Russia-China Naval Exercise Next Month Sends Mixed Signals To International Community

This year’s Russia-China naval exercise over the troubled waters of the South China Sea, which, according to Beijing’s defense ministry, will kick off next month, has its way of sending mixed signals to the international community amid a growing tension in the region.

According to Michael Lipin of the Voice of America, China’s announcement on July 29 of its upcoming joint naval exercise with Russia has been frustrating to some analysts for lack of details beyond saying that it will happen in September, withholding information about the size, scope, and “where exactly in the sensitive region will the exercise take place.”

As Shannon Tiezzi of the Diplomat said, “The specific location is going to be very important in determining just how controversial this drill is.

“China has held many drills very close to Hainan, where there are not any territorial or maritime disputes because it is so close to undisputed Chinese territory and longstanding Chinese military bases,” said Tiezzi, as quoted by Lipin from a VOA China 360 podcast interview last week, where she spoke about next month’s Russia-China naval exercise.

“However, if the drills start moving south toward the disputed Spratly Islands and make use of some of the new facilities China has built there, that would be much more of a warning sign for the international community,” said Tiezzi, who was also an associate at the US-China Policy Foundation where she used to host the weekly TV show China Forum.

Chinese PLA Navy looking at the USS Blue Ridge in Shanghai. [Photo by AP Images File]
In this May 6, 2016, file photo, soldiers from the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy watch as the USS Blue Ridge arrives at a port in Shanghai. [Photo by AP Images].

Meanwhile, only a month before the Russia-China naval exercise, China’s state-run news agency Xinhua reported last week that the country’s defense minister, Chang Wanquan, called the Chinese public to prepare for a possible “people’s war at sea” at the brink of “offshore security threats.”

“Chang said the military, police and people should prepare for mobilization to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity. He also asked to promote national defense education among the public,” Xinhua added, sending a clear signal to the rest of the international community never to miss the communist country’s preparedness should a military conflict erupt in the South China Sea.

Speaking on behalf of his country, Petr Akopov of Vzglyad newspaper laid out Russia’s political, diplomatic, and military assessment of the region, noting that the symbolic significance of this year’s Russia-China naval exercise cannot be overstated.

According to Moscow-based Sputnik News, referring to Akopov’s editorial in English, the United States has been in the business of containing China in the region, giving more attention to the communist country in the Far East than Russia.

“It’s not just because there is no real threat to Europe [from Russia’s part], while China really is staking out its own claims in the Pacific,” Akopov noted, as quoted by Sputnik News. “The containment of China has been a priority of US policy for many years, and recently a pivot to the Pacific region has become an official US goal.”

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A Chinese naval vessel launches anti-submarine missiles [Photo by Li Gang/AP Images/Xinhua]
A Chinese naval vessel launches anti-submarine missiles in an offshore blockade exercise during the third phase of the Sino-Russian "Peace Mission 2005" joint military exercise, held on the sea to the southeast of China's Shandong Peninsula, Aug. 23, 2005. [Photo by LiGang/AP Images//Xinhua]

The Russian journalist also added that the conflict with which other claimants to the disputed islands in the South China Sea are engaged is advantageous to America’s own interests in the region.

“They need strained relations between these countries and Beijing in order to continue to have an excuse to keep their bases on their territory (in the case of the Philippines), to continue to use their ports (in the case of Singapore), and to generally offer their assistance against Chinese expansion (in the case of Vietnam).”

With next month’s Russia-China naval exercise in view, Akopov assured the international community that while Russia “is demonstrating its solidarity with China,” it remains committed to its policy not to interfere with regional conflicts “but only to emphasize that external forces should not influence the settlement of disputes between neighbors.”

Whether the vast majority of the international community would take Akopov’s words at face value is a different story.

[Photo by Mark Schiefelbein/AP Images]