The Russian and Chinese navies have started their first ever series of joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, China’s Xinhua news agency has announced. Referring to the maneuvers as ‘war games’, the Chinese agency said that the fleets will work on anti-submarine, anti-piracy and anti-terrorism cooperation.
Joint naval exercises represent a step forward in China-Russia relations, but it is likely that neither side really expects all that much from the relationship. Russians speaking candidly will say that China’s rise is one of Russia’s greatest geopolitical worries, and Russian cooperation in China’s efforts to dominate its region are highly unlikely. China knows this, has little respect for Russian governance or technology, and places little faith that a military alliance with Russia could change the basically unfavorable balance of power in maritime Asia.
Both countries do, however, share an interest in checking US influence globally and, to a lesser extent, regionally. Brandishing the possibility of closer Sino-Russian cooperation is one of the diplomatic weapons the two countries have, and it’s probably best to see these naval exercises in that light. Russia and China are signaling that they cannot be pressed too far, and that the US should tread lightly where their interests are concerned.
This is bark, not bite, but the United States should not ignore it completely. To the extent that we can, we should deepen our relations with both countries, identify issues of mutual interest and work together on them, and, again, within the bounds of what is reasonable and appropriate, we should beware of treading unnecessarily on their toes.
Both Russia and China have been badly shaken by the economic crisis, and governments in both countries are more fragile than they would like the world to think. Both governments are worried about their domestic legitimacy, and both view the international system with alarm. While both countries are promoting the “US in decline” meme around the world (and besides intel services and nuclear weapons, global propaganda may be the most important capacity that modern Russia inherited from the Soviet Union and the Putin government pushes this for all it is worth), the policy makers in both capitals appear, if anything, obsessed with worries about rising US strength.
Fear rather than hope rules the roost in both countries today and American policy makers need to take that into account as we plan our own moves.
And the rising tension in maritime Asia — where Filipino and Chinese computer hackers are caught up in a cyberwar sparked by their ongoing sprat in the Spratlys — is something that Washington cannot ignore.