The two countries have started coordinating moves in the region, but Russia remains silent on the South China Sea.
China and Russia already have a history of cooperation in Central Asia, defying predictions that competition over that region will derail their relationship. The two countries function as co-leaders in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and have even linked together their economic visions for the region (Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union and China’s Silk Road Economic Belt). When it comes to the Pacific Ocean region, however, Russia and China’s joint activities have been slower to develop – but that’s starting to change.
In part, that’s due to an increased Russia presence in the Pacific, particularly on the military front. In April, U.S. Admiral Samuel Locklear, then the commander of Pacific Command, told the House Armed Services Committee that Russia “has returned to … nearly a Cold War level of activity” in the Pacific. Russia is improving is strategic nuclear deterrent and submarine force on its eastern coast, in the north Pacific, Locklear said, and is “exerting increased influence not only in the Arctic… but also in Northeast Asia.” Russia has also been increasing its military presence in Southeast Asia, Locklear added.
Japan has also noted increased Russian military activity. In fiscal year 2014, Japan scrambled fighter jets 943 times, a 16 percent increase over FY2013 and the second-highest rate ever. That increase back to Cold War levels was partly due to increased flights by Chinese fighters near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, but equally due to Russian bombers and patrol planes passing close to Japan’s north. In fact, Chinese aircraft accounted for under half (464) of the scrambles, Japan’s Defense Ministry reported. Scrambles to meet Russian aircraft were up roughly four times from 2004 levels.
Russia also recently announced that it will build up its military and civilian infrastructure on the Kuril Islands, which Japan claims at the Northern Territories, meaning Japan can expect Russia’s military presence in the north Pacific to continue to grow.
For China, a more active Russian approach toward the Asia-Pacific provides a useful counterweight to U.S. influence in the region. Beijing also appreciates Moscow’s support on security issues, where the two countries often see eye-to-eye. Russia and China joined voices to object to the deployment of the U.S. missile defense system THAAD on South Korea, for example.