Assessment of the first part of “Морское 2017 взаимодействие”/ “Joint Sea 2017” Sino-Russian drills.
Between July 21 and July 28 the Chinese and Russian navies conducted the first phase of bilateral maritime exercise “Joint Sea 2017” in the Baltic Sea area, marking the first time the two countries had exercised together in the northern European body of water.
Military cooperation between China and Russia began to develop as early as between 1937 and 1945. Since the 1990s China became the largest importer of Russian defence industry. “Joint Sea” was first organised in 2012 – the two countries have been since holding joint naval manoeuvres on a regular basis with increasing complexity of tasks and levels of coordination, each time raising concerns of observing parties.
The Chinese fleet participating in navy drills consists of one destroyer (type 052D “Changsha”), one missile frigate (“Yuncheng” 571), one supply ship (“Luomahu” 964 type 903A), ship-borne helicopters and marines. The frigate “Yungchen” has already participated in the multinational anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. The Global Times, invoking a statement by Li Jie, a Beijing-based navy expert, suggested that sending advanced guided-missile destroyers was signalling sincerity and commitment to cooperation with Russia[i]. Presence of the largest, ultra-model surface ship of the PLA Navy, equipped with weaponry deemed as top quality, renders Sino-Russian partnership far from symbolic.
The Russian fleet included one frigate, fixed-wing aircraft, naval Ka-27 Helix anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters and land-based Su-24 fighter-bombers. Two corvettes of the “Steregushchy” and “Boykiy” class, with the Baltic Fleet’s corvettes returning to their permanent base. The reason for such a small presence at this year’s exercise is straightforward, according to Maxim Shepovalenko from the Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), because there was “no need for a large-scale exercise” in the Baltic, and “Joint Sea” is “merely a symbolic one”[ii].
According to Russian Baltic Fleet official Roman Martov, the combat- like exercises will consists of two stages – a coastal stage, from July 21 to July 24, and an active sea stage, from July 25 to July 28[iii]. Working briefings took place a few days ahead of the start of the event, which will begin with a number of meetings in Baltiysk, also on the level of Naval Commanders. The official language of drill is Russian. The command of joint flotilla is under Vice Admiral Alexander Fedotenkov and Vice-Admiral Tian Zhong[iv]. Martov informed, that the Chinese fleet will be heading for St Petersburg to take part in the Russian Navy Day on July 30. At the same day PLA is going to celebrate Army Day Parade honouring 90th birthday of the PLA.
In the course of maneuvers that took place from July 25 through July 27, participants fulfilled all the program provisions of the exercise program, with artillery firing at waterborne and aerial targets (using about 1,500 shells). Martov underlined importance of difficult weather conditions (gusts of wind reached 15 meters per second in the central water area) that the seamen were facing[v]. During the drills, participating air and sea forces were deployed through unified guidance by a joint directing center, a joint headquarter and a tactical command post[vi]. The exercise featured anti-submarine, anti-aircraft, and anti-ship drills. The two sides will also practice anti-piracy as well as search and rescue operations. Simulation drill included mixed warship tactical assault groups exercise of ship-to-sea firing by secondary cannons, air defense, joint landing and inspection, maritime search and rescue on high seas, and underway replenishment assistance to a distressed ship[vii]
In recent years, this kind of exercises took place in the areas of Mediterranean, Japan and South China Seas, where Sino-Russian groups were practicing amphibious landings on unequipped coasts and rescue operations. Further interaction between the Russian and Chinese navies defined a road map for 2017-2020.
Significance and impact
Wang Xiaoyong, deputy captain of a destroyer detachment, stated that officially “The simulation exercise was conducted for two purposes, namely, making commanders at all levels more familiar with the procedures and subjects of the drills, as well as enhancing coordination and tacit understanding between commanders of the two countries”[viii] . The Russian ambassador to China, Andrei Denisov also said that ”the degree of cooperation in the military sphere is a reflection of the degree of political affinity and trust”. President Putin repeatedly stated, that these exercises are not a prelude to the creation of military blocks[ix]. Furthermore, per Denisov: “If we assess the threats that our two countries are exposed to similarly…it is natural to try to work out methods for repelling these threats.”[x]. According to the Russian side, drills were therefore a manifestation of friendly relations and indication of the growing strategic partnership, with China demonstrating her global reach, while Russia showing that politics of isolation applied by the West are not preventing her from creating powerful partnerships[xi].
