China’s Pacific coast. As US and European sanctions hit Russia and the Russian ruble plunged on the currency markets last December, top Chinese officials said Beijing would offer Russia financial backing.

A glance at the “regional situation” shows, in fact, that military tensions are escalating between the NATO imperialist powers, Russia, and China—a situation for which NATO’s aggressive policies are mainly responsible. While NATO stages military drills aimed at Russia across Eastern Europe and the Black Sea, war is spreading in the Mediterranean. A US-led proxy war is burning in Syria, as is the civil war that erupted in Libya after the 2011 NATO war destroyed Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.

The greatest danger facing the world’s population is that the risk of world war is largely hidden from the working class internationally. However, military standoffs such as the US threat to arm the far-right regime in Kiev against pro-Russian forces in east Ukraine, or the Japanese standoff with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets, could erupt into all-out wars threatening the very survival of humanity.

In an interview in March, Putin confirmed that the Russian military prepared for possible nuclear war with NATO in the initial weeks of the conflict in Ukraine triggered by a NATO-backed, coup in Kiev last year. The only progressive basis for struggle against the danger of world war is the political mobilization of the working class internationally against war. This struggle cannot be left to an alliance between the reactionary regimes in Moscow and Beijing.

Russian and Chinese warships already had appeared in the Mediterranean during the Libyan and Syrian wars. Chinese vessels evacuated 30,000 Chinese workers from Libya during the 2011 war, while Russian warships patrolled the Syrian coast in 2013 to dissuade NATO from launching missile strikes on Syria, a Russian ally. If Moscow and Beijing have taken the extraordinary step of organizing live-fire exercises off the coast of Europe, however, this is to send Washington and its European allies a political signal. US-led policies of strangling Russia’s economy with financial sanctions and seeking to topple Russian President Vladimir Putin, or isolating China through the US “pivot to Asia,” pose the threat of all-out war.

The Ukraine crisis has not only changed the relationship between Russia and the West but also led to more intense cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. After the European Union and the United States imposed sanctions on Russia, President Vladimir Putin made a dramatic turn to China and signed a series of deals, including a $400 billion deal to export gas to China last May. Moscow is now attempting to reorient its entire economy towards Asia as a way to mitigate the negative impact of Western sanctions. For China, meanwhile, the Ukrainian crisis provided a unique opportunity to increase its access to Russia’s natural resources, particularly gas, gain contracts for infrastructure projects and new markets for Chinese technology, and turn Russia into a junior partner in the relationship between the two countries.

The exercises will mark the first time that Chinese warships carry out military operations in the Mediterranean. The nine-ship Russo-Chinese fleet in the Mediterranean will practice refueling, escort and live-fire missions. Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said the Chinese navy would contribute warships currently on anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia, in the Indian Ocean. “The aim is to deepen both countries’ friendly and practical cooperation, and increase our navies’ ability to jointly deal with maritime security threats,” Geng said.

Chinese commentators indicated the Mediterranean exercises were also Chinese President Xi Jinping’s response to US-Japanese military deals in the Asia-Pacific, agreed between Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during Abe’s visit to Washington this week. “Russia wants to show the United States it is not isolated and can launch exercises near Eastern Europe. And as a result of Abe’s visit to the United States and the upgraded Japan-American military relationship, Xi wants to show the United States he has good relations with Russia. Chinese officials implausibly downplayed any suggestion that the exercises were aimed at the United States and its European allies.

The exercises mark a new stage in the development of the Chinese navy’s fighting capabilities and would be seen as a challenge by ruling elites in the NATO countries. The geopolitical significance of its exercising along Russia will not be lost on the USA and NATO, although it would be churlish of anyone in the West to complain about it, given the number of joint drills the US and its allies conduct in China’s near seas.

Beijing is now offering symbolic support to Moscow in the Ukraine crisis, by preparing to send an official delegation to May 9 celebrations in Moscow of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Officials from US, the leading European powers, and the NATO-backed Ukrainian regime have announced that they will boycott the ceremony.

A defensive Russo-Chinese alliance aimed at the US, Europe and Japan all too obviously draws potential battle lines of a Third World War. However, it is hardly clear that such a war could only emerge in the form of a conflict between unstable alliances of the imperialist powers, on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other.

Divergences are rapidly emerging between the major imperialist powers themselves over what policy to pursue towards Russia and China. In March, in a stunning rebuke to Washington, the European powers bucked US appeals not to join the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Several European governments are openly opposed to financial sanctions against Russia.

Moreover, the Sino-Russian relationship is itself deeply fraught. Powerful tensions exist between Beijing, flush with export revenues from cheap-labor Chinese export industries, and Moscow, which has never recovered from the industrial collapse that followed the restoration of capitalism in the USSR. China’s Global Times newspaper pointed to the distrust between the rival capitalist cliques in Russia and China in an article discussing why Chinese financial aid would not suffice to overcome US-European economic sanctions. It wrote, “Due to Russia’s large population of 140 million people, its modernity and strong currency cannot be solely supported by oil, gas and timber … China is capable of offering sufficient capital, technologies and markets to Russia, but these efforts can only take limited effect if Russia’s economy still relies heavily on oil exports and lacks structural diversity. If Chinese investment in Russia shoots up under these circumstances, Moscow might suspect China has ulterior motives. Russia does not want to be a vassal of the Chinese economy.”

It is crude fact that both Russia and China always support the western alliance of NATO against select Muslim nations, like Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and this attitude brought this situation onto themselves especially when they approved the NATO destruction of Libya.

Economic ties are a key factor in the China-Russian relationship. Bilateral trade has been rising steadily, reaching $95 billion in 2014, very close to the $100 billion goal set for 2015. In 2014, Russia signed a thirty-year, $400 billion deal that will see as much as thirty-eight billion cubic meters of Russian gas go to China annually from around 2018 to 2047.

Even the strongest ties between the two countries are problematic in nature. First, China-Russia trade remains highly imbalanced for it is limited to mainly three items: oil, gas and arms. The EU is still Russia’s leading trading partner while the USA is China’s. Although China is Russia’s second largest trading partner, Russia only ranks eighth for China, with just 2 percent of China’s total trade volume.

Western economic sanctions against Russia have pushed Russia to seal energy deals with China, which in return met China’s booming needs for energy and resources. However, both countries understand that overdependence means potential vulnerability.

The rising tensions between Russia and the West, especially the United States, over Ukraine provide a constant reminder of the Cold War, when the two superpowers fought proxy conflicts for spheres of influence. A key question in the current game of great power politics is whether China and Russia will form an alliance against the United States?

Both Chinese President Xi Jingping and Russian President Putin are strong leaders with aspirations to recapture past glories. Xi’s new foreign policy features strong positions over the East China Sea disputes with Japan and the South China Sea disputes with Southeast Asia. As the world has witnessed, Putin has been aggressive over Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Both Xi and Putin believe that their states were unfairly treated in the past and are uncomfortable with the current international order.

Beijing did not bend to Moscow even during the Cold War when both states belonged in the communist camp. Although facing tremendous economic difficulties caused by Western sanctions after the Ukraine crisis, the Russians have made it clear that what they need is China’s diplomatic support and not economic assistance. Although both China and Russia may despise the West, China cannot sacrifice the U.S. market, and Russia can’t give up on Europe. Although neither Xi nor Putin like the Western world order led by America, they do not share a common vision of a so-called new world order. Even though Xi and Putin might be in the same bed against the West, their dreams are clearly different.

While Russia seems to be losing same, as was seen at the recent APEC and G20 meetings in 2014. Although both countries are having their issues with the West right now, sooner or later tensions will rise between them. Their uneasy relations within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) suggest the potential for strategic and economic competition in Central Asia and the even deeper problem of their irreconcilable interests over regional domination.

Oscillating between maneuvers designed to warn off NATO policymakers and attempts to work out deals with them, the policies of the capitalist oligarchies that emerged from the restoration of capitalism in China and the USSR only deepen the danger of war. It is safe to predict that the imperialist powers will respond to this exercise by stepping up military pressure on Moscow and Beijing, and any other regime that they see as a potential obstacle to their interests.

Despite the positive trends, the bilateral relationship still lacks a solid foundation of mutual trust and common identity.  A strong common threat from the West could push China and Russia to move closer economically and militarily which in turn may indeed see a close partnership, even a military alliance between Beijing and Moscow.

The United States needs to consider how to re-set its relationships with Russia and China.  Isolation and sanctions might not be the solution for the Ukraine crisis.  Although furious competition among the United States, China and Russia is probably inevitable, a delicate balance of power is the essence of diplomacy.


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