Naval vessels from China and Russia sail during a joint military drill in the Sea of Japan, in this video still released on October 18. Photo: Russian Defence Ministry/Reuters
Rupakjyoti Borah
Rupakjyoti Borah

China-Russia naval exercises show Japan’s troubles could come in twos

  • Beijing and Moscow seem intent on putting on a show of force as the United States and its allies ramp up cooperation in this part of the world
  • A rapid deterioration in Japan’s security environment may push Tokyo into boosting military spending and strength
A flotilla of 10 Chinese and Russian warships nearly completed a circle around Japan’s main island of Honshu during the first joint China-Russia patrol in the Western Pacific last month. This deployment came after the two countries completed a joint naval exercise in waters near Russia’s Peter the Great Gulf.

Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi noted: “This is the first time we have confirmed activity on such a large scale and over such a long period. We believe this was a show of force towards Japan.”

However, it is worth adding here that both the Tsugaru Strait and Osumi Strait, through which the Chinese and Russian warships sailed, are considered international waters which foreign ships can transit freely.

The Russian Defence Ministry said in a statement: “The tasks of the joint patrolling were to demonstrate the state flags of Russia and China, maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region and also protect facilities of both countries’ maritime economic activity.”

Why is this significant? First, Beijing and Moscow seem intent on putting on a show of force and camaraderie in the Western Pacific as the United States and its allies ramp up their cooperation in this part of the world.

Australia, Britain and the US recently announced the Aukus security pact, which allows the transfer of nuclear propulsion technology. In addition, Britain’s Carrier Strike Group, led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth, recently completed a three-month deployment to the Western Pacific, with a ship from the group passing through the Taiwan Strait.

Second, China and Russia are clearly trying to test the response of the new US administration.


Chinese, Russian warships sail through Japan strait for first time

Chinese, Russian warships sail through Japan strait for first time
US President Joe Biden has not rolled back the trade tariffs on China imposed by his predecessor Donald Trump, and has also taken a strong stance on China. For Russia, the naval exercises present an opportunity to assert its presence in the region.
Third, tensions have risen between the US and China. The US’ top military officer, General Mark Milley, recently described reports of China’s hypersonic weapon test as “very concerning”, although China denied conducting such a test.
Furthermore, Biden riled China by promising to defend Taiwan, while Taiwan confirmed the presence of US troops on the island.

Japan can be a dynamic alternative to superpower hubris

As for Japan, what is it to make of the passage of the Chinese and Russian warships through its straits?

The China-Russia naval exercise points to a rapid deterioration in Japan’s security environment. Around the same time, North Korea fired a missile – possibly from a submarine – into the Sea of Japan. It also said it had successfully tested a hypersonic weapon.

This may push the Japanese government into increasing the military budget to nearly 2 per cent of gross domestic product, which would be a first for Japan in the post-war era.

Notably, Japan is already taking a step towards obtaining its first aircraft carriers since the end of World War II. Last month, two US Marine Corps F-35B planes landed on and took off from the deck of the Japanese helicopter carrier JS Izumo, which is being converted into an aircraft carrier.

Japan has been playing a proactive role in regional defence, as evidenced by its participation in the partnership known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. The navy of Japan also took part in the Malabar naval exercise, alongside the US, India and Australia.

Although Japan’s new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, was once seen as a moderate politician from Hiroshima, a city impacted by the use of nuclear weapons in conflict, he now seems to have to live up to the legacy of his predecessor Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.

He is supporting the idea of a stronger military, perhaps to win over influential figures in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. For Kishida, there might not be a long honeymoon period with regard to Japan’s ties with countries like China and Russia.

China and Russia’s joint manoeuvre around Japan’s main island is an unmistakable sign of the growing closeness of their political and military ties. As the US pushes ahead in this part of the world, China and Russia seem determined to prove that they are also in the game.

Clearly, this recent move will not be the last of its kind and tensions seem to be heating up in the Western Pacific. For Tokyo, trouble could very well come in twos.

Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is a senior research fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. The views expressed here are personal