Just like in case of the previous exercises, both China and Russia were emphasizing, that Baltic drills were not directed against any third country. According to a military expert Professor Ni Lexiong, the Baltic Sea drills could be aimed at NATO, as a response to joint U.S., Indian and Japanese drills held in the Indian Ocean[xii]. But Baltic exercises are only a part of a broader cooperation, with series of drills in 2017 also including the Sea of Japan and Okhotsk in mid-September. The highly controversial location of the exercises – is nevertheless seen as a signal of intent, especially because military games were held just after president Trump’s visit to Poland as well as Baltic exercises (“Exercise Saber Strike 2017”, which involved both the U.S. and NATO troops), where at least one Russian vessel and helicopter allegedly harassed a commercial ship, M/V Green Ridge in late May, which was bound for a port in Lithuania, transporting[xiii]. In the interviews both the Chinese and Russian sides underlined transparency of Baltic exercises, since mitigating the chance for a mishap in the region during drills is an important issue for NATO states. Furthermore, one of the points of agenda of the NATO-Russia Council meeting in Brussels (July 13) was transparency and risk reduction, where the issue of “Joint Sea 2017” was tackled.
Furthermore, Chinese sources were repeatedly highlighting the fact, that hostile states should passively accept the reality of growing Chinese presence in remote areas, as it is commonly acceptable for Western states to participate in activities conducted far from the sphere of their immediate interest. In the meantime, on July 27, British Defence Minister Michael Fallon informed that the UK plans to send a warship to the South China Sea next year to conduct freedom of navigation exercises[xiv], which could be perceived as an example of tit-for-tat politics.
Exercies were observed by the crews of Swedish corvette and a French reconnaissance aircraft. Furthermore, at the same time, German research vessel „Helmsand” (Y 862 type 748 “Schwedeneck”) and Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen-class frigates “Otto Sverdrup” (F 312) sailed to Gdynia port in Poland[xv], joining the observing parties. In the meantime, one of the most concerned sides, Poland, was troubled by internal political unrest, which rendered her less concerned with Russian Baltic activities than it would be typically: the exercises were held in the time of heightened tensions between Russia and NATO, shortly before joint Russia-Belarus maneuvers “Zapad 2017”. Annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the support of Donbas separatists are also factors building up the tension: it was only after sanctions were imposed on Russia in 2014, that strengthened defense cooperation with China was observed.
Chinese presence in Baltic was perceived as less aggressive than Russian. The reason behind it, among others, a common understanding of Chinese objectives. “First Island Chain” problems are seen as priority for Chinese defense, and inevitably linked with deterrence and combat exercises, as this area contains unresolved territorial claims. Outside of “First Island Chain” the PLA Navy focuses on piracy and peacetime operations, recognizing the value of MOOTW (非战争军事行动). In order to fight and conduct naval diplomacy in remote areas, Chinese forces must routinely operate there in peacetime. Its value is proved during sudden incidents, such as March 2014 disappearance of Flight 37 – search-and-rescue missions could be a useful pretext for increased navy presence in the Indian Ocean waters. In the Far Seas, the range of operations performed during the peace time vary from fostering closer ties with foreign militaries to rescuing Chinese citizens or property. Near-combat conditions of war games are helping China understand another powerful state outside of her immediate sphere of interest. Conflicts originating within the “First Island Chain” might not necessarily involve local powers after all. Finally, for waters between the First Island Chain and the Second Island Chain, also a zone of important interests, yet outside of the Near Seas, China have different objectives, with area denial as the main aim. To achieve it, exercises like the Baltic ones are imperative: China would be relying on aircraft-carrier strike groups and platforms like the ones demonstrated during “Joint Sea 2017”.
By sending most modern ships and showing high tech tools, China is reminding that it is aiming for the title of world’s fastest growing fleet (China commissioned twenty-three new surface ships in 2016[xvi]). Exercise conducted on a new body of water are helpful not only in gaining or exchanging information, but also in determining potential sea lane risks (not only related to factors such as congestion and geography), that can later be utilised in areas of immediate interest: location of July war games was important due to the role of SLOCS on the Baltic Sea. Currently China is actively contributing to international peacekeeping. Expanding her presence while holding maritime drills with partners is a requisite for effectively increasing the number of MOOTW China is participating in – enough mention that also in July Chinese fleet sailed to Djibouti, in order to established first overseas military base and amplify the efforts to protect ships travelling through Bab-el-Mandeb – access point to the trade route along the Suez Canal.
Expanding confidence building measures is a clear sign of deepening partnership, not only in a military sense though. Despite the fact, that China might not necessarily be showing military support for a strategic partner, as many would like to read this event[xvii], her presence was nevertheless antagonising NATO and Russia. While both China and Russia are trying to maintain a perception of overwhelming power, on the other hand they are also acting as if their intentions were innocuous. The enhanced Chinese activity is indirectly aimed at weakening the United States hegemony, while advancing Chinese security interests. By presenting herself in a region important for NATO with a modern fleet and little known intentions, China is also forcing all eyes to be focused on Baltic, in a way relieving her peripheries of American military pressure.
Finally, it shouldn’t be forgotten, that both Russia and China are founder members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO): While joint drills definitely have practical military value, it is not without geo-political significance. As such, Moscow and Beijing are showing the world their efforts in maintaining peace on a transatlantic scale, and SCO might be trying to offer a new concept of international security.