The strengthening ties between Russia and China, particularly in the realm of naval cooperation, are reshaping the geopolitical landscape, with significant implications for the United States and its allies. Recent naval exercises conducted by Russia’s Pacific Fleet in the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan underscore this growing partnership and its potential impact on regional and global maritime dynamics.
Russia’s Pacific Fleet, featuring prominent warships like the frigate Marshal Shaposhnikov and the cruiser Varyag, has been actively engaging in sophisticated anti-submarine warfare exercises. These operations, including the firing of torpedoes and depth charges, demonstrate Russia’s commitment to enhancing its naval capabilities in strategically important waters. The Russian Navy’s press service, cited by state media agency TASS, highlighted the scope of these exercises: “Currently, anti-submarine sailors are practicing joint maneuvering in the northern region of the South China Sea.”
The incorporation of Ka-27 helicopters from the Pacific Fleet’s naval aviation division into these drills signifies a high level of coordination and expertise within the Russian naval forces. Such operations are not isolated events but part of a broader pattern of increased Russian naval activity in the Asia-Pacific region. The Russian Ministry of Defense has emphasized the importance of these exercises in the Sea of Japan, focusing on individual and joint ship maneuvers, communication protocols, and damage control procedures.
China’s role in this burgeoning naval partnership is equally significant. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been participating in joint exercises with Russia since 2005, with this cooperation taking on a more dedicated form in recent years. In 2021, a pivotal development occurred when Russian troops joined a regular PLA annual exercise for the first time, marking a transition in the relationship from informal interactions to a focus on enhancing interoperability.
The joint naval patrols conducted by Russia and China in the Pacific Ocean, coming close to the US West Coast, are particularly noteworthy. Covering over 7,000 nautical miles, these patrols involved passing along the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido and circling part of the Aleutian Islands archipelago. The Wall Street Journal reported that “11 Russian and Chinese ships steamed close to the Aleutian Islands, in what appeared to be the largest such flotilla to approach US shores.” Although the ships never entered US territorial waters, their presence near such sensitive areas signals the growing reach and coordination of the Russian and Chinese navies.
The Vostok 2022 exercise, a sweeping joint exercise involving more than 2,000 Chinese troops, 300 military vehicles, 21 combat aircraft, and three warships, further underscores the depth of the Russia-China military relationship. The Russian defense ministry described this exercise as involving “more than 50,000 troops and 5,000 weapons units – including 140 aircraft and 60 warships.”
Moscow and Beijing’s joint naval operations have been framed as efforts to protect crucial sea lanes of communication and maintain regional peace and stability. However, the frequency and nature of these drills, coupled with the increasing prevalence of Russian and Chinese military activities in East Asian waters and airspace, have raised concerns among the United States and its allies. The possibility that Russian and Chinese air and naval forces may soon establish a routine presence in the region could significantly alter East Asia’s security landscape.
For the United States, the intensifying naval cooperation between Russia and China presents a strategic challenge that requires a reassessment of naval strategies. But as has been said, the Soviet Union was a naval power, Russia is not. But then again Russia still has the 3rd largest navy in the world. If the Chinese start devoting resources to assist Russia in improving its Navy, then together they would give the U.S. a challenge.
So the questions we need to ask are the following. Will regional allied navies, like South Korea, Japan, India, or even the British and French navies be willing to commit to posting patrols in strategic areas and deal with possible skirmishes ahead? Or will the U.S. be required to commit our own forces in preventing China from its quest for domination?