In recent years, China and Russia have been jointly engaging in military adventures in the Pacific. Their military adventurism is aimed particularly at Japan and South Korea, two major U.S. allies in the region. Japan and South Korea, in response, have been preparing their respective militaries in order to thwart such military adventurism.
Russia Scales Up Its Influence, China Consolidates Its Position
Russian influence in the Asia-Pacific gradually diminished after the Soviet Union’s demise. Russia’s engagements in the region, until very recently, have been limited to its relations with India and an insignificant volume of arms sale to a handful of countries.
Over the past few years, however, Russia has gone from trading an insignificant volume to becoming one of the most significant arms dealers in the region. Over 60% of Russia’s total arms exports now go to South and Southeast Asia, and Russia has evolved to become the largest arms exporter in the entire Asia-Pacific region.
What’s more, Russia has been scaling up its influence in the Asia-Pacific by taking advantage of its vibrant relationship with China. Russia has recently started taking bolder actions in the region — some of which are unimaginable without China’s affirmative nod.
China, on the other hand, already has established economic ties with most countries in the Asia-Pacific and is continuing to expand its military influence over the region. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) holds an upper hand in Asia-Pacific regional waters, including the South China Sea, for example.
In recent years, China has not only been building infrastructure but also selling military equipment to South and Southeast Asian countries. Its economic and military presence in the region is increasingly apparent.
Joint Military Adventurism in the Asia-Pacific
The spread of Chinese and Russian influence across the region coupled with a less militaristic, more trade-centric approach from the U.S. has encouraged China and Russia to indulge in military adventurism. Chinese and Russian air forces allegedly intruded onto Japanese and South Korean airspace two months ago, while their warplanes were conducting air-patrols above volatile East China Sea and Sea of Japan waters.
According to Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, and Artyom Lukin, deputy director for research at Far Eastern Federal University, there is likely to be “more frequent and increasingly assertive” Chinese-Russian joint military actions in the region in the coming days, including joint air patrols.
While the aforementioned exercise was the two air forces’ first-ever joint long-range air-patrol in the region, this was not the first case of Chinese-Russian joint military adventurism in the Asia-Pacific. There have been other Chinese-Russian coordinated military adventures in the past.
For instance, Russia’s large scale war games, Vostok-2018, during which more than 300,000 troops, 36,000 tanks, 1,000 aircrafts, helicopters, and drones, and 80 support vessels took part, surprised many regional stakeholders last year. Around 3,500 Chinese troops took part in the war games alongside the Russian army.
While the number of Chinese troops participating in this military exercise was high considering it was not a joint – but a Russian – exercise, many stakeholders were caught off guard by the location where the exercise took place. Vostok-2018 took place in Russia’s eastern-most part, which forms part of the Asia-Pacific region.
In another move, in 2016, a PLA Navy vessel sailed close to the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, an uninhabited yet disputed island chain in the East China Sea. China, Taiwan, and Japan all make a claim for their respective rights to the islands. Three Russian warships also entered the waters close to the islands, and several top Japanese media outlets alleged that these provocations were not conducted separately, but comprised a coordinated move by the Chinese and Russian navies.
Japan, South Korea Prepared to Challenge Military Adventurism
With their joint military adventures, China and Russia are allegedly trying to compel others to accept their militaries’ movements – even in disputed waters or in air spaces – as the new-normal in the region. Having foreseen a situation like this for a long time, Japan and South Korea have been preparing their respective militaries to thwart any potential acts of adventurism.
When Chinese and Russian warplanes allegedly violated Japanese and South Korean air space during the aforementioned joint air-patrol, both countries were able to react quickly and send jets to intercept the Chinese and Russian warplanes.
What’s more, South Korean warplanes reportedly crossed paths with Russian bombers during the aforesaid encounter and even fired hundreds of warning shots towards the Russian warplane.
Both Japan and South Korea have, with American support, developed their military capabilities over the years in order to challenge China in a more conventional faceoff. In the process, they have each developed the capability to challenge Russia too.
Hence, trilateral cooperation between the U.S., Japan, and South Korea has evolved into a kind of shield deterring Chinese-Russian joint military adventures in the Asia-Pacific, not unlike NATO’s presence in Europe against Russia.
Bahauddin Foizee is a geopolitical analyst, with a major focus on Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific and Middle East. A regularly contributor to think-tank-publications and newspapers, his works have appeared on The Diplomat, The National Interest, and Asia Times.