One manifestation of the contemporary era of renewed great power competition has been the deepening relationship between China and Russia. Their strengthening military ties, notwithstanding their lack of a formal defense alliance, have been especially striking. Since China and Russia deploy two of the world’s most powerful navies, their growing maritime cooperation has been one of the most significant international security developments of recent years. The Sino-Russian naval exercises, involving varying platforms and locations, have built on years of high-level personnel exchanges, large Russian weapons sales to China, the ino-Russia Treaty of Friendship, and other forms of cooperation. Though the joint Sino-Russian naval drills began soon after Beijing and Moscow ended their Cold War confrontation, these exercises have become much more important during the last decade, essentially becoming a core pillar of their expanding defense partnership. China and Russia now conduct more naval exercises in more places and with more types of weapons systems than ever before. In the future, Chinese and Russian maritime drills will likely encompass new locations, capabilities, and partners—including possibly the Arctic, hypersonic delivery systems, and novel African, Asian, and Middle East partners—as well as continue such recent innovations as conducting joint naval patrols and combined arms maritime drills. China and Russia pursue several objectives through their bilateral naval cooperation. The Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation lacks a mutual defense clause, but does provide for consultations about common threats. The naval exercises, which rehearse non-traditional along with traditional missions (e.g., counter-piracy and humanitarian relief as well as with high-end warfighting), provide a means to enhance their response to such mutual challenges through coordinated military activities. Though the exercises may not realize substantial interoperability gains regarding combat capabilities, the drills do highlight to foreign audiences the Sino-Russian capacity to project coordinated
naval power globally. This messaging is important given the reliance of China and Russia on the world’s oceans for trade and the two countries’ maritime territorial disputes with other countries. The exercises can also improve their national military capabilities as well as help them learn more about the tactics, techniques, and procedures of each other. The rising Chinese Navy especially benefits from working with the Russian armed forces, which have more experience conducting maritime missions, particularly in combat operations involving multiple combat arms, than the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). On the negative side, these exercises, by enhancing their combat capabilities, may make Chinese and Russian policymakers more willing to employ military force or run escalatory risks in confrontations with other states.
All these impacts are amplified in Northeast Asia, where the Chinese and Russian navies conduct most of their joint exercises. Northeast Asia has become an area of intensifying maritime confrontations involving China and Russia against the United States and Japan, with South Korea situated uneasily between them. The growing ties between the Chinese and Russian navies have complicated South Korean-U.S. military planning, diverted resources from concentrating against North Korea, and worsened the regional security environment. Naval planners in the United States, South Korea, and Japan will increasingly need to consider scenarios involving both the Chinese and Russian navies. For example, South Korean and U.S. policymakers need to prepare for situations in which coordinated Chinese and Russian military aggression overtaxes the Pentagon, obligating the South Korean Navy to rapidly backfill for any U.S.-allied security gaps that arise on the Korean Peninsula. Potentially reinforcing Chinese and Russian naval support to North Korea in a maritime confrontation with South Korea and its allies would present another serious challenge. Building on the commitment of Japan and South Korea to strengthen security ties, future exercises involving Japan, South Korea, and the United States should expand to consider these potential contingencies.