These days, there’s something unsettling about hearing the phrase ‘amphibious assault’ in the same sentence as ‘Russia.’ And given the news from the South China Sea, you really don’t want ‘China’ added to that mix. But here we are. On July 20th, the Diplomat ran an article titled “China and Russia to Stage Amphibious Assault Exercise in Sea of Japan”:
“Representatives of the headquarters of the Russian Pacific Fleet and the Navy of the People’s Liberation Army of China have carried out major work for the planning of the Chinese warships’ visit to Vladivostok port, the cultural program, sports competitions and all the tactical events of the sea, land, and air parts of the maneuvers,” [Russian Pacific Fleet spokesman Roman] Martov noted. […]
The 20 warships and support vessels from both navies will also be joined by carrier-based aircraft, Martov told TASS. Russia’s Pacific Fleet consists of around 70 vessels including four landing ships and five landing crafts. China is currently in the process of expanding its fleet of amphibious warfare ships with the construction and gradual induction of six new Type-071 Yuzhao-class vessels. […]
The exercise will take place in the Sea of Japan and off the coast of Russia’s Primorsky territory – approximately 250 miles away from Japan — and include for the first time a joint amphibious assault drill.
Because they combine everyone’s biggest worry about Russia (invasions) and everyone’s biggest fears about China (disputed-island-based use of military force), the drills will be taken as a seriously provocative move by, well, everyone—but especially by Japan. Their location will only deepen tensions: A territorial dispute over the remote Kuril Islands, northeast of Hokkaido, has kept Japan and Russia from signing a formal peace treaty ending World War II.
Moreover, many fear that as China gets richer and more powerful, it will team up with Russia to change the tide of history and to undo the reigning world order. These fears are overblown. The best evidence for the emergence of real warmth between Russia and China—a $400 billion gas deal signed late in 2014—is probably best interpreted as an opportunistic play by an energy-hungry Beijing to take advantage of its oil-rich neighbor at a vulnerable moment. As Lilia Shevtsova has argued in our pages, Russia has more to fear from its relationship with China than the West has to fear from the two countries’ coming together.
But just because some exaggerate the dangers of the Russia-China relationship doesn’t mean these drills are unimportant. It is a genuine problem if Russia gains the ability to mount amphibious assaults, given its penchant for invasions. That’s why we saw such brouhaha over France’s prospective delivery of the Mistral-class warships. And given Beijing’s greedy claims to rightful ownership in the South China Sea, the country’s naval power and prowess is a matter of serious concern for anyone who cares about the future of world order.