For centuries, maritime powers have used their navies to “show the flag” in contested naval issues. Unlike armies, which must mobilize on frontiers, or air forces, which would need to overfly hostile space, navies can float in international waters of countries that naval powers wish to intimidate, sending a not so subtle signal all the while obeying international law.
As the U.S. prepares to “pivot” 60 percent of its armed forces into the Pacific, an upcoming joint Russian-Chinese naval exercise is sending a clear signal that the western Pacific, which the U.S. has treated as its regional lake since the end of World War Two, will not necessarily remain uncontested.
The unspoken agenda of the exercise is to reaffirm Russian and Chinese sovereignty over their claims to the western Pacific continental shelf, which numerous surveys indicate contain rich hydrocarbon resources.
Russia has territorial issues with Japan over the Kurile islands. China is in dispute with Japan over the Senkaku (“Diaoyu” in Chinese) islands. Further south, China is involved in sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea over the Spratly islands’ 750 islands, islets, atolls, cays and outcroppings with the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, and Vietnam over the Paracel archipelago.
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On 2 July China's Defense Ministry announced that its navy would send four destroyers, two guided missile frigates and a support ship for the exercises, which start on 5 July in the Sea of Japan and run until 12 July. The ships set sail from Qingdao port, where China's Northern Fleet is based, and headed for the rallying point in Peter the Great Bay in Russian internal waters near Vladivostok. The ministry announced, "This marks our navy's single biggest deployment of military force in a China-foreign joint exercise." The "Sea Cooperation - 2013" exercise represent “the most ambitious Sino-Russian naval exercises in recent years."
Lest anyone in the Pentagon be in any doubt about the implications of the exercise, a Chinese editorial notes, “These military exercises, of course, are held in conjunction with the current situation in North-East Asia. But we can also assume that they are an attempt to resist the ongoing U.S.-Japan alliance. Strictly speaking, most of the forces of the Russian Pacific Fleet are aimed at blocking the U.S.-Japanese island chain of primary defense. Therefore, the question of how to break the strong U.S.-Japan alliance has the same practical significance for China, as for Russia,” before concluding, “At present, China and Russia are equally unable by themselves with the United States and its military alliance, dominated by the United States. China and Russia have accordingly chosen to intensify a deep strategic cooperation and no doubt this is the only right way to develop it.”
But it depends whom you believe, as People's Liberation Army general staff chief General Fang Fenghui said in Moscow, "The joint drill conducted by the two militaries of China and Russia do not target any third parties. Their aim is to deepen co-operation between the two militaries in the training field, boost capacity in coordinating military activities, and serve the purpose of safeguarding regional security and stability."
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Nor is the "Sea Cooperation - 2013" exercise the only instance of Russia partnering up with regimes that annoy Washington. Following a recent visit by Russian Pacific Fleet ships to Iran’s Persian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas, Russia and Iran have agreed to deepen their naval cooperation in the Caspian. Iranian Navy Lieutenant Commander Sayavush Jarrah noted on 2 July that two Iranian missile frigates recently visited Russia’s Astrakhan port on the mouth of the Volga, adding that "the strengthening of friendly relations between Iran and Russia," was the main task of the mission.
Intimidate Azerbaijan, biggest supporter of Caspian hydrocarbons flowing westwards, a goal of both Moscow and Tehran, anyone?
Funny how hydrocarbons and “flying the flag” seem to go together even better than oil and water.
By. John C. K. Daly of Oilprice.com