China and Russia are up to mischief in the Indo-Pacific again, this time with their Northern/Interaction-2023 joint exercise. Since the two super adversaries of the United States made their BFF agreement, waters around Taiwan and Japan have become a military playground for Beijing and the Kremlin. But against whom are they practicing war? People’s Republic of China (PRC) naval vessels left port on July 16 to rendezvous off the coast of Japan with a fleet of Russian warships apparently to engage in a naval exercise to hone combat skills at sea.
A Joint Naval Exercise Meant to Intimidate
These and similar collaborations are designed to intimidate US friends and allies adjacent to the exercise areas to fine-tune tactics, techniques, and procedures for integrated operations. As the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) official news service Global Times explained:
“Chinese Ministry of National Defense announced Saturday that Russia will dispatch naval and air forces to participate in ‘Northern/Interaction-2023’ drills in the central region of the Sea of Japan organized by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Northern Theater Command. The event marks … a first that Russia has dispatched both naval and air forces to participate in similar events.”
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) set sail two guided-missile destroyers, two guided-missile frigates, and a supply vessel with four helicopters aboard. The PLAN fleet then joined a smaller Russian naval group, including two corvette-type warships. “[T]he [Chinese defense] ministry said Russian naval and air forces would participate in the drill taking place in the Sea of Japan. This would be the first time both Russian forces take part in the drill,” Reuters reported. “Gromkiy and Sovershenniy, two Russian warships taking part in the Sea of Japan drill, had earlier this month conducted separate training with the Chinese navy in Shanghai on formation movements, communication, and sea rescues.”
The RFS Gromkiy and RFS Sovershenniy are newer Steregushchiy Class corvette-type Russian naval warships equipped with anti-air and anti-ship missiles. “The stealthy design significantly reduces the radar signature of the ship. The acoustic, infra-red, magnetic and visual signatures were also reduced by incorporating the stealth technology in the construction of the warship(s),” according to a description in Naval Technology. The corvette is generally smaller than a destroyer and the smallest naval vessel to be considered a blue-water warship.
Russian Warships Lurking Near Japan
The two Russian combat vessels have been in the western Pacific, participating in several training operations. “Japan tracked the movements of the Russian ships as they sailed near Japanese waters … From June 27-29, the Russian ships had been sailing around Yonaguni Island and transited the Miyako Strait on June 30,” according to a US Naval Institute News account. One aspect of the joint training could be coordinating the best use of the upgraded Russian corvettes with the older technology on the PLAN vessels. Symbiosis in combat capability takes numerous training events to ensure the crews of the dissimilar warships can achieve warfighting effectiveness.
To that end, Northern/Interaction-2023 is just one in a series of battlefield training events Russia and China have conducted together. A Bloomberg description of data collected by the National Defense University put the collaborative training in perspective:
“China and the armed forces of Vladimir Putin conducted six joint military exercises together last year, the most in data going back two decades. That accounted for two-thirds of all China’s drills with foreign militaries in 2022. Five of the exercises took place after Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, the data shows. Four of them were bilateral, while two were held with US adversaries including Iran and Syria.”
Such a warfare-preparation naval exercise between Moscow and Beijing to contest the Indo-Pacific sea lanes of communication is mostly opaque to US defense operations planners. It’s clear the two US adversaries are training to be united in pursuing the PRC’s intent to invade Taiwan — but more importantly to prevent US allies like Japan from interfering. The joint operation in the Sea of Japan is essential for Russia and the PLAN. In the absence of military-to-military talks between the Pentagon and the PLA, which China ended nearly a year ago, gaining insight into what Beijing has up its sleeve is problematic. The best the United States and its allies in the region can do is keep a close eye.
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