On Sunday, media outlets reported that a Chinese naval fleet had departed Hainan province to hold a scheduled military exercise with the Russian Navy in St. Petersburg and Kalinigrad. The exercise, the first of a series expected in 2017, illustrates the intensified cooperation we have seen between Beijing and Moscow in recent years in spite of lingering challenges in their bilateral relationship.
Though China and Russia have been formally upgrading their ties since the 1990s in a series of partnerships, collaboration has especially intensified in recent years. Even as differences remain, the two countries have publicly been talking up the prospects for cooperation, be it in connecting the One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR) and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union, supporting multilateral institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that are an alternative to the U.S.-led order, or on individual foreign policy issues ranging from Syria to North Korea.
With respect to military exercises, though China and Russia have been carrying out joint naval drills every year since 2012, they made headlines when they held them for the first time in the South China Sea last September. While Russian officials continue to point out that exercises were actually held off the coast of Guangdong and far from any disputed area, for many the sight of the world’s second and third largest militaries operating together amid an ongoing regional flashpoint spoke for itself (See: “The Truth About Russia’s New South China Sea Drill Idea”).
The first of this year’s series of drills, Joint Sea 2017, kicked off this week. According to Xinhua, a Chinese fleet consisting of one destroyer, one frigate, one comprehensive supply ship, ship-borne helicopters, and marines, departed for Russia for the exercise. Xinhua added that the drills were part of an effort to boost the Sino-Russian comprehensive strategic partnership and improve coordination between the two naves, with this year’s exercises aiming to “jointly carry out rescue missions and protect the safety of economic activities at sea.”
The exercise between the two countries came just as tensions erupted between the United States and Russia, with Moscow threatening to target aircraft flown by the United States and its allies following the U.S. downing of a Syrian warplane. The exercise also comes just ahead of U.S President Donald Trump’s visit to NATO ally Poland. Beyond the exercise held this week, Beijing and Moscow are also set to hold drills in the Baltic Sea in late July and the Sea of Japan and Okhotsk in mid-September.