Strong China-Russia ties on show in Pacific patrol, despite Beijing’s lack of military support in Ukraine

  • In the face of rising tension with the West, Beijing will continue military cooperation with Russia, sharing Moscow’s concern over Nato expansion
  • Chinese military observers say the patrol was a routine operation and not related to the Quad meeting being hosted by Tokyo

Flights by Russian and Chinese bombers near Japanese and South Korean air defence zones indicate the two powers will step up their military ties despite facing tension with the West over the ongoing Ukraine war, according to defence analysts.

They said China was not likely to get involved in military cooperation with Russia over Ukraine but the latest patrol in the Asia-Pacific on Tuesday – taking place as US President Joe Biden was wrapping up his Asian tour – would continue.

Yue Gang, a retired People’s Liberation Army colonel and commentator, said military relations between China and Russia had been under close scrutiny since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, but their joint patrols were warnings to both the US and Japan.

“It is necessary for China to continue. The United States and Japan continue to strengthen cooperation and military exercises,” he said. “[By] Interrupting military cooperation, you will affect the accumulated military mutual trust between China and Russia.”

Yue said the US was keeping up strong military ties with bases in the region, and strengthening alliances with nations such as Japan and South Korea.

“Both China and Russia have the need to contain provocations from the US. Military cooperation in East Asia is of value to both countries,” he said.

Russia’s defence ministry said the joint patrol lasted 13 hours in the Sea of Japan, which South Korea calls the East Sea, and the East China Sea and involved Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers and Chinese Xian H-6 bombers.

Japanese and South Korean air force planes shadowed the Russian and Chinese aircraft for part of the exercise, it said. US officials said the bombers flew over the Sea of Japan early on Tuesday and continued south towards the East China and Philippine seas.

It was the first joint military patrol held by China and Russia since Moscow invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Chinese defence ministry spokesman Wu Qian said the patrol was routine, held for the fourth time since 2019, and was not aimed at any third party or “current international and regional situation”.

“The purpose is to test and enhance the level of cooperation between the air forces of the two countries and promote strategic mutual trust and practical cooperation between the two militaries,” Wu said.

The patrols came hours after US President Joe Biden angered China by saying the US would defend Taiwan militarily if the island came under attack by mainland China. US officials, including Biden, later walked that back, saying US policies towards Taiwan had not changed.

Biden also met leaders from Japan, India and Australia – known as the Quad – on Tuesday when the leaders said they opposed all attempts to “change the status quo by force” in the Indo-Pacific.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said the China-Russia exercise was likely to have been planned well in advance and showed that the “no-limits” strategic partnership Beijing and Moscow declared weeks before the Ukraine invasion was “quite alive and well”.

Fu Qianshao, a retired Chinese air force equipment specialist, said the joint exercise was a “regular” drill in keeping with an annual plan and did not target the Quad summit in Tokyo.

“The joint exercises between China and Russia have been conducted several times, with bombers flying over the Sea of Japan and West Pacific, which should be regular operations and nothing to be surprised at,” Fu said.

China and Russia have moved to deepen their relations amid the Ukraine war. The US and its allies have imposed sanctions on Moscow, and Washington has warned Beijing that it would face consequences if it supported Russia militarily.

Beijing has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion, and continued its trade and economic ties with Moscow. Beijing blamed the eastward expansion of Nato, sharing Moscow’s concern.

Yue said that while China would continue military cooperation with Russia, it would avoid being seen as backing Russia militarily over Ukraine.

Russia might also hold back conducting large-scale drills as its military resources were being dragged to Ukraine, he said.

Cheung Mong, an associate professor at Waseda University in Japan, said the joint patrol would reinforce the Japanese perception that China and Russia were supporting each other.

Authors: Teddy Ng, Amber Wang, SCMP

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