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Jul 25, 2023, 5:23am EDT
securityNorth America

Russia’s and China’s joint military drills in Asia are making the Pentagon very nervous

Sergey Mihailicenko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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The News

Russia and China are stepping up joint military drills in Asia and the Pacific — and their moves are starting to alarm the Pentagon.

On Sunday, Beijing and Moscow completed a massive air and naval exercise in the Sea of Japan, including anti-submarine missions, sea-and-air escort training, and combat games, according to Chinese state media. Leaders said the practice runs were focused on “safeguarding” the region’s maritime transportation — possibly a mocking reference to language Biden administration has used to justify its own growing military presence in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.

Last month, four Chinese H-6 bombers and two Russian Tu-95 bombers conducted joint patrols between Japan and South Korea and further south towards the Philippines and Guam — all bases for American forces. The operation caused both Tokyo and Seoul to scramble fighters to defend their airspace and seemed to be a warning to the leaders of the Quad nations — the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India — who were meeting in Tokyo that week.

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American defense officials have said they’re now gauging whether the Chinese and Russian militaries will look to run these sorts of exercises closer to U.S. territory. There are also concerns that the Kremlin may be sharing battlefield data from its war in Ukraine, which involves military operations against U.S. and NATO defense systems, with China.

“As it goes into the Pacific, they have amplified and increased their amount of joint-training, joint-exercises, and joint-demonstrations,” Admiral John Aquilino, commander of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific, said last week at the Aspen Security Forum. “I only see the cooperation getting stronger. And, boy, that’s concerning. That’s a dangerous world.”

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Jay’s view

For obvious reasons, most coverage of China and Russia’s “no limits friendship” has focused on how it will affect Moscow’s military efforts in Ukraine. But the recent joint exercises are a reminder that the alliance could also have vast security implications for much of Asia.

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While China is engaging in a historic arms buildup on its own, Beijing could still be bolstered by the Kremlin’s military capabilities, including nuclear-armed submarines, long-range bombers, and hypersonic missile systems.

The Kremlin also headquarters its Pacific Fleet in Vladivostok, just across the Sea of Japan from Tokyo. Its regular deployment in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in collaboration with the People’s Liberation Army, would significantly alter the region’s military balance.

“We’ve always known that the Pacific Fleet in the Eastern Military District of Russia was going to be a factor in the Pacific and that we at some point would have to address. Russia is just not a European and NATO problem,” retired General Steven Rudder, a former commander of U.S. Marine forces in the Pacific and a nonresident Atlantic Council fellow, told Semafor. “With Russia at war and now aligned and getting support from China, we now squarely see Russia as more of a dynamic problem in Asia much more than before.”

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U.S. strategists are also concerned that Russia is sharing its battlefield lessons from Ukraine with Beijing in real time. China hasn’t engaged in a major military battle since its 1979 border war with Vietnam, which it lost. Moscow’s experience in fighting U.S. and NATO weapons systems in both Ukraine and Syria could be invaluable in helping China plan for any engagements against the Pentagon in Asia.

The growing China-Russia military exercises are “helping to offset the PLA’s lack of combat experience, one of its most significant weaknesses relative to the United States,” the Center for New American Security wrote in April.

They also mark a historical reversal: For much of the Cold War, China aligned with the U.S. in seeking to constrain the Soviet Union’s advances in Asia.

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The View From Beijing

China and Russia both cast the U.S. and its allies as the aggressors in Asia, and have suggested they are simply looking to counter the Biden administration’s recent moves to bolster America’s presence, and military alliances, there.

“We would like to make it clear to NATO that the Chinese side is firm in its resolve to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests,” China’s spokesman at the European Union said after the summit. “We firmly oppose NATO’s eastward movement into the Asia-Pacific region and any action that jeopardizes China’s legitimate rights and interests will be met with a resolute response.

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