Get Used to It NATO: Russian-Chinese Drills Are the New Normal

With both countries feeling themselves squeezed by some of the same powers it can hardly be different

No sooner than the annual Malabar 2017 exercise (July 14-17) ended in Bay of Bengal, another naval exercise has begun with equally profound geopolitical implications for India – Joint Sea 2017, Russia’s week-long joint drills with China (July 21-26) in the Baltic Sea. Each highlights in its own way the realignments under way in the Asia-Pacific and Eurasia. India is a participant in one, more than a curious observer in the other.

The four-day Malabar-2017 (US, India and Japan) had a distinct anti-China flavor. India downplayed that aspect, while Japan hyped it up and the US embellished the optic. The Japanese ambassador to India Kenji Hiramatsu penned a rare opinion piece, euphorically hailing Malabar-17 as the harbinger of an Asian security alliance.

On the other hand, Joint Sea 2017 is being watched closely by Western powers and reportedly “raised alarm in Washington” (Telegraph). Interestingly, it comes in two parts. The Baltic exercise will be followed by a second Russia-China naval exercise in September in the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk. Indeed, the Baltics is to Russia’s defence line vis-à-vis NATO what the Sea of Japan is to China’s vis-a-vis the US-Japanese alliance.

Both Malabar 2017 and Joint Sea 2017 displayed advanced weaponry – although Malabar-2017 was much bigger in scope, involving 3 aircraft carriers, 16 ships and 95 aircraft including fighter jets and two submarines. Joint Sea 2017 is relatively modest in scale with around 10 ships and around 10 aircraft.

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The star attraction in Joint Sea 2017 will be China’s guided missile destroyer (Type 052D destroyer), a class of warships built in China that are considered to be as advanced as any in the world, which provide air defence for China’s carriers.

The Chinese Navy is showing up for the first time in the Baltic Sea, which is a playpen of NATO. It is both symbolic as well as a gauge of China’s naval ambitions to play in the same European waters where the Big Daddies have the great game. It is a long voyage half way around the globe and testifies to Chinese Navy’s intentions to have blue water capability. A Western defence correspondent pithily noted, “They (China) still have some way to go to match the world’s biggest navies, but nobody expects them to be behind for much longer.”

commentary by the Russian news agency Sputnik gave a seductive twist that by joining Russia on the doorsteps of NATO in the Baltic Sea, Chinese Navy could be demonstrating the so-called ‘fanbian’ strategy (‘change side’ in Chinese), which is attributed to Chinese Marshal Luo Ronghuan during the Second World War – devolving upon surprise attacks as military diversion from pressure. That seems a stretch. But China and Russia are no doubt responding to provocations against them by the US in the South China Sea and the Baltic Sea respectively.

The Joint Sea 2017 is taking place a fortnight after the state visit on July 4 by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Moscow, which witnessed an extraordinary policy coordination just before Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin were to hold meetings with US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg. The salience was a coordinated stance on North Korea.

The Russian commentators give an ‘anti-West’ orientation to the Baltic exercise. However, a report in the People’s Daily said that the exercise “does not target at any third party”. The report took note that the Baltic has been a “hotspot” but maintained that the exercise is “just a regular activity held every other year and is not aimed at any third party or current situations.” It highlighted nonetheless that “NATO probably feels defensive in the face of the joint maneuvers and certainly wishes China-Russia cooperation weakened.”

The exercise in the Baltic can be seen as a subtle signal of Chinese support for Russia’s efforts to reshape the European security order. Equally, the second part of Joint Sea 2017 in the Far East signifies a reciprocal Russian gesture of solidarity against the backdrop of regional tensions over North Korea.

A “new normal” is setting in. In May 2015, Chinese warships had conducted the first-ever exercise with the Russian Black Sea Fleet. In September 2016 the two navies held joint patrols in the South China Sea for the first time, which included island landing operations. Clearly, Joint Sea 2017 is a step forward – back-to-back exercises the Baltic and the Far East, suggesting strategic alignment.

Source: Indian Punchline

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