Shared interests and a common enemy can turn old adversaries into allies – and that is what’s happening in the waters of the western Pacific.

Russia and China’s navies have since 2012 conducted a series of bilateral naval drills known as “Joint Sea” in the Sea of Japan, Sea of Okhotsk, Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea, ostensibly to improve interoperability in organization. The two navies have also carried out drills in anti-aircraft and anti-submarine defense and, as stated by the Russian military, “the freeing of pirated ships.”

The real reason, however, is geopolitical. James Brown, a professor at Temple University’s Japan Campus in Tokyo, states in a March 26 analysis for the Maritime Awareness Project: “China and Russia have been pushed together by shared tensions with the United States, and the naval drills are therefore a symbolic means of demonstrating their common stance against the US pressure.”

The Sino-Russian naval alliance has also been directed against Washington’s close ally, Japan. Bolstered Sino-Russian naval cooperation comes as multilateral tensions are boiling in the South China Sea, where China is forcefully asserting its claims to the disputed maritime area.

Tension in the region also extends to the East China Sea, where Russia has shown it sides with China over Japan.

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy hold a welcome ceremony as a Russian naval ship arrives in port in Zhanjiang in southern China’s Guangdong Province, Monday, Sept. 12, 2016. Photo: Xinhua/Twitter

In June 2016, Brown writes, three Russian vessels entered the waters around the disputed chain of islands northeast of Taiwan, which the Japanese call Senkaku-shoto and the Chinese refer to as Diaoyu-dao. Shortly afterward, a Chinese frigate also entered the area and rendezvoused with the Russian ships, which included a destroyer.

It was the first time a Chinese naval vessel came that close to the disputed, uninhabited islands, which are claimed and controlled by Japan. It was also a clear signal to Japan that Russia and China are allies and Japan is seen as an adversary.

Observers could draw parallels with Russia’s dispute with Japan over a group of islands north of Hokkaido, which have been under Russian control since the end of World War II but are still claimed by Japan as “the Northern Territories.”

A Russian military document referred to by Brown specifies that the annual Sino-Russian exercises each include between 10 and 25 ships of various classes, as well as fighter planes and helicopters.

The drills are overseen by a joint command headquarters, which alternates between being in China or Russia and underscores how close the alliance has become in recent years.

Joint military exercises have not been confined to the seas. In September last year, Russia carried out its largest-ever military exercise involving 300,000 soldiers, 36,000 military vehicles, 80 ships, and 1,000 aircraft, helicopters and drones.

A Russian honour guard attends the parade of the participants of the Vostok-2018 (East-2018) military drills at Tsugol training ground not far from the borders with China and Mongolia in Siberia, on September 13, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Mladen ANTONOV
A Russian honor guard at the Vostok-2018 military drills at the Tsugol training ground, September 13, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mladen Antonov

The codename for the week-long exercise, Vostok-2018, said it all: “Vostok” is “east” in Russian, and the maneuver was joined by 3,500 Chinese troops and a smaller contingent of soldiers from Mongolia. It was the first time China participated in a major land-based Russian exercise.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the drills after hosting an economic forum in Vladivostok where his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping was a guest. No annual “Joint Sea” exercise was held last year, but the massive land-based maneuver would have made it superfluous as a show of force.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s Pacific Fleet with its headquarters at Vladivostok fell into disrepair because of poor maintenance and a lack of spare parts for its missile cruisers, destroyers and nuclear as well as diesel-electric submarines.

But in recent years, as Russia rises from the ashes of the erstwhile Soviet Union, new units have been or will be, deployed to Vladivostok, among them ballistic missile submarines and large cruisers.

In September 2016, Russia’s Ministry of Defense ordered six Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines to be built at Admiralty Shipyards in St Petersburg for its improved Pacific Fleet. On March 28, the first of those submarines was launched.

China and Russia have a common view on a number of strategic issues in the region, and not only island disputes with Japan.

According to Elizabeth Wishnick, writing for the Nation Bureau of Asian Research in March this year, “the North Korean nuclear crisis has prompted unprecedented collaboration between Russia and China” and “Russia and China have also participated in several military exercises that are related to the crisis.”

