BEIJING – China and Russia have launched what Beijing described as its “largest ever joint naval exercise” as an armada of military hardware descended on the Sea of Japan.
A total of 18 surface vessels, including four guided missile destroyers, two missile frigates, a supply ship, and three ship-borne helicopters were due to take part, according to Chinese state media, as well as a submarine.
The move to deepen military ties between Moscow and Beijing with the operation, called “Joint Sea 2013”, comes against the backdrop of territorial disputes in the region and will heighten fears of China’s growing naval reach and ambition.
China’s official news agency, Xinhua, described the drill as “the Chinese navy’s single biggest deployment of military force in any joint foreign exercise.”
Major General Yang Junfei, the Chinese fleet’s commander, told Xinhua: “This is our strongest line-up ever in a joint naval drill.” China was sending “seven ships, three helicopters and one special warfare unit”, he added.
The Sino-Russian war games will kick off in full next week when the two navies are set to simulate “recapturing ships seized by pirates, as well as search-and-rescue operations [and] a number of air defence, anti-submarine and anti-ship exercises,” Xinhua reported. Two commando units will also take part.
China’s defence ministry said “the drills are not targeted at any third party, and that the aim is to deepen cooperation between the two militaries”.
But the United States’ “pivot” to Asia and continuing maritime disputes with neighbours including Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam mean Beijing is increasingly keen to project its growing military prowess and assert its control over the seas.
In April China announced that its first aircraft carrier, the 990ft Liaoning, was preparing to make its maiden long distance journey by the end of 2013.
Last Wednesday the Liaoning returned to port from a 25-day training mission during which Chinese J-15 fighter jets practised take-offs and landings. Zhang Yongyi, a deputy navy commander, told state media his country had now “fully mastered the skills needed for taking off from, and landing on, the aircraft carrier”.
Japan, which is locked in an increasingly acrimonious dispute with China over the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, is unlikely to miss the message from Beijing.
“In general terms, I don’t think the Japanese government will see this as an increase in the threat aimed at Japan, but it is clearly aimed at the Japan-US alliance and is a clear statement by the Chinese that they now have an ally in the region,” said Jun Okumura, an international relations analyst with the Eurasia Group.
“Does this mean that the Russians will come to China’s defence in the event of a conflict? No. But something like this makes for a very effective political show.
“Russia does not have any strategic interests in the South China Sea, but China is enhancing the potential of all its military forces by conducting joint exercises with another major world power.”
Russia’s official news agency, RIA Novosti, noted that the drills came “in the wake of the Dawn Blitz US-Japanese war games” which took place last month off the coast of California.
At that drill, around 250 members of Japan’s Western Army joined US forces in simulating the storming of an island by landing on San Clemente’s Red Beach.
The Japanese government has made no comment on the naval drills between China and Russia but will take the exercise as confirmation that is current policy towards Beijing is appropriately firm.
Beijing also appears to be upping the ante in waters close to Japan. Aircraft from Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Forces have confirmed the presence of unidentified foreign submarines in waters around the Okinawa archipelago in recent weeks and the assumption is that they are Chinese.
On Wednesday, in another show of strength, a fleet of seven Chinese warships – including four destroyers and two guided-missile frigates – passed through the international waters of the Tsushima Strait, off the Japanese island of Kyushu.
A report from Japan’s Kyodo news agency suggested Beijing was attempting to maximise the current exercise in order to flex its military muscle on the world stage.
An unnamed source from Russia’s Pacific Fleet told Kyodo that China had specifically asked for the number of vessels involved in the exercise to be increased.
The week-long joint drill follows a similar exercise between China and Russia in April 2012. Then, 16 Chinese vessels, including five missile destroyers and five missile frigates, were deployed in the Yellow Sea off China’s eastern coast alongside 13 aircraft.
China and Russia have been conducting joint military exercises since 2005 and “Joint Sea 2013” will be followed by a joint “anti-terrorism” drill in the Urals in late July.