Russian-Chinese Exercises in the Baltic As an Element of a Changing World

24 july 2017

Feng Shaolei is Dean at the School of Advanced International and Area Studies (SAIAS); Director of the Center for Russian Studies at East China Normal University.

Resume: On July 20th, the five day naval exercises between China and Russia were officially kicked off in the Baltic Sea. It seems that this has made restless the Western media. Even if it does not mean that "the specter of communism is wandering around Europe," at least one sentence is added: "This is another manifestation of the new authoritarian coalition."

From the perspective of China and Russia, such an important exercise is certainly not like an Olympic Games opening ceremony. One is the traditional maritime power, and the other is growing maritime power, but with special historical experience of Zheng He's voyage 700 years ago. Every two years the Russian and Chinese Navy change place for drills, in front of your house, or across the oceans. When ocean trade and logistics have developed to such a huge scale, China and Russia have maritime capabilities and assume certain responsibilities to safeguard maritime security and peace.

  The time and place of the exercise seemed a bit sensitive. However, any navy performance by Russia and China as two big countries may cause sensitivity. In 70s and 80s of the last century, the Chinese navy not so strongly appeared in the open seas, but it has already attracted great attention of the world public opinion. Two years ago, China and Russia naval exercises in the Mediterranean coincided with the crisis in Ukraine and the Syria war at a critical moment. If compared with the recent naval exercises of the United States, India and Japan in the Indian Ocean with aircraft carriers, Russian-Chinese exercises never had high specifications. As for the continent, NATO continues stepping up a considerable deployment of military forces, especially in Russia's neighbors.

It seems that China-Russia current military exercise still lag behind the level of these large-scale exercises.

The worry may not only be the gradual increase of military exercises, but also the scale of the global arms race. The key question is what drives this and how to promote armaments. The West is still immersed in search of discourse system of ideological enemy in today's world. The superposition of ideology and military alliance makes the return to the time of the Cold War, which will be not a very distant thing.

Faced with these dangerous things, Chinese and Russian military cooperation is developing in a proper way but at the same time both countries announced a policy of non-alliance, which helps to cool a little hot heads. An important consensus is that China and Russia should be very cautious to persist in the non-alliance policy especially in peaceful time.

The cautious attitude of China and Russia has also come from a very important background. When the western media hype this exercise in Europe area,  Donald Trump despite the domestic heavy pressure explicitly announced that the CIA stops supporting the opposition in Syria. The Hamburg Summit revealed that Putin and Trump have more than an hour of "no escort dialogue." It was not clear whether this dialogue leads to the position change of the United States, but an important sign is that the United States had to give up on the original position of President Assad's exclusion from the government after the war. French President Macron has expressed similar thesis just a few days ago. This means that for Russia, the United States and Europe a more or less turnaround seems to be coming after years of stalemate on the battlefield in Syria.

Perhaps even more important is the news that came after the high-level economic dialogue between China and the United States on July 20. The first Sino-American economic dialogue under the Trump administration is directed mainly to promote better understanding between both sides and docking the ideas about cooperation development in the future. In addition, high tariffs on steel trading, Chinese domestic market access issues were discussed. The two sides are very likely to promote further cooperation. If the momentum of economic cooperation between China and the United States can be maintained, this will clearly bode well for the further reforms and opening up of the two countries in the long run.

On July 20, Chinese Navy commander Shen Jinlong held an important video dialogue with US Navy Secretary John Richardson on how to strengthen bilateral dialogue, implement the Sino-US joint naval exercises, participate in the Pacific Rim -2018 exercises, implement rules of the "maritime accident encounter" and also on the current progress of the Korean Peninsula affairs. People understand that the Chinese and American high-level military must have such a pragmatic discussion, which will be helpful for very future’s dynamic transition of international pattern.

Though the competition between the United States, Russia, Europe, China and other countries is extremely sensitive, the coordination and communication is a pressing matter of the moment. It is still hard to judge the future, including the remarkable Trump phenomenon and the turmoil in Europe. However, all the events of July 20th remind us that people can be less pessimistic about this turbulent world. Of course, a more long-term and possibly far more difficult task than the military exercise itself is the need to find a rational framework and path towards the future international order.

Valdai International Discussion Club

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