Large-scale war games in the South China Sea by Chinese and Russian naval forces included practice for taking over islands in the disputed waters and appear part of efforts by both states to counter the US pivot to Asia.
The exercises began September 13 and concluded Monday. Dubbed Joint Sea-2016, the Chinese and Russian naval maneuvers involved the use of both warships, aircraft and marines in practice combat operations — a clear sign Beijing continues gearing up for a future military conflict with the United States over China’s expansive maritime territorial claims.
It was the largest joint exercises since the two navies began holding the war games and the first in the contested South China Sea. Chinese military officials described the war games as “a strategic measure” aimed at increasing military and especially naval cooperation.
State-run Chinese and Russian news reports provided a glimpse into some of the operations that took place in three phases, the largest of which involved naval live fire drills, and anti-submarine warfare and air defense maneuvers. Details of the island-seizure practice were omitted in state-controlled media reports from both countries.
A total of 13 warships took part, including guided-missile destroyers, frigates, landing ships, supply ships and significantly — two submarines. The two Chinese submarines were not identified by type but were used in anti-submarine exercises.
Aircraft included 11 Chinese fixed-wing warplanes and eight helicopters. A total of 160 Chinese marines also participated.
Russia dispatched three warships, two supply vessels, two helicopters and 96 marines, along with armored amphibious tanks.
The war games took place not far from the disputed Paracels claimed by China, Vietnam and others.
The operations were carried out near the city of Zhanjiang, located in southern Guangzhou province and north of the South China Sea’s Hainan Island, where China’s main regional military base is located.
A Pentagon official said U.S. reconnaissance assets, both sea-based and aerial, closely monitored the maneuvers.
In Washington, Japan’s Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said last week that Japan supports the Pentagon’s limited freedom-of-navigation operations in the sea to counter what she called attempted coercion by China. And Inada announced Japanese naval forces would soon join American naval forces in joint patrols in the South China Sea.
“Japan, on its part, will increase its engagement in the South China Sea,” she said during think tank speech. “So for example, maritime defense forces joint training cruises with the US Navy, bilateral maritime exercises with regional navies as well as providing capacity-building assistance to coastal nations.”
The announcement drew a harsh response from China denouncing any international patrols as “gunboat diplomacy” that would be met with unspecified countermeasures.
Sticking to its policy of seeking to avoid upsetting China, the Obama administration remained relatively silent on the joint South China Sea exercise.
Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific Command, made no mention of the war games during a speech September 15 in Los Angeles.
Harris, who only months ago had been very outspoken in denouncing what he termed China’s “Great Wall of Sand” in the sea, appears to have been muzzled. In his Los Angeles remarks, Harris said only that Moscow and Beijing need to follow an international rules-based order.
The only public American comment came from State Department spokesman John Kirby who played down the large-scale exercises as “not unusual.”
“The only thing that, you know, we’re mindful of is that as exercises like this take place, they take place in accordance with international law and don’t do anything to raise tensions,” he said.
The exercises have raised tensions and followed years of Chinese provocations in the sea. Those have included the large-scale building of islands, deployment of warplanes and missiles on them, and heightening tensions with Vietnam by moving an oil platform to the Paracels. In the Spratlys, China has built several long runways that could be used for military transports and it is eyeing the strategically-located Scarborough Shoal for militarization in the future. The shoal is close to the Philippines where US aircraft and naval vessels will be based as part of an enhanced defense agreement.
So far, the US pivot to Asia has been limited to bolstering ties with India, Australia, Japan, Philippines, and Vietnam. Most military activities have been limited to periodic deployments of warships and increased surveillance activities.
Russia also is seeking to counteract the US pivot by stepping up joint military activities with China and by conducting provocative warplane flights. Last year, two Russian bombers made a low pass near the aircraft carrier USS Reagan. Nuclear-capable Russian bombers also have flown around Guam several times. The island is the center of the military element of the Asia pivot.
Russian state-controlled news reports noted that the “massive” South China Sea war games followed recent US naval operations in the area.
During the recent war games, Chinese propagandists used English-language media to mislead western publics about the exercises. For example, Zhang Junshe, a researcher at the Chinese Navy’s Military and Academic Institute, told the official Xinhua News Agency the joint exercise was “essentially defensive and totally different from the island landing and retaking drills that a few countries engage in year after year in the west pacific region against an imaginary enemy,” an apparent reference to U.S. military exercises in the nearby East China Sea.
Other Chinese language reports on the war games provided a different description. The two militaries would be involved in “seizing reefs,” “amphibious landing” of troops and weapons on islands, and “other island defense and offense joint training.”
And the Communist Party-affiliated newspaper Global Times newspaper headlined its September 19 report on the exercises with this: “China, Russia stage joint island-seizing drills.”
Xinhua added that the war games were not targeted against “third parties.” But the exercises clearly were designed to send a targeted strategic message to the United States that China is increasing its military presence in the sea.
Another Chinese report said the joint operations included practice for “basic beachhead attack tactics.”
Chen Xi, captain of the guided-missile destroyer Zhengzhou that was part of the exercise, described the military operations as drills for sudden, surprise attacks using asymmetric weapons — arms that provide a weaker opponent with capabilities to defeat stronger foes.
“As the commanding post of the blue team, we can use early warning helicopters to search and engage JH-7A aircraft and submarines in combat,” Chen said. “The blue team enjoys the priority of initiating the combat which means we have the priority over when to engage, giving the other team a secret and sudden attack.”
Xinhua also disclosed what had long been suspected: China and Russia are engaged in military intelligence sharing, including data on the use of both radar and sonar — key electronic warfare capabilities.
During the drills, Chinese warships escorted a ship that played the role of a merchant vessel. Those ships were then joined by a Russian destroyer that provided air defense and anti-submarine warfare protection for the merchant ship.
Anti-submarine warfare helicopters dropped sonar buoys that transmitted data to the Russian anti-submarine destroyer Admiral Tributs, a vessel the Chinese say has more technical capabilities than those of Chinese, according to Xinhua.
The high profile war games followed a setback for Chinese efforts to legitimize control over 90 percent of South China Sea. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in July ruled against China and in favor of the Philippines in a legal dispute over who owns the disputed Spratlys islands. The United Nations court ruled there was “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’” – a ill-defined border covering most of the strategic waterway.
China has insisted that its militarization of the South China Sea through deploying military forces on some of the 3,200 acres of newly reclaimed islands is not destabilizing. Beijing also has claimed that the joint drills with Russia is not destabilizing.
The recent military exercise shows that China is attempting to counteract the near total isolation it has incurred from regional states as a result of its maritime claims by using a regional show of force together with the Russian military.
Bill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books. Contact him on Twitter at @BillGertz
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