KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer
Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He was the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize.
Since last year, China and Russia have been conducting joint military activities in the seas and in the airspace near Japan. On Sunday in Singapore, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi expressed grave concerns about the operations directly to his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe.
But while Beijing continues to flex its muscle at Tokyo, including flying strategic bombers with Russia near Japan, Moscow’s struggles in Ukraine are causing a dilemma for China. Beijing does not want the international community to conclude that it is united militarily with Russia.
Even the flight of strategic bombers on May 24 had slight hints of hesitation. A total of six aircraft, Russian TU-95 bombers and Chinese H-6 bombers, flew together on the day the Quad was meeting in Tokyo.
The leaders of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India discussed China and Russia and released a joint statement that said they strongly oppose any coercive, provocative or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo — an indirect jab at the two. The display of strategic bombers, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, was a counterpunch.
But a source knowledgeable with international relations hinted that Russia wanted to go further and simultaneously conduct surface operations.
“The Chinese side hesitated to conduct activities that were too flashy, such as circling around Japan with ships,” the source said.
What the Russian side had in mind is believed to have been a high-profile military demonstration similar to the one it conducted jointly with China in October, when a total of 10 Chinese and Russian naval vessels almost circumnavigated the Japanese archipelago.
The Chinese and Russian naval vessels together passed through the narrow Tsugaru Strait, which is south of Hokkaido and connects the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean, and the Osumi Strait, which runs along southwestern Japan and links the East China Sea with the Pacific Ocean. It was the first time for Chinese and Russian vessels to jointly pass through the straits.
If China and Russia had been even more aggressive while U.S. President Joe Biden was visiting Japan, they would have risked sparking a public outcry in Japan and further deepened divisions between the U.S. and China as well as those between Japan and China.
This time China chose to stick to aerial drills.
Beijing’s dilemma is Russia’s prolonged, and unsuccessful, invasion of Ukraine.
China continues to refuse to criticize Russia over the war in Ukraine. The U.S. is calling for China not to provide military support to Russia and a show of unity with Moscow, even in East Asia, is an act tantamount to picking a fight with the U.S.
This is not what President Xi Jinping wants ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s quinquennial national congress this autumn. Xi needs to at least temporarily stabilize relations with the U.S. heading into the crucial gathering of the Chinese Communist Party.
For Russia, facing deep international isolation, it is only natural to want to show the world its good ties with China.
Moscow’s willingness to target Biden’s visits to Japan and South Korea also made sense. Seeds of turmoil in other parts of the world, including the Taiwan Strait, would turn eyeballs away from the war in Ukraine.
China, meanwhile, cannot easily adopt Russia’s game plan. Although Xi and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin advocated “friendship with no limits” at their meeting in Beijing four months ago, the prolonged war in Ukraine has changed the dynamics.
China’s supply chains, linking it with Japan, the U.S. and Europe, are its economic lifelines. As the world’s second-largest economy, China has no business sinking alongside Russia.
Military cooperation between China and Russia significantly deepened after a joint military exercise called Vostok (East) in 2018. Held in Russia’s Far East and Siberia, some 300,000 troops took part in the massive drill.
That year, China participated for the first time, dispatching 3,200 officers and soldiers, 900 military vehicles and 30 aircraft.
Until 2021, it was China, more than Russia, that was eager to deepen military cooperation. U.S.-China relations had soured under former U.S. President Donald Trump and Biden, his successor, had not softened America’s hardline foreign policy either.
The unprecedented joint passage through the Tsugaru Strait in October was a China-led activity.
But half a year later, the partners’ positions changed dramatically.
It is now Russia that is enthusiastic, wanting to win over China and to punish Japan for joining the international sanctions regime.
On June 7, Russia announced the suspension of a fishing agreement with Japan that guarantees the safe operations of Japanese fishing boats in waters around the Northern Islands, the four islands taken by the Soviet Union in the final days of World War II.
Russia’s leverage is in the Northern Islands. But China has no direct interest in the contentious issue.
The Chinese state media’s handling of Defense Minister Wei’s meeting with his Japanese counterpart also gave a clue of the thinking in Beijing. The meeting, on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, was the first time in two and a half years that the defense ministers of both countries met face-to-face.
But major Chinese media outlets made no immediate mention of the one-on-one. Wei is thought to have shot back at Kishi’s complaints about the Sino-Russian military cooperation, but his words were not carried.
The same was true of Wei’s talks with South Korea and Australia.
The only exception was his meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. China’s Defense Ministry quoted Wei as telling Austin, “The Chinese government and military will firmly thwart any attempt for ‘Taiwan independence’ and resolutely safeguard national unity.”
But the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, treated the Wei-Austin meeting as the fifth news item on its third page. State-run China Central Television’s main evening news program did not report on it.
Supporters of “wolf warrior diplomacy” may have found Wei’s stance frustrating. Wei is one of the Top 4 members of the Central Military Commission and a heavyweight. Hardliners would have wanted to read how tough Wei responded to criticism.
Is China on a path toward detente?
China’s top diplomat Politburo member Yang Jiechi, on Monday held talks with U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Luxembourg.
The meeting, which lasted for four and a half hours, came shortly after Wei and Austin talked.
Going forward, all eyes will be on the frequency and scale of Chinese and Russian joint military activities around Japan. It will provide important clues about the future of China’s relations with Japan and the U.S.
Before and after the Shangri-La Dialogue, a Chinese naval intelligence-gathering vessel entered the Sea of Japan via the Tsushima Strait, and a Russian naval intelligence-gathering ship passed through the Soya and Tsugaru straits. The Soya Strait passes between Hokkaido and Russia’s Sakhalin Island.
What comes next for the China-Russia military partnership? The one thing that is clear is that Beijing sets the course of that relationship.