China and Russia just sent 10 warships through a narrow strait. Meanwhile, the US and Canada did the same. The reactions are telling.
China and Russia just sent 10 warships through a narrow Japanese strait. Tokyo wasn’t bothered. Meanwhile, the US and Canada sent a warship each through the Taiwan Strait. Beijing was.
It’s further evidence of the clash of cultures in the West Pacific.
The 10 Chinese and Russian vessels are conducting a circumnavigation of Japan’s Home Islands after parading through the 20km-wide Tsugaru Strait between the country’s main Hokkaido and Honshu islands on October 18.
According to the Japanese Ministry of Defence, the combined fleet crossed between Smith Island and Torishima Island about 480km south of the main island of Honshu. After that, the ships appeared to be heading westward, towards the East China Sea.
It is a bold display of the two nations’ ability – and determination – to work with each other under the nose of the US and its allies.
Tokyo hasn’t taken the bait.
It hasn’t expressed outrage. It hasn’t boasted of “chasing away” the Chinese and Russian warships. Instead, two P-3C Orions and two small minesweepers observed their passage through the narrow waterway.
Beijing, however, was once again belligerent.
US and Canadian warships passed through the Taiwan Strait on October 15 after joining multinational military exercises in the South China Sea earlier in the month.
China accused Washington and Ottawa of “jeopardising” peace.
And Moscow joined in on the act, claiming to have “scared away” a US destroyer in the East China Sea.
Tokyo didn’t express outrage. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t paying attention.
“It is the first time for Chinese and Russian naval ships to sail the Tsugaru Strait together, as you have pointed out,” Japan’s Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki told a press gathering.
“The Japanese government has a strong interest in the activities of Chinese and Russian naval ships around Japan, so we are closely monitoring.”
He added that the Japanese Self Defence Force (JSDF) destroyers JS Takanami and JS Yamagiri had “shadowed” the Chinese-Russian forces after passing through the strait.
Tokyo only lays claim to a three-nautical mile (5.5km) instead of a 12-nautical mile (22km) maritime boundary on either side of the Tsugaru Strait. It’s a relic of the Cold War, intended to allow US nuclear-armed vessels to pass without violating Japan’s “Non-Nuclear Principles”, which do not permit nuclear weapons on its territory.
The joint Chinese-Russian flotilla went on to pass between Japan’s Smith Island and Torishima Island, exercising a similar right.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), such narrow waterways must permit international vessels “innocent passage”. China, the first signatory of the post-World War II UN charter, is also a signatory to UNCLOS. As is Russia.
The United States, however, is not.
But it was Beijing that was unimpressed with others exercising UNCLOS transit rights between mainland China and Taiwan.
Crossing the line
China has again accused Western forces of “jeopardising” peace.
“The US and Canada made provocations with odious nature and stirred up troubles in cahoots, which seriously jeopardised the peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” a Chinese Ministry of Defence spokesman said in a statement.
He was referring to the passage of the USS Dewey and HMCS Winnipeg.
“Taiwan is a part of China. Troops of the PLA Eastern Theatre Command are staying on high alert at all times, and ready to resolutely counter all threats and provocations,” the spokesman stressed at the time.
It’s an interesting counterpoint.
Hokkaido and Honshu islands are indisputably both Japanese territory. Yet, Tokyo didn’t accuse Beijing and Moscow of “jeopardising” the peace with their “innocent” passage.
Warships can pass such “chokepoints” under the right of “innocent passage”, including the English Channel, Straits of Gibraltar and the Malacca Strait.
Moscow also made a scene.
During the opening stages of the combined Russian-Chinese naval drills, Russia claims it “chased” the destroyer USS Chafee out of its waters in the Sea of Japan on October 15. The US Navy denies this.
A Russian destroyer came within 60 metres of the US vessel.
The clash occurred as the Russian and Chinese vessels assembled in the area to begin their joint wargames. Moscow accuses the US warship of entering a designated “live fire” exercise zone. Washington says that event had not yet been scheduled to begin.
With friends like these
International affairs analysts say the extensive joint Chinese-Russian exercise may be a sign of “pushback” against high profile military exercises between the US and its allies.
The two authoritarian-led states are being driven together for mutual support as the rest of the world continues to harden its resolve against both nations’ arbitrary actions. And the large scale exercise was a highly visible demonstration of Beijing and Moscow’s strengthening ties.
The annual “Maritime Interaction 21” three-day wargames involved several of China’s most modern vessels. They engaged in combined tactical manoeuvring and interoperability exercises. Combat exercises. Combat exercises included anti-submarine warfare, minesweeping and anti-aircraft defence.
The Chinese contingent included a guided missile cruise, a destroyer and two frigates. There was also a supply ship, a diesel-electric submarine and a rescue ship.
Russia contributed two destroyers, two frigates and another diesel-electric submarine. Two minesweepers and a rescue tugboat accompanied a missile surveillance ship.
Both navies would “benefit from the continuous enhancement of the integration of the China-Russia naval systems and the in-depth development of the comprehensive strategic partnership of co-ordination between China and Russia in the new era,” a Chinese Navy press statement reads.
The first such joint exercise took place in 2005. The location has since varied between the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and the Sea of Japan. Apart from being cancelled last year because of the pandemic, they have been conducted annually since 2012.
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