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Exercise Joint Sea 2017: A new step in Russo-Chinese naval cooperation?

The upcoming China-Russia naval exercise suggests an emerging alignment on China’s behaviour in the South China Sea and Russia’s approach to security in the Baltic.

Exercise Joint Sea 2017: A new step in Russo-Chinese naval cooperation?

On 18 June, a small Chinese task group consisting of the Type 052D air warfare destroyer Changsha, the frigate Yungchen and a replenishment ship, together with embarked marines, sailed from Sanya in Hainan bound for the Baltic and Exercise ‘Joint Sea 2017’ with the Russian Navy.

The exercise, which will take place in late July, carries certain messages.

Firstly, it is one element in Xi Jinping’s drive to make China a global power. Chinese warships now regularly deploy all over the world and the frequency of such operations is likely to increase even further. This will be the second PLA Navy deployment to the Baltic in recent years.

Next, a Chinese entry into the Baltic demonstrates to the UK and France in particular that China can match in Europe their efforts at maritime presence in East Asia.

Third, and perhaps most significant, it suggests an emerging alignment between China and Russia on China’s behaviour in the South China Sea and Russia’s approach to security in the Baltic. What littoral states must fear is some form of Baltic quid pro quo for Russian support of China’s artificial islands and domination of the South China Sea.

The exercise was jokingly described by a senior Russian official as a 'novelty'; the declared themes of Joint Sea 2017 are rescue at sea and the protection of maritime economic activities. These are useful focus areas, but they are not what the PLA Navy is really interested in, nor where it most needs to improve. The PLA Navy must be acutely aware of the advantage Western navies have derived from their continuing collective efforts over the past seventy years to develop and share doctrine. And the scale and speed of China’s naval expansion must pose enormous difficulties in training and qualifying personnel without external help.

Even the US Navy found the introduction of multiple Aegis destroyers and cruisers in the late 1980s a significant challenge, yet the jump from the previous generation of US Navy combatants was a much smaller one than the PLA Navy is making with its new units. China is inducting two Type 052D destroyers a year, while it must also manage the introduction of the larger and more complex Type 055 air defence ship (see 'China's new warship and the strategic challenge to America') and the new aircraft carrier program as well.

Given the low base of expertise from which the PLA Navy is working, as well as all its other endeavours (including nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines and attack submarines), China’s navy must have some formidable problems. An unconfirmed report that the Changsha has suffered a serious breakdown in the Indian Ocean may confirm some of these challenges. However, the Chinese have apparently substituted a sister-ship already in the Indian Ocean for the Changsha, together with another replenishment ship to replace the unit standing by the crippled destroyer, a response which itself indicates the scale of China’s overseas naval effort.

Western observers will be watching closely to see just what the Chinese task group does in the Baltic. If joint activities with the Russian navy and its air arm move beyond token efforts, this will say a great deal about the developing level of cooperation and trust between the Russian and Chinese navies – and about the future of the partnership.

The Russians have not, in the past, proved eager to share tactics and doctrine with other navies, even those which have been customers of their ships. The emerging relationship with China may see a change, particularly if both countries are serious about its military components. There are obvious difficulties of language and in overcoming the inhibitions of two inwardly focused, strongly nationalistic organisations which have little history of operating as trusted partners, along with the give-and-take this involves.

Nevertheless, if the Russians and the Chinese conduct increasingly sophisticated exercises together, both navies will benefit. The Russians have greater experience and still have the lead in most warfare areas, particularly in submarine and anti-submarine operations. But the Chinese have the resources and are rapidly pressing ahead. Notably, Changsha is the second of the new Type 052D air warfare destroyers and has been in commission since 2015, long enough to be fully worked up to Chinese standards. The Baltic exercise areas and the scale of effort the Russians can mount in their own back yard may well provide a valuable opportunity for the PLA Navy to prove – and come to understand - the capabilities of their new Type 05D destroyer and its systems, whether it is the Changsha or her possible substitute, the Hefei.

With a further exercise in the series to follow in the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk in September 2017, the key question must be whether Russia and China really are moving to new levels of naval cooperation. July in the Baltic may provide part of the answer.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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