Russia and China have launched joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea. They have been conducting similar drills since 2003, according to the treaties of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The biggest of such joint exercises took place in 2005 and was called at the time the first step towards adding a military character to the SCO.
Both Russian and Chinese officials insist that these exercises are not targeting any specific country and that their purpose is to develop their respective countries’ ability to fight against international terrorism. It’s of course necessary to look at the capabilities demonstrated during this drill to understand the real scope of these exercises. First of all, it appears that these two great powers are still convinced that the only way to fight terrorism is to use military means. Secondly, they underline the fact that they are using domestically produced destroyers, frigates and submarines. The world is already sufficiently informed about Russian military industry, so now it appears that China, too, is trying to exhibit its own war matériel production capabilities.
It has been announced that Russia has contributed seven vessels to the drill while China has sent 16 warships, two submarines, 13 warplanes, five helicopters and 4,000 men. The first impression is that it is China that is conducting this drill and Russia only assisting it. Another comment could be that China is apparently more worried about “terrorism” than Russia is.
What is hard to understand is how submarines will be used to fight against terrorists. Maybe we don’t understand it because Turkey’s terror problem is mainly territorial. However, when we think about terrorism at sea, which calls to mind Somalia, something is still wrong: The Yellow Sea is too far away from the seas where Somali pirates swarm. The little information we have doesn’t allow us to identify for sure the “terrorists” this joint drill is targeting, but in fact, the place chosen to undertake this drill is quite revealing.
The naval exercises are being conducted very close to the Korean Peninsula and to the demarcation line between North and South Korea. This region is not known for its terrorists but for its antagonistic states and nuclear weapons. Moreover, the two Koreas have serious problems regarding the sharing of territorial waters, and tension between the two neighbors has been growing for some time.
We recall that US President Barack Obama recently visited South Korea and he also went to this country’s border with North Korea to show his support for the Seoul regime, so it is maybe not that surprising that China has now decided to make a show of strength. Maybe what Russian and Chinese officials have been calling “terrorism” is the alliance between the US, Japan and South Korea, and their purpose in “fighting terrorism” is to make sure that North Korea remains under their control.
China, side-by-side with Russia, wants to show to the entire world that North Korea is off limits to the US. No doubt Russia’s position is closely monitored in Washington, as the Obama administration is determined to initiate a rapprochement with Moscow. Russia is aware of this and by cooperating with China, it tries to get more compromises from the US in exchange for Moscow’s friendship.
It’s highly probable that the bargaining process is mainly about Russian demands concerning the Middle East. Russia most is most likely asking for a corridor to the Mediterranean, and the US will probably not refuse this. That means China risks being isolated, and this risk provokes Beijing to launch drills against “terrorists” by using submarines. Nevertheless, military shows make the risk of military conflict more likely. As they say: A little spark can start a big fire.
This article first appeared in Today's Zaman on May 1