War games: US and China flex military muscle
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War games: US and China flex military muscle

Military excercises in Beijing and California this month point to a new age in Sino-Russian and US-Japan relations

Since it was announced, the United States’ ‘pivot to Asia’ has raised many questions and answered only a few. Everyone agrees it is China-centered, but there is no conclusive evidence on its nature: is it about hedging or engaging? Or both? Despite many reassurances and warnings, many believe it has a lot to do with containing and encircling a potential foe – China – and there are signs that at least some hedging is in fact taking place, both on the American and Chinese sides. Two events unfolding this month could be just another confirmation.

The United States and Japan are now working together in a drill which simulates the retaking of remote islands – which most likely should be identified as the Diaoyu/Senkaku, although no official has confirmed such a theory. The Wall Street Journal reported that Japan has sent three warships, 730 Maritime Self-Defense Force troops, 250 ground troops and seven combat helicopters to join the drill in California, which began on June 10 and will go on for two weeks. According to David Lai, Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) of the U.S. Army War College, “strategically, the joint military exercise reinforces U.S. commitment to the security treaty obligation with Japan. Operationally, it shows that the United States and Japan are preparing the two militaries for possible contingencies.”

Last month, a study by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace concluded that there is much need for reinforcing their security alliance: “current economic and military trends in China, Japan, and the United States suggest that existing policies and strategies might fail to ensure a stable security environment conducive to U.S. and Japanese interests over the long term.” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has publicized the idea of modifying the pacifist constitution and normalize Japan’s military forces, which have not operated outside national borders – at least outside UN-sponsored operations – since World War Two.

Any change in the Constitution of Japan or in the characteristics of the US-Japan alliance, however, would likely look dodgy in Beijing’s eyes, especially as China and Japan are engulfed in a long-standing dispute for the sovereignty of the aforementioned Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. The spat has been latent since the islets were handed back to Japan by the US in the 1970s, but it was reignited in 2012 when Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara proposed to buy them on behalf of the city administration. The Japanese government stepped in and bought the islands itself, claiming it was doing so in order to prevent tensions from escalating. China did not think so and reacted furiously. Since then, protests, angry diplomatic statements, overlapping maritime patrols and nationalist rhetoric have been common in Sino-Japanese relations. The current drill looks very much like a plan to get the islands back in case Beijing intervenes militarily and it has been criticized by Chinese authorities, who called for the operation to be cancelled. “There is little ambiguity about this. More importantly, the Chinese clearly see it this way,” said Dr Lai, even though he noted that so far China’s response has been “curiously low key.”

As the US and Japan improve their ability to operate in hostile environments, Beijing is looking west for support. On June 11, a military drill began involving Chinese and Russian military forces in Beijing. China’s Global Times reported that according to the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF), “forty-six personnel from the Snow Leopard Commandoes, an elite anti-terrorism force under the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force, and 29 from a special task force unit of Russia’s domestic security force, are taking part in the exercise.” A similar operation took place in 2007 in Moscow, and, referring to that event, a study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) pointed out that, “China is now using joint exercises to demonstrate to friend and potential foe alike its ability to project its growing military power.”

In March, newly nominated President Xi Jinping chose Moscow as the first capital he would visit as a top leader, and during the trip a deal to buy more fighter jets and submarines was disclosed. On April 25, Yu Zhengsheng, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), epitomized the mood stressing that the comprehensive strategic cooperation between the two countries is “at a new historic starting point.”

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Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Moscow in March. Pic: AP.

The notion that China and Russia are upgrading their ties often strikes a painful chord in the West. Dr Lai told the Asian Correspondent that despite bilateral problems, the coming together of China and Russia “can only be explained by one compelling reason: their common problems with the United States. This common interest can get China and Russia to compromise on their conflict of interests in Central Asia and elsewhere.”

(READ MORE: Analysis: Xi Jinping’s Moscow visit hints at China-Russia thaw)

It is not a bed of roses by any menas and persistent or even aggravating issues remain. The mentioned research by SIPRI, for example, pointed out that “long-standing mutual mistrust” and “practical commercial and technical impediments,” stand in the way of cooperation. As causes of friction, the paper included a steady decline in arms flow from Russia to China – a staple of the post-Soviet era – and rising concerns that Chinese producers may copy and reproduce Russian military technology. The changing international situation can also be an obstacle: while China and Russia have often stood together to counterbalance US power and influence, at present both countries attach more importance to their respective relationships with Washington than with one another.

Borrowing the term from Bobo Lo’s book, Dr Andrew Scobell, a senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation, told Asian Correspondent that the best way to characterize the relationship is as “an axis of convenience [..] China and Russia agree on a good number of issues, conduct a significant amount of bilateral trade.” But he, too, believes that there are limits to the degree of cooperation they can achieve.