A group of 10 Chinese and Russian warships is conducting a joint patrol along a route that increasingly suggests it could take them all around the Japanese islands. Even if none of these ships ultimately makes a complete loop around the Japanese archipelago, this operation nonetheless remains a significant demonstration of the ability of these two navies to work together. This all follows a number of major maritime exercises in the Pacific involving the U.S. Navy and its allies and partners – including Japan – this year, as well as multiple instances in which Chinese and Russian naval forces have operated separately from unusually close to American territory.
The Japanese Defense Ministry announced today that it has monitored Chinese and Russian ships passing west between Smith Island and Torishima Island, an area about 300 miles south of the original island of Honshu. The ships first entered the Pacific Ocean, traveling east through the Tsugaru Strait that separates Honshu and the original island of Hokkaido to the north, on October 18, 2021.
Japanese authorities have said, so far, that all of these vessels have remained in international waters throughout this joint operation. This includes their passage through the Tsugaru Strait, which is only about 12 miles wide at its narrowest point. Although a country’s territorial waters can extend up to 12 miles from its coasts, Japan only claims areas three miles from each shore in that strait, creating an international channel through the middle. This would have been done to allow US warships and submarines carrying nuclear weapons to pass through the area without violating Japanese law which prohibits any introduction of such weapons into the territory of the country.
The flotilla consists of five ships each belonging to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Russian Navy. The Chinese contingent includes one 055 type destroyer, one 052D type destroyer, two 054A type frigates and one tanker at sea. Two Oudaloy class destroyers, two Steregushchiy class corvettes, and what has been identified as a Marshal Nédelin missile-class range instrumentation ship, constitute the Russian contributions.
The Marshal Nédelin class ship seems to be the Marshal Krylov, which was originally designed to support the Soviet space program and also had the ability to track and collect missile test data, but has now reportedly been converted to a command ship. The Marshal Krylov was among the ships of the Russian Pacific Fleet that conducted a separate series of exercises that brought them unusually close to the U.S. Hawaiian Islands earlier this year.
“This is the first time that Chinese and Russian warships have sailed together in the Tsugaru Strait, like you [the media] pointed out, ”Japan’s Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki told reporters earlier this week after Chinese and Russian ships crossed the body of water. so we are watching closely. “
The Japanese Defense Ministry said the destroyer JS Takanami, the top ship of its class, the Asagiri cgirl destroyer
Yamagiri, and the Sugashima class minesweeper Izushima followed Chinese and Russian ships at various points in their journey. Japanese maritime patrol planes P-3C Orion also followed them. Japanese authorities also said today that unspecified fighter jets were dispatched after a Russian Ka-27 helicopter and a Chinese Ka-28 helicopter were detected taking off from the group’s ships.
This joint Sino-Russian naval patrol immediately followed the conclusion of an exercise involving these ships in the East Sea, which ended on Sunday 17. These exercises had already been an important demonstration of cooperation between these two navies and marked the first time that one of PLAN’s Type 055 destroyers trained with foreign warships. The Type 055, which the US Army describes as a cruiser rather than a destroyer, is the most modern and capable warship in PLAN. Each of these ships has over 100 vertical launch system cells that can hold surface-to-air missiles, as well as anti-ship cruise and ground attack missiles, among other advanced capabilities, as you can read more about here.
After these exercises and the transit through the Tsugaru Strait, World time, a newspaper directly controlled by the Communist Party of China, published an article on October 19 that specifically raised the possibility that “the joint task force is surrounding Japan or approaching the United States.” It should be noted that another PLAN surface action group which included another Type 055 – as well as a Type 052D, supply ship, and intelligence gathering vessel – had conducted an unusual cruise near the ‘Alaska in September. The Russian Navy, as has already been noted, conducted its own exercises very close to Hawaii earlier this year and has also been increasingly active near Alaska in recent years.
Chinese and Russian warships currently appear to be heading for the East China Sea, and it increasingly appears that they could then turn north and make a trip around the original islands of Japan. Surrounding the Japanese archipelago, which is also home to significant US forces – including the US Navy’s 7th Fleet – would send a very clear signal about the ability of China and Russia to work together militarily in support of their own respective national interests. It’s worth pointing out that both China and Russia have significant ongoing territorial disputes with Japan, among a variety of other geopolitical issues in the region.
It is also very possible that the flotilla, or parts of it, would head in a different direction after entering the East China Sea. Another option could be to head south and head to Taiwan, where tensions have increased between the governments in Beijing and Taipei. On several occasions in recent months, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has sent dozens of military planes out into the southwest corner of the island’s air defense identification zone. Although these flights have all taken place in international airspace, the clear objective is to intimidate the Taiwanese authorities. There have been a number of Chinese naval exercises near the island which also sent the same general signals. In 2016, Russia and China came together for exercises in the South China Sea focused on island capture scenarios.
There has also recently been a spike in broader geopolitical friction between China and other countries, particularly the United States, over the Taiwan question, as well as a host of other issues. The US military, which has described China as its “stimulus threat” and main competitor, has conducted its own series of naval and air exercises in the Pacific region this year, including a number of recent exercises. in which various allies and partners participated.
As recently as last week, American, British, Australian and Japanese warships and military aircraft gathered for a full-scale training event known as the Maritime Partnership Exercise (MPX). Ships that participated included the US Navy Nimitz USS class aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, the aircraft carrier of the Royal Navy HMS queen elizabeth, and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Izumo JS class Kaga. Carl Vinson and Kaga also took part in this year’s iteration of Exercise Malabar, featuring Indian and Australian military ships and planes.
Kaga’s participation in these and other exercises is important because Japan has long officially described its two Izumo classifies the ships as “helicopter destroyers,” but the country’s authorities have officially announced the planned conversion of the two ships to what will be roughly aircraft carriers in 2018. Earlier this month, planes US Marine F-35B Joint Strike Fighter Deck Izumo, which has already gone through the first phase of the conversion process, highlighting the new capabilities of the ship.
Deterring China and showing solidarity with its allies and partners in the Pacific have, in general, been the reasons given for many of these recent US-led exercises in the region. This reflects a broader push in support of these strategic policy goals on the part of the US government. A new defense cooperation agreement between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, which includes a controversial plan to establish a new nuclear-powered submarine force of the Royal Australian Navy, is an excellent example of these efforts. The agreement paves the way for even greater defense and security cooperation between the three countries in the future.
All of this has not gone unnoticed by authorities in Beijing and it is no surprise that they are interested in conducting a joint naval patrol with the Russians in response. As previously reported, the two countries have jointly carried out long-range bombing operations in recent years, including sorites near Japan and South Korea, underscoring the growing cooperation between the military in general. US-Russian relations at the moment are also very cold, which only strengthens the incentives for cooperation between Beijing and the Kremlin.
All in all, wherever this task force of Chinese and Russian ships is heading now, it seems likely that we will see more joint naval operations between countries in the future, especially if the U.S. military and its allies and partners continue to carry out similar activities. in the Pacific.
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