What strategic partnership? China sent an ‘uninvited’ electronic surveillance ship to spy on Vostok ’18 exercises

The People’s Liberation Army Navy sent a Dongdiao-class auxiliary general intelligence ship to spy on the naval portion of Russia’s recently completely Vostok (East) 2018 exercise which involved tens of thousands of troops, planes, and warships and featured a contingent of Chinese and Mongolian forces.

The Chinese surveillance ship shadowed Russian navy vessels for the entire length of the at-sea portion of the exercises, as about 4,000 Chinese and Mongolian troops drilled alongside Russian forces on land, USNI News reported.

While Russia invited Chinese ground forces to the exercises, it wasn’t clear whether Moscow had invited PLAN warships.

Russian state-supported media have claimed that Vostok 2018 was the largest military exercise since the Cold War, though independent confirmation of that claim by Western intelligence has not yet happened.

“[Vostok 2018’s] main political significance comes from the signaling by both Russia and China about the possible emergence of a strategic partnership, aimed at countering the threat that both countries feel from continued U.S. dominance of the international system,” Dmitry Gorenburg wrote for The Washington Post last week.

Analysis: There has been increasing speculation of a budding strategic alliance between Russia and China as a direct challenge to the U.S.- and Western-led global order, but as we have noted recently, it seems very premature. 

The fact that China would send an uninvited spy ship to an exercise it was already attending as a guest would seem to indicate further that a formal alliance is farther away than many believe.

That said, strategic cooperation between Beijing and Moscow has its benefits for both countries.

China’s military is larger than Russia’s, but Russia has a technological and operational edge. Technologically, Russia excels at missiles, radar, jet engine, and electronic warfare technology. China, meanwhile, has surged past Russia in developing modern unmanned aerial vehicle technology, and Moscow is keen to acquire it.

The deployment of the spy ship represented an opportunity for China to absorb operational experience and data from a much more sophisticated Russian navy. “The reality is Russia is very good at radar operation and electronic warfare,” said Bryan Clark, a naval analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “I wouldn’t be surprised that the Chinese would want to harvest that during the Vostok exercise.”

The collection of electronic and signals data by adversaries operating in international waters is legal under international law and has been common practice for decades. But collecting SIGINT and operational data from a supposed ally is not common.

That said, China has done this before. The PLAN was invited to send four warships to the 2014 U.S.-sponsored 2014 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise; it did, along with a Dongdiao-class spy ship.

China’s and Russia’s interests will occasionally line up, but the truth of the matter is both are revisionist great (and in China’s case, rising) powers with their own agenda. Signing a formal agreement would be far too limiting for both countries and would probably cause more friction than informal, mutually beneficial cooperation.


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