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How the Emerging China-Russia Alliance Uses Military Drills for Geopolitical Grandstanding



Warships attend the Maritime Security Belt 2024 international naval exercise of Russia, China and Iran in the Gulf of Oman in this handout image obtained on March 12, 2024. (Inside image by ©Iranian Army/West Asia News Agency/Handout via REUTERS)

With expansionist and realpolitik agendas binding them, the current graph of China's foreign and security policy appears most closely aligned with that of Russia. Both countries are digging deeper into their confrontation with the West and its allies. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are emerging as key strategic partