The scale of the joint naval exercise between Russian and Chinese navies in the Baltic Sea was not particularly impressive. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) contributed a guided missile destroyer, the Hefei, and a frigate, Yunchen, supported by a replenishment vessel. Baltic Fleet’s participation consisted of two corvettes, Boikiy and Steregushchiy, and the entire operation lasted from July 24 to July 27. From the military perspective, the exercise was of little value to either side. There is almost no conceivable scenario in which the PLAN would perform combat operations in the Baltic. It is likewise highly unlikely Baltic Fleet corvettes would find themselves deployed in the Pacific. Rather, the exercise had primarily political implications, as it was intended to further China’s and Russia’s interests against the increasingly obvious US and NATO encroachments. Western reporting on this operation was either non-existent or guardedly neutral, since the idea of reporting that any geopolitical shift to the disadvantage of Western powers is anathema to US or European mainstream media. It is however unlikely the message was not fully received by its intended recipients.
While Western media coverage tends to overwhelmingly focus on the West-Russia tensions, the list of irritants in the West-China relations is impressive and growing, with no evident prospect of de-escalation. At the top of the current list of concerns is the South China Sea stand-off in which US and Japanese forces have at times attempted to challenge China’s claim of sovereignty over a number of islands. The United Kingdom recently went so far as state it might dispatch one of its two brand-new aircraft carriers to the area, ostensibly on a freedom of navigation issue. A related issue is the status of Hong-Kong, which seems to be viewed by the US and the UK as a means of destabilizing China’s political system, under the usual guise of “protecting human rights.” The recent high-profile US military sales to Taiwan can’t help but send the message to Beijing that the West is preparing to exert political and perhaps military pressure against it on many fronts.
These concerns are closely followed by the sudden increase in the US-DPRK belligerence with the effect of drawing China into the line of fire. The deployment of US tactical ballistic missile systems, Donald Trump’s incessant tweets on how he expects China to wave a magic wand and make North Korea go away, all suggest the issue is being blown into a major crisis to justify strong-arming China. In that respect, the sanctions bill passed by US Congress with huge bipartisan majorities also threatens to target China for its trade with North Korea and perhaps also Iran, and mounts to an important component of the emerging US policy of dual containment against both China and Russia, a policy which is also apparent in the recent US approach to China. US is clearly making a play for India in an effort to deprive Russia of a number of important foreign markets and to turn it into a major security concern for China. US Pacific Fleet commander’s statement that he would “nuke China” if only Trump gave the order, following a joint US-Australian exercise, is eerily similar to the equally belligerent statements being made by US military officers toward Russia.
The recent higher visibility of the Chinese military outside of its borders, of which the joint Baltic exercise is but one manifestation, is evidence that the Chinese leadership feels it necessary to dissuade US and any would-be opportunists from pursuing dual containment that would have the effect of cutting off China’s economy from its suppliers of natural resources and overseas markets, and reduce China to a status of a captive market and labor source, a role it served during the 19th century.
While the inner workings of Beijing’s national security decisionmaking appear to be as unaccessible to Western intelligence services as Russia’s, Beijing’s observable actions suggest a desire to stake claim to its interests around the world in such a way as to make it clear Chinese military could be used to protect them. The Middle East is one of these regions. The projected Chinese military base in Djibouti, where it will presumably nestle alongside French and US military presence, is clearly intended to secure China’s ability to project military power into the Persian Gulf, if need be, and assert that the Indian Ocean is not solely reserved for the US and Indian navies. Djibouti’s location is also ideal for ensuring that pirates of that region cannot be used to interdict Chinese shipping heading for the Suez Canal. China’s position on Syria has long echoed that of Russia, an indicator that Beijing views US complete dominance of that region as a potential if not actual threat to China’s interests.
The Baltic Sea exercise is so far the most distant demonstration of China’s military reach and geopolitical interests. The Baltic Sea borders countries through which China’s overland trade into the EU. Naturally the efforts to isolate Russia from the EU, which countries like the Baltic States, Ukraine, and Poland are pursuing at Washington’s behest, will be seen as a hostile act by Beijing. The sight of Chinese warships in the Baltic, exercising not with NATO but with the Baltic Fleet, sends a reminder to these countries that China stands by Russia and views actions aimed at Russia as being also aimed at itself. The Baltic Sea exercise may also represent China returning the favor for the Russian Pacific Fleet’s demonstrations of strength in support of China.
The Baltic Sea exercise is also an indicator of the relationship between Russia and China growing closer. Russia needs access to Chinese industrial products and also financial markets, to help bypass Western sanctions. China is heavily reliant on Russian natural resources, particularly energy, and also military weaponry as Western technology transfers were all halted after the Tienanmen incident. In the military sphere, the two countries have been performing more and more joint exercises. Chinese military is now a regular participant in the annual Tank Biathlon competition, this year bringing its most advanced ZTZ-96B MBTs. So far the two countries are not linked by a publicly known military alliance, though the level of cooperation suggests the existence of informal mutual understandings. Whether the relationship advances to the level of a formal collective defense alliance now really depends on the further US and Western actions aimed at China.