Chris Buckley — New York Times July 29, 2016
Russian naval forces plan to join Chinese forces for a joint exercise in the South China Sea, highlighting Moscow’s partnership with Beijing after a recent international legal ruling underlined rifts between China and Southeast Asian nations over rival claims across the sea.
The joint exercise will be held in September, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, Senior Col. Yang Yujun, said in Beijing on Thursday. But he gave no details about the size of the drill or precisely where it would take place in the vast stretch of sea from southern China nearly to the Philippines.
“Following a joint understanding reached between China and Russia, the navies of the two countries will hold a joint military exercise in the relevant sea and air areas of the South China Sea in September under the name Joint-Sea 2016,” Colonel Yang said.
The drill was not aimed at any other country, he said. But he also said that the experience gained would “enhance the capacities of the two navies to jointly respond to maritime security threats.”
On July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague decisively rejected Beijing’s expansive claims to sovereignty across the South China Sea, where China has been building artificial islands and consolidating its control of disputed areas.
Beijing refused to take part in the case brought by the Philippines, and Chinese officials and state media have pilloried the decision and suggested the United States was somehow to blame. The Philippines has been especially worried that China will start building islands on the Scarborough Shoal, about 220 miles northwest of Manila.
But several experts said that the joint naval exercise would probably serve more as a show of partnership at a tense time than as a substantive military shift in the area.
“It is premature to draw a definitive judgment,’’ said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “My inclination is to view this as one of a series of Chinese reactions to the ruling that can demonstrate the Chinese Communist Party’s resolve to defend Chinese sovereignty and thus fend off pressure from the public and the military.”
“In my view, however, the China-Russia exercise is not necessarily a departure from what has so far been a pattern of relative restraint” in China’s reaction to the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling, she said.
Whether Russian participation in the joint exercise would add more than symbolic support to China’s position over the sea disputes remained unclear, said M. Taylor Fravel, a scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies China’s military forces and its multiple maritime disputes.
“The key question will be where in the South China Sea the exercise occurs,” he said. The two countries might hold their exercise close to Guangdong Province in southern China, or Hainan, a Chinese island-province that extends into the sea. That would be a less contentious site. Or they might hold them near the disputed Spratly Islands, which would be more likely to alarm neighbors, Mr. Fravel said.
China and Russia have a long history of friction and mutual suspicion over their own territorial disputes. But they have been trying to strengthen military and security cooperation, and joint Chinese-Russian naval exercises have become increasingly frequent since 2005.