Russia and China launched large-scale naval war games that U.S. officials say are a sign of Moscow shifting its geopolitical alignment with an increasingly isolated China, following sanctions and chastisement from the United States and Europe after Russia’s military annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.
Coinciding with the war games held amid growing tensions over Chinese maritime encroachment in the South China and East China Seas, Moscow and Beijing announced new cooperative economic and trade agreements.
And in a sign of growing anti-U.S. sentiment, Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday called for setting up a new Asian security structure to include Russia and Iran while excluding the United States.
"We need to innovate our security cooperation [and] establish new regional security cooperation architecture," Xi said during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and leaders of Central Asian countries. The meeting was held under the auspices of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia, a little-known organization.
The weeklong military exercises that began Tuesday in the waters of the northern East China Sea are the largest and most sophisticated war games to date by the two countries. A total of 14 ships, two submarines, and nine aircraft are taking part in "Joint-Sea 2014."
Scenarios include joint anti-ship, anti-submarine, and anti-aircraft warfare simulations that will provide the Chinese navy with near wartime cooperation, according to military analysts.
Beijing is expected to showcase its J-10 jet fighters and Su-30 strike aircraft for the first time in the weeklong maneuvers.
"The real danger that lurks here is that Russia and China could also be considering other forms of military cooperation, such as coordinating their nuclear forces against the United States," said Rick Fisher, a China military analyst with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
John Tkacik, a former State Department China specialist, also said the new Russia-China alignment is unusual.
"Normally, one would expect two massive bordering nations like China and Russia to regard one another with suspicion and rivalry," Tkacik said. "But instead they appear to cooperate as a new axis of authoritarianism in mutual support of their own fragile legitimacy."
The naval exercises "are part of an ongoing and deepening challenge to global security and stability," Tkaick said.
In addition to the war games, the two nations announced a 30-year, $400 billion deal for China to purchase Russian natural gas.
Another deal announced in Shanghai is for Russia and China to jointly develop Mi-26 heavy lift helicopters and large commercial aircraft. China wants to build 1,000 large-capacity commercial jetliners to compete with Boeing and Airbus.
U.S. intelligence analysts say Moscow is shifting sharply toward China in part to counterbalance western efforts to isolate Russia over its Ukraine gambit.
The Russians believe the United States sought to pressure China into joining its anti-Russian stance over Ukraine, but Putin’s visit this week and an earlier visit to China by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sought to bolster ties between the two anti-democratic powers.
China also was angered over the Obama administration’s indictment Monday of five People’s Liberation Army hackers who were charged with stealing trade secrets from U.S. companies and a trade union.
Officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said the major U.S. concern is the ramping up of military ties that will include new weapons for Russia and advanced technology, particularly for jet engines and other high-tech weapons, for China.
Putin said in April during a television interview that ties with China would expand, particularly in trade. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov also told the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta April 22 that China and Russia "will develop cooperation in all areas."
The gas deal between state-run Gazprom and China National Petroleum Corp. calls for China to purchase 68 billion cubic meters of gas a year.
Technology cooperation includes a recent $4 billion deal for Russia’s Sukhoi to supply 100 SSJ100 jet engines, including some to be built in China.
Nuclear trade deals include a $1 billion contract for Rosatom, the nuclear supplier, to provide advanced fuel equipment to Chinese nuclear power stations.
Space cooperation is also increasing, raising concerns that Russia and China will increase their military space weapons programs.
"The statement on space cooperation points to a Russian realignment away from manned space cooperation with the United States to greater manned space cooperation with China," Fisher said. "This could accelerate China's ambitions to loft dual-use [military-civilian] space stations, develop dual-use space planes and eventually, build a dual-use moon base."
The Russians and Chinese also are seeking to increase their states’ control over the Internet. Putin and Xi said in Shanghai that both countries would attempt to jointly defend "information space"—indirect criticism of U.S. control over the Internet.
"The sides are concerned over use of [information technologies] running counter to tasks of maintaining international stability and security in detriment to state sovereignty and inviolability of private life," official press reports said.
The Chinese official military newspaper PLA Daily reported Tuesday that the naval war games are not "targeting a third party" and "won’t pose a threat to any country."
However, other official Chinese media outlets stated that the war games are specifically targeting the United States.
The Chinese-owned newspaper Wen Wei Po said the war games were meant as a warning to "big tigers" like the United States and Japan, as well as "tiny flies," such as the Philippines and Vietnam.
The Chinese-owned Ta Kung Pao also reported Wednesday that the war games were meant to signal efforts by Russia and China to counter the U.S. pivot to Asia.
Russia and China in a joint statement in Shanghai said they rejected attempts to "distort" history—diplomatic code for China’s political battle with Japan and the United States, the newspaper said.
China earlier this month began oil-drilling operations in the South China Sea, a move criticized by the United States as provocative and destabilizing. The drilling is taking place in disputed waters near the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by Vietnam. It set off anti-Chinese protests in communist ruled Vietnam.
The Philippines also is pushing back against Chinese development of reefs claimed by Manila in the Spratly Islands.
Chinese warships in the naval exercises include Beijing’s most advanced Zhengzhou and Ningbo missile destroyers. Russia sent its Varyag missile cruiser.
The Zhengzhou is a new Type-052C destroyer that is China’s first warship equipped with long-range missiles and advanced air defense systems.
Fisher said the Xi announcement of a new security alliance without the United States "signals that not only is China on the march to take and consolidate contested territories in Asia, it is also going to actively seek to re-order the security architecture in Asia."
The new grouping appears to be "a new anti-democratic coalition" with states that have or will have nuclear weapons and military forces bolstered by modern Chinese and Russian technology.
"We are free falling into another Cold War that will feature regular terrorist and nuclear hot flashes," Fisher said. "If Washington fails to respond quickly, we could find into the next decade that we will lose our strategic position in Asia and be forced into regular debilitating regional contests."
Interfax reported Wednesday that Russia and China do not plan to share joint missile defenses in Asia, as both are opposing U.S.-led missile defenses in both Europe and Asia.
"The Russian leadership is gambling that a decade of deep cooperation with China will enable it to fund next-generation military capabilities it needs to deter China into the 2020s and beyond," Fisher said.