China, Russia launch naval drills in South China Sea!
-Dr. Abdul Ruff
China has been the largest buyer of Russian arms and technology for years, followed by India. The conflict in South China Sea (SCS) over islands and military infrastructure Beijing has put in place there is bringing together the military allies Russia and China on firmer footing than ever before in years after the Cold War.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of trade moves annually. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims. China has repeatedly blamed the United States for stoking tension in the region through its military patrols, and of taking sides in the dispute.
In July, an arbitration panel in The Hague, Netherlands, issued a ruling invalidating China’s claims to virtually the entire South China Sea, a result that Beijing angrily rejected as null and void. Russia has been a strong backer of China’s stance on the arbitration case, which was brought by the Philippines.
In a way as to either provoke USA or belittle its regional neighbors that share the South China Sea coastal zones, China and Russia, have launched eight days of naval drills in the South China Sea — the first time any country has done exercises there since Beijing’s claims to the sea were rejected two months ago – against the backdrop of regional territorial disputes. The drills – in a sign of growing cooperation between the armed forces of China and Russia, scheduled from Sept 12 through Sept. 19 in the SCS – take place off southern China’s Guangdong Province — not near Beijing’s nine-dash line, which was rejected by the international tribune court in The Hague in July in a case by the Philippines over Beijing’s maritime claims. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have opposed China’s claims over the South China Sea.
Russian news outlets said 18 ships, 21 aircraft and more than 250 marines from both sides would take part in the drills. The ships include destroyers, cruisers, a Russian battleship, amphibious warfare ships and supply vessels. However, Xinhua said the Russian component would include three surface ships, two supply ships, two helicopters, 96 marines, and amphibious armoured equipment. China’s navy would contribute 10 ships, including destroyers, frigates, amphibious ships, supply vessels and submarines, along with 11 fixed-wing aircraft, eight helicopters, 160 marines and amphibious armour, it said.
Chinese news agency Xinhua said the Russian ships arrived early on September 12 in the Guangdong province port of Zhanjiang, and the exercises would be held off the Guangdong coast, apparently in waters that are not in dispute. According to reports the Xinhua News Agency, a Russian fleet arrived in Zhanjiang, Guangdong, China on for the start of the eight-day China-Russia “Joint Sea 2016” naval exercise, a series of war games which will take place in the South China Sea.
The naval drills, announced in July, feature navy surface ships, submarines, fixed-wing aircraft, ship-borne helicopters Marine Corps and amphibious armored equipment from both navy operations, Chinese navy representative Liang Yang said. Exercises will include defense, rescue, anti-submarine operations and island seizing, Liang said. In July, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson said the operation “does not target any third party.” They will involve surface ships, submarines, fixed-wing aircraft, ship-borne helicopters, Marine Corps and amphibious armoured equipment from both navies, he said in a statement on Sept 11. “Compared with previous joint drills, these exercises are deeper and more extensive in terms of organisation, tasks and command.” The ministry did not say exactly where the drills would be held in the South China Sea, the site of heated territorial disputes between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours.
Joint Chinese-Russian drills have become increasingly common in recent years. This week’s exercises are the fifth between the two navies since 2012. The China-Russia joint naval exercises have been conducted four previous times annually. Last year, the drill was conducted in the Mediterranean in May, and in the Peter the Great Gulf, the waters off the Clerk Cape and the Sea of Japan in August. Earlier, China’s Ministry of Defense announced in July the drill would be conducted in the South China Sea. “The drill will consolidate and develop the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership and enhance the capabilities of the two navies to jointly deal with maritime security threats.” While the term “island-seizing” seems to suggest otherwise, China argues that the “Joint Sea” drill is a “routine drill” and “does not target any third party.”
This is the first time these drills have been conducted in the South China Sea. While China argues that the drills are routine, Russian comments indicate that Chinese-Russian bilateral exercises are designed to offset the US-led regional security structure. “We believe that the main goal of pooling our effort is to shape a collective regional security system,” said Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu in late 2014. “We also expressed concern over US attempts to strengthen its military and political clout in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his support to Beijing’s stand this month at the G20 summit in Hangzhou. The exercises come at a time of heightened tension in the contested waters after a UN-backed tribunal ruled in July that China did not have historic rights to the South China Sea and criticised its environmental destruction there. China rejected the ruling and refused to participate in the case. The “Joint Sea-2016” war games will include exercises on “seizing and controlling” islands and shoals, according to Chinese navy spokesman Liang Yang.
While China says the drills do not envision specific enemies or target any third parties, their location in the South China Sea has drawn criticism. During a visit to China last month, the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Scott Swift, said: “There are other places those exercises could have been conducted.” He described them as part of a series of actions “that are not increasing the stability within the region”. Xinhua rejected such sentiments in a commentary on Monday, saying those viewing the exercises as threatening were “either ill-informed … or misled by their prejudice about China and Russia”. This year’s drill will focus on anti-submarine warfare and island-seizing operations, explained Chinese Navy Spokesman Liang Yang. “The marine corps will carry out live-fire drills, sea crossing and island landing operations, and island defense and offense exercises.”
The Chinese and Russian militaries, in their largest joint operations drill yet, are training to seize islands and hunt down submarines in the South China Sea. The Russian Navy sent three surface ships, two supply ships, two helicopters, 96 Marines and several amphibious armored units to take part in the drills. Ten People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels, including destroyers, frigates, landing ships, supply ships, and submarines will participate. The Chinese will also deploy 11 fixed-wing aircraft, eight helicopters, amphibious armored units, and 160 Marines. Most of the Chinese units are associated with the Nanhai (South China Sea) Fleet.
The joint drills, obviously targeting China’s sea neighbors, are likely to stir up tensions. China’s vast claim to the region was decimated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in July. China rejected the ruling and has since been conducting regular live-fire military drills in disputed waters and stepping up its military presence in an effort to reassert its dominance over desired territories.
China has attacked Western media reports critical of the drill. “Such reports are misleading and intended to convince readers that China and Russia have enough motive to make the drill an occasion to flex military muscles against potential enemies,” said a Xinhua editorial. “It may be true that growing military ties between Russia and China have irritated someone’s sensitive nerves, but it is worth noting that excessive geopolitical interpretation of a specific military drill is neither necessary nor justified,” explained the editorial, noting that there is no need for “fear mongering.”
The joint Chinese-Russian drill coincides with the start of Valiant Shield 2016, a US drill in the Western Asia-Pacific. These three countries would like to send out clear signals to each other and confuse the world over.