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A Chinese guided-missile destroyer takes part in an exercise with Russia’s navy in the East China Sea in 2014. The two navies have conducted at least 10 joint drills since 2012. Photo: AP

China ‘has overtaken Russia’ as a maritime power, boosted by joint naval drills

  • Report looks at 10 joint exercises carried out by the two navies since 2012, which it says aimed to send geopolitical message
  • Analysts say Moscow is watching on warily as Beijing’s military might grows

China has surpassed Russia as a maritime power, boosted by years of joint drills between the two navies, according to military analysts.

Such exercises had helped China to become a relatively advanced naval power, and Russia was watching on warily as Beijing continued a push to modernise its military, they said.

Assessing 10 joint exercises carried out by the Chinese and Russian navies since 2012 – when Xi Jinping took power – the German Institute for International and Security Affairs said they aimed to send a geopolitical message.

The drills were conducted within their territorial waters as well as in the Sea of Japan, or East Sea, and the Baltic Sea, according to the German institute’s report, “Partnership on the High Seas”, released this month. It concluded that Beijing had “overtaken Moscow in claiming a leading role as a great maritime power”.

Communist rivals during the cold war, Beijing and Moscow are now hailing a new era in bilateral ties – counterbalancing worsening relations with Washington – and their militaries are also stepping up cooperation. Last month, the Chinese and Russian navies held their first joint live-fire air defence exercise at sea, involving two surface combatants.

Chinese and Russian marines hug during a joint naval drill in Zhanjiang, Guangdong province in 2016. The two militaries are stepping up cooperation. Photo: Xinhua

“It’s true that China has overtaken Russia, especially when one considers Beijing having put in so much effort in developing a holistic, comprehensive array of maritime power, which goes beyond equipment to include the broader marine economy, ports and shipping, shipbuilding and so on,” said Collin Koh, a military expert from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.


He said Russia had played a key role in helping China to develop its naval capabilities, as “the joint military drills serve as training for best practice in the PLA Navy’s blue-water capacity-building”.

Bilateral ties between Beijing and Moscow were upgraded after Xi’s three-day visit to Moscow at the start of the month, soon after Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin’s trip to China in late April. On both occasions, the two leaders voiced support for each other and for key projects including China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

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But on the defence front, ties are becoming more uneven, with China making advances after pouring big money into its military and innovation sectors.

Between 2015 and 2021, China’s total military outlays are projected to increase by 55 per cent – from US$167.9 billion to US$260.8 billion, according to a report last year by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

Over the same period, the navy’s share of that budget is expected to jump 82 per cent, from US$31.4 billion to US$57.1 billion, the report said.


That increased funding has already seen China produce some of the world’s most advanced weaponry which has, in some cases, surpassed that of the United States, a report on China’s military power released in January by the Defence Intelligence Agency said.

In addition, the People’s Liberation Army Navy now has more warships than the US Navy, meaning China has the biggest naval fleet in the world, according to Washington-based think tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.


“At 300 warship hulls, the PLAN is the largest navy in the world, counting aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes, submarines and amphibious assault ships,” the think tank said.

Timothy Heath, a senior defence researcher at the Rand Corporation, said while Russia might lament its decline in power, it had accepted the reality that the country had become China’s “little brother”.


“Moscow defers to Beijing on a growing number of issues, such as increasing Chinese influence in Central Asia and Chinese leadership in international organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation,” Heath said, referring to the regional economic and security bloc.

Chinese warship the Liaoning sails through Miyako Strait on way to Pacific Ocean for drills

Meanwhile, China’s navy had benefited from joint drills with Russia, learning how to overcome shortcomings such as mobilising across different regions and coordinating warships, according to Zhou Chenming, a military analyst in Beijing.


“But these are different times for China and it needs to go further at sea to safeguard its international interests. That means its ships need to have more powerful and better navigation and strike capabilities, and these are things China cannot learn from Russia,” Zhou said.

China’s northern neighbour could face a dilemma as the country’s military power grows, according to Koh. “Moscow would view China’s maritime ambitions with some wariness, but Russia would still want to keep China close by as a partner to resist the West, especially following the Ukraine crisis in 2013,” he said.

But Koh added that China could still learn from Russia in undersea warfare, the only area where it was ahead of the PLA Navy now.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: china ‘has overtaken russia’ as naval power