LONDON Western military planners, and particularly those in Washington, are watching closely as China and Russia launched their largest joint naval exercises last week, bringing together seven Chinese ships with 18 Russian vessels in the Sea of Japan.
For, although Chinese officials have been careful to point out that the manoeuvres are “not targeted at any third party and are not relevant to the regional status-quo”, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu made no effort to hide his own country’s opinion that the United States was the chief factor in China and Russia conducting more exercises.
“We believe that the main goal of pooling our efforts is to shape a collective regional security system,” Mr Shoigu said, in a clear reference to the enduring presence of US naval power in the Pacific.
Facts speak for themselves.
While the Chinese and Russians have staged periodic naval exercises for more than a decade, the ships taking part in the naval manoeuvres – which are set to run until Aug 28 – are far better equipped than those put to sea in the past.
Both nations are investing heavily in their navies. And both will be practising a joint amphibious assault on an imaginary enemy’s land-based fortifications, just the sort of manoeuvre calculated to send shivers down the spines of leaders in Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Nevertheless, the growing Russian-Chinese military alliance should not be taken too seriously.
For it is still not a meeting of strategic minds in Beijing or Moscow, but a haphazard arrangement between a rising and a declining power.
The Chinese certainly understand this; the only question is whether the Russians, who are far needier in this case, also comprehend this reality.
The Chinese and Russian governments now describe their relationship as a “strategic partnership”, since the two nations see themselves as the victims of previous colonial wars and powers.
Both Russia and China are also ethnically diverse, vast countries which are hard to govern, with a history of domestic collapse and the loss of vulnerable bits of their territories.
Preventing the recurrence of such troubles by insisting on tight domestic controls and a fierce defence of existing borders and international law concepts, such as the sovereignty of states, is a shared objective in Beijing and Moscow.
And both Russia and China see the West in general and the US in particular as an obstacle and often a threat to their long-term strategic aspirations.
Yet the similarities end there. The current position and the future trajectories of Russia and China cannot be more different.
In 1990, the USSR had one quarter of China’s population, but the Soviet economy was 11/2 times bigger than China’s.
However, just a year later when the Soviet Union disintegrated, Russia ended up with one-eighth of China’s population and only half of China’s economy, the sort of abrupt change in the strategic balance seldom before encountered in the country’s history.
And, since then, it’s all been downhill for leaders in Moscow. Russia’s gross domestic product is now less than a fifth that of China, and, by 2030, it may be no more than 12 per cent.
More significantly still, the Chinese military now outspends Russia’s by a factor of two-to-one. In short, the Russians are no longer China’s “Big Brother”; they barely qualify for the status of a poor uncle.
And although, for a variety of reasons, the Chinese have gone out of their way to be nice to the Russians and have been very good at indulging Russia’s compulsive need to be treated as a Big Power – Mr Xi Jinping made Russia his first port of call after becoming Chinese president, for instance – the reality is that the world views of strategic decision-makers in Beijing and Moscow remain vastly different.
For Russian officials, the key obsession is to avoid a further decline in their world rankings; for the Chinese, the main preoccupation is how to handle the country’s rise without triggering off a global backlash.
Russia uses force first, and only later thinks of the economic consequences of its actions; meanwhile, the Chinese are masters at using economic might as a substitute to the iron fist.
The Russians see their sphere of influence as a defined landmass area which they physically control; the Chinese perceive their influence zones as a more fluid zones in which nations are allowed leeway, within confined but not always fixed boundaries.
And, finally,while Beijing views involvement with Europe and the US as ultimately a transactional issue, a matter of a cold calculation between costs and benefits, Russia’s relationship with the West is all about emotions, about belonging to European culture yet often being rejected by the rest of Europe.
COMPARISON OF TWO NAVIES
China and Russia deploy the second and third-largest navies by the number of ships, respectively. They also share an interest in acquiring new technologies, such as very quiet submarines, multi-role platforms and hypersonic anti-ship missiles.
But, yet again, the differences between the two navies are more important than the similarities.
Russian naval doctrine, essentially unchanged since the 1970s, emphasises a presence on the high seas and nuclear deterrence; the aim is to have up to a third of Russia’s nuclear warheads on submarines.
But the Chinese emphasise asymmetric methods of maritime warfare, which means that China is not proposing to match US naval capabilities, but rather acquire enough capabilities to project Chinese power overseas, protect key Chinese strategic objectives, and deny the US complete freedom of action in the Pacific, especially in waters close to China’s coastline, and to Taiwan.
The biggest difference between the two countries lies in the way they propose to use naval power.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions to pour large resources into his navy is domestically controversial, because Russian naval investment is usually associated with failure: the Russian navy last won a major battle in 1853 and, for the first half of the 20th century, its most stinging defeats were in Asia, courtesy of Japan.
By contrast, the Chinese navy is increasingly being seen as the true protector of Chinese national sovereignty.
Rallying domestic political support for Chinese naval expansion is easy, particularly since the navy appears to be the only Chinese military service able to not only protect land Beijing considers as its own, but also humiliate the Japanese, keep the Americans at bay and hold the prospect of a military recovery of Taiwan.
In short, the entire way Beijing and Moscow look at the use of naval power is almost diametrically opposed.
For China, the waters of the Pacific are an absolute priority and necessity; for the Russians, the Pacific is largely a question of status. And then, there is the Arctic, where the Russian navy is actually deeply suspicious of any Chinese moves.
So, why are the Russians and Chinese navies bothering with the on-going high-profile exercise?
The Chinese still rely on acquiring – through purchase, industrial espionage or reverse-engineering – technologies which the Russians have, particularly those which relate to special metals used in the construction of submarines as well as other naval engineering capabilities in shipbuilding.
The Russians are also determined to smother China with love, as the only alternative to manage Beijing rise. And both may have a short-term interest as well as deriving some pleasure from baiting Japan, or from poking a finger at the US Navy.
But as Mr Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Moscow and a noted observer of Sino-Russian relations once shrewdly pointed out, the links between the China and Russia are not about love, or even a marriage of convenience, but an “Axis of Insecurity”, an association driven by a range of shared fears, rather than an agreement on how to deal with them.
This article was first published on August 24, 2015.
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