Military personnel prepare equipment for a joint military drill by the Chinese and Russian armies on August 5, 2021. Photo: Xinhua / Ding Kai

The Russian and Chinese militaries have in recent times conducted joint bomber flights and military (especially naval) drills and coordinated a somewhat united front against shared geopolitical challenges in the Asia-Pacific region. Although much of the international attention is focused on the Indo-Pacific littoral and the South China Sea, the Sea of Japan and the approaches to the Pacific have seen tensions rise as well. 

Japan’s willingness to accommodate the United States’ Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which is aimed at positioning precision-strike missiles against China, has implications for Russia too. Because of their intermediate-range and area-denial role, there is no reason the same missiles can’t target the Russian Far East.

The presence of US forces and US-supplied advance hardware like the prospective Aegis air defense ships, F-35s belonging to both Japanese and US forces prospectively operating from Japanese Izumo-class ships, inspires not unfounded anxiety in Russia.

It is no surprise that Russia sees Japan as less than an adversary, and the Russian ambassador to Japan, Mikhail Galuzin, has in no uncertain terms said that Russian military activity in the region is aimed at deterring US forces in Japan and the region and not against Japan itself.

Similarly, India’s increasing closeness with Washington is a major thorn in Moscow’s side. New Delhi signing a series of strategic agreements gives it access to many data streams from US reconnaissance, imaging, search, targeting and logistics infrastructure, which is an unprecedented boost for India’s capabilities.

However, the boost comes at the cost of an increasingly anxious Moscow that sees its long-standing partner and ally India realign with Washington, its main geopolitical adversary.

The US since the collapse of the Soviet Union has missed no opportunity to weaken Russia and further its own influence in the post-Soviet space. With extending NATO membership to former Soviet countries and enacting regime change and supporting color revolutions, the game of geopolitical intrigue and orchestrated crises is relentless. 

Russian policy pragmatic and realist

The response to these perceived provocations has been true to the brand of long-standing Russian foreign policy, realistic and pragmatic above all else. 

Moscow feels that for the time being the only way to counterbalance US hegemony is to throw its weight behind China selectively, on issues of converging interests. As it is within the Northeast Asia region and is a perceived junior partner and treaty ally of the US, Japan seems like the perfect target for such a policy.

The highly pragmatic and tentative nature of Russia’s so-called alliance with China means Moscow can selectively use its cooperation with Beijing as a bargaining chip or tool of mild coercion against shared challenges and adversaries.

Russian warships, subs in Sri Lanka

A recent visit by Russian Navy submarines and warships to Sri Lanka can also be seen as a strategic signaling move by Moscow.

The move has the dual implication of at the same time reassuring New Delhi that Sri Lanka is not in effect a Chinese-dominated unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Indo-Pacific littoral and to remind all interested in the region that Russia has the sea legs and the wherewithal for its Pacific Fleet to project power in the region if the need arises.

China’s lack of comment on Russian ASAT test

The recent Russian test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon created thousands of pieces of debris in orbit that could threaten the International Space Station and the Chinese space station Tiangong.

The test brought widespread disapproval from many countries, private companies and individuals alike, but the lack of comment from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is indicative of at least some desire to accommodate Russia, unlike a lot of other spacefaring nations. 

The Russia-China entente, while strengthening both, also has its limitations, for example the lack of significant progress on joint high-tech projects like the International Lunar Research Station.

The ILRS project seems to be a competitor to the US-led Artemis Program, which aims to return humans to the moon’s surface. However, for the moment the Russian part of the ILRS doesn’t seem to have any plans for a human element but will likely rely on uncrewed platforms.

While China and Russia have announced the technical scope of the ILRS and have kept the door open for cooperation with other countries, they have not yet laid out a legal or guiding framework akin to America’s Artemis Accords.

The Artemis Accords are a set of principles largely derivative of the Outer Space Treaty. A Russian and Chinese counterpart was expected to be unveiled during this year’s International Astronautical Conference in Dubai, but to the disappointment of many, nothing substantive was mentioned about ILRS during the event.

The mixed bag of pragmatic abstentions, selective cooperation and asymmetric responses is likely to continue until Japan, the US and India reconsider their respective attitudes to Russia and its anxieties.

Aditya Pareek

Aditya Pareek is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution, an independent, networked think-tank and public-policy school based in Bangalore.