On Monday last week, China and Russia embarked on an eight-day joint naval exercise in the waters of and the skies above the South China Sea, dubbed “Joint Sea 2016.”
A spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of National Defense said the drills were aimed at strengthening the ability of both nations’ navies to deal with maritime security threats, but then rather overdid it by adding: “The drills are not aimed at any particular country.”
Since 2005, China and Russia have held six military exercises, including in coastal waters off the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Last year, a Chinese fleet visited a Russian naval base in the Black Sea.
The South China Sea is a highly disputed body of water, with Taiwan, China and six other nations claiming sovereignty over islands, reefs and stretches of water in the area.
The disputes have become even more pronounced now that the Chinese lion has opened its mouth, setting its so-called “nine-dash line” claim and seeking to turn the South China Sea into its own domestic waterway.
In the past two years, Beijing has intensified its efforts through land reclamation and the construction of military installations in the South China Sea to beef up its military force and increase its ability to exert control over the disputed waters.
However, on July 7, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague issued a unanimous award in favor of the Philippines in the arbitration case it brought against China. The court overturned Chinese claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea, and in doing so, dealt a serious blow to Beijing’s military strategy and diplomatic calculations.
Beijing may be using this latest joint military exercise as a way to draw Russia into the dispute by leveraging Moscow’s power to alter the balance of power in the area, threaten the US and its allies, and demonstrate China’s resolve to uphold its sovereignty claims.
Since both China and Russia are under pressure from the US and its allies, strengthening military cooperation has benefits for both nations.
China’s defense industry and military technology still lag far behind that of the US and Russia. Chinese scientists and engineers still do not have the ability to innovate, research, develop and produce the latest in military hardware and systems.
Beijing therefore has to rely on either purchasing or stealing technology from advanced counties, such as the US and Russia, and producing counterfeit copies of foreign designs. It is trying its best to narrow the gap and hopes it will not be long until it has caught up.
Over the past two decades, the People’s Liberation Army has obtained from Russia new fighter aircraft, destroyers, submarines and anti-aircraft weapons systems such as the S-400 Triumf to strengthen its fighting ability.
However, due to fears that China will copy Russia’s designs and flood the global arms markets with cheap knock-offs — which would undermine the Russian defense industry’s profits — the Kremlin has always held back a little and even sells its most advanced equipment to Beijing’s enemies, such as Indonesia and Vietnam.
However, the situation has changed in recent years. There are two main reasons why China and Russia have chosen to accelerate the development of a closer security relationship.
First, after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, the US and NATO imposed a comprehensive package of economic sanctions on Moscow, while also ratcheting up military pressure. Russia is therefore helping China modernize its military as a way to counter the US.
Second, the economic sanctions, combined with falling energy exports and global energy prices, have left the Russian economy and finances in tatters, and in desperate need of assistance from China.
Consequently, when Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) attended a parade in Moscow in May last year to mark 70 years since the end of Word War II in Europe, Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a statement announcing comprehensive plans to deepen their bilateral strategic partnership.
The two leaders signed a series of important cooperation agreements on areas such as energy, space and investment, including a deal which will see China invest 300 billion rubles (US$4.62 billion) on a new high-speed railway link between Moscow and Kazan.
Despite the lofty words on cooperation from the two leaders, there is still a very long way to go before many of these far-distant plans reach fruition.
Moscow and Beijing previously pledged to increase bilateral trade to the tune of US$100 billion by this year and US$200 billion by 2020. Yet last year, bilateral trade plummeted 28 percent to US$68 billion and only picked up a few percentage points in the first half of this year.
During a visit to Beijing in 2014, Putin signed a 30-year natural gas deal with China, estimated to be worth more than US$400 billion. As part of the agreement, Russia must build a natural gas pipeline. However, construction has ground to a halt.
Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov has previously boasted of the unlimited potential of a “strategic cooperation partnership” between Moscow and Beijing. However, converting this potential into reality appears to be problematic, with the Amur Bridge Project being the most vivid example.
Eight years ago, China and Russia signed an agreement to jointly construct an enormous bridge that would link Russia’s Nizhneleninskoye with China’s Heilongjiang Province.
The bridge would reduce the distance between Nizhneleninskoye and Heilongjiang by more than 800km, thereby reducing the costs of transporting Russian iron ore to Chinese steel plants.
On winning the tender, Chinese contractors immediately set to work and have already completed their 2km section of the bridge, per the agreement. The section built by the Russian side is considerably shorter at 309m, yet Moscow has not completed its section of the bridge.
Several years ago the project abruptly ground to a halt. The partly completed bridge, suspended high above the murky Amur River, only lacks one small section to connect China to Nizhneleninskoye — a remote town about 6,400km from Moscow.
The all-powerful Putin must have given his personal approval for construction of the bridge. Why then is Russia dragging its feet on the project?
Victor Larin, a professor and China specialist at Russia’s Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, gives the following explanation: A section of the Russian elite still subscribes to the “China threat syndrome.”
Some Russian leaders are deeply wary of China, whose population is almost 10 times larger, with an economy that is five times bigger and annual military spending that is more than twice Moscow’s.
Russian military officials have also questioned the wisdom of building a bridge that would allow the Chinese army to send tanks across onto Russian soil. Many Russian elites view China as a latent threat and an unreliable partner.
Following the breakup of the USSR in 1991, large numbers of Chinese crossed over from Heilongjiang into Siberia to take advantage of local resources and engage in farming. Russian nationalist politicians were up in arms, demanding that all Chinese migrants leave Siberia.
Russian film director Stanislav Govorukhin made a film warning that China was taking over control of the Far East and wrote a sensational book, which said the region was undergoing large-scale sinicization and that it would not be long before Siberia was subsumed into China.
Last year, the government of Russian-controlled Zabaykalsky Krai — a federal state bordering China — announced that it would lease 115,335 hectares of land to a Chinese company to be used for growing grain. A wave of protest followed and the plan has been shelved because of the strength of the anti-Chinese sentiment.
The Sino-Russia alliance is akin to a paper tiger: At first sight it appears terrifying, but does it have any teeth?
Parris Chang is professor emeritus of political science at Pennsylvania State University and president of the Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies.
Translated by Edward Jones
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