A THAAD interceptor is test-launched in Kodiak, Alaska, on July 11, 2017. Photo: Leah Garton / Missile Defense Agency / Handout via Reuters
A THAAD interceptor is test-launched in Kodiak, Alaska, on July 11, 2017. Photo: Leah Garton / Missile Defense Agency / Handout via Reuters

In particular, both countries are strongly opposed to the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), an American anti-ballistic missile system, in South Korea. The Chinese believe the anti-missile system is directed against them rather than the North Koreas, as stated by Seoul.

THAAD may not pose any direct threat to Russia, whose military installations are located outside the range of the US-made system, but the Russians and Chinese, Wishnick writes, “oppose measures that strengthen the US military presence” in the region.

Neither Russia nor China share America’s hardline sanctions stance against Pyongyang and have used their respective UN Security Council veto powers to have certain of those punitive measures, including on trade, diluted.

While Russia and China would both prefer a denuclearized North Korea, as the US advocates, they have also argued that in response America should suspend its joint military exercises with South Korea – and the THAADs should be removed from the Korean Peninsula.

On the other hand, the US alleges Russian and Chinese front companies have violated UN Security Council resolutions by facilitating black-market trade and illicit financial transactions that have helped to keep North Korea afloat.

To be sure, the Sino-Russian detente has come a long way since the days of China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the Chinese erected huge loudspeakers on the banks of the Amur River where it forms a border with Russia.

Those speakers blasted propaganda 24 hours a day against “Soviet revisionists” who the Chinese claimed had betrayed Marxism-Leninism.

Map: Asia Times

In March 1969, the two sides even engaged in a brief border war over disputed islands in the Amur River near Khabarovsk. It was not until 1991 that China and Russia signed a border agreement to resolve the territorial dispute. But problems remain, including rising local resentment in Russia’s Far East over China’s growing presence in the area.

Temporary and longer-residing Chinese migrants have taken over much of the area’s economy, either as merchants, extractors of mineral resources and timber or as investors in joint-venture construction schemes in which Chinese workers are given precedence over Russian laborers.

Shady Chinese entrepreneurs are also known to be running night-clubs and casinos in several Far Eastern Russian cities, leading to concerns that Chinese organized crime is gaining a foothold in the area.

The exact number of Chinese now in the Russian Far East is not known, and although many Russians tend to exaggerate the scope of the migration, the fear of being overwhelmed by China’s vast population is not altogether far-fetched in the region.

Only eight million Russians live in the Far Eastern Federal District, a huge area covering nearly seven million square kilometers. More than 100 million people live on less than a quarter of that area just across the border in China’s three northeastern provinces of Jilin, Heilongjiang, and Liaoning, once known as Manchuria.

Historically, large tracts of the Russian Far East belonged to China until the Russians conquered them in the mid-19th century. Chinese maps still show old Chinese names for major cities and towns in the region.

Chinese and Russian marines during a Joint Sea naval drill in Zhanjiang, south China’s Guangdong Province, Sept. 14, 2016. Photo: Twitter/Xinhua

Brown mentions in his essay other contentious issues, including a naval affair during the Vostok-2018 drills when the Chinese sent a Dongdiao-class surveillance ship to gather intelligence on Russia’s naval maneuvers.

In 2012, China’s icebreaker, the Xuelong, entered the Sea of Okhotsk without informing the Russians in advance. The following year, five Chinese warships sailed into the Sea of Okhotsk after participating in that year’s Joint Sea drills in the Sea of Japan, marking the first instance of Chinese military vessels entering those waters.

Still, there are operational limitations. It would be difficult for Russia’s navy to break out into the open seas in Northeast Asia in any conflict scenario. South Korea’s Jeju island and Japan’s island of Okinawa, where the US maintains a base, are perfectly positioned to monitor and if necessary intercept and blockade Russian naval units moving down from Vladivostok and other northern ports.

But Moscow and Beijing are clearly becoming comrades-in-arms at sea. And while local issues and historical grudges linger, they are not likely to change the two sides’ shared perception of the US and its ally Japan as common enemies worth joining forces against.