China and Russia launched their first joint naval exercises yesterday, with war games in the Yellow Sea that come amid tensions between China and its neighbors over territorial claims.
The six days of drills — the first dedicated exercises involving navies of the two countries — are taking place off China’s east coast, Xinhua news agency said.
Although China has said the military exercises are designed to improve regional stability, they come at a time when Beijing is boosting military spending and more forcefully stating its case in territorial disputes.
China’s military newspaper warned on Saturday that other military exercises now taking place in Asia between the US and the Philippines could lead to armed confrontation over the disputed South China Sea.
China and several of its neighbors have rival claims to uninhabited islands in the strategic maritime region, which is believed to be rich in oil and natural gas and straddles strategic shipping lanes vital to global trade.
Beijing and Tokyo also have a long-running dispute over another chain of islands — also claimed by Taiwan — in the East China Sea, called the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) by Taiwan and China and the Senkaku Islands by Japan, which sit in rich fishing grounds that may also harbor energy resources.
China has 16 naval vessels and two submarines taking part in the exercises, while Russia has four warships, according to state media.
They are to focus on joint air defense, anti-submarine tactics and search and rescue, as well as simulated rescue of hijacked vessels and anti-terrorism drills.
China and Russia have participated together in four military exercises since 2005, some involving other countries, state media has said.
China’s drills with Russia have taken place through a regional grouping, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which groups the two with central Asian countries in a forum originally established to counter NATO influence.
With military cooperation between the old Cold War allies on the rise, some analysts questioned the value of China holding exercises with Russia, given Moscow’s diminished role.
“It’s worrisome to its neighbors,” said Joshua Eisenman, senior fellow in China studies at the Washington-based American Foreign Policy Council.
“Countries like [South] Korea, Japan, Vietnam and India are already concerned about China’s role in the region,” he said. “From a Chinese perspective, I don’t see the value of this type of military exercise to building long-term strategic trust with its neighbors.”
Earlier this month, China and the Philippines dispatched vessels to enforce rival claims to a group of islands in the South China Sea. The Philippines and the US also started major war games as a timely boost to their military alliance, as part of Washington’s “pivot” toward Asia, which has provoked displeasure from China.
Chinese experts see the exercises with Russia as giving its military chances to interact with a modern navy. Yin Zhuo (尹卓), an expert who advises the Chinese navy, said the number of ships involved was unprecedented.
“Both sides will have deep exchanges in terms of tactics and technology,” Yin told state television.
Japan has so far not commented on the Sino-Russian drills.
However, Japan’s defense ministry said in a recent report that China was becoming increasingly active in waters near Japanese territory, while Russia was holding more frequent military exercises in its Far East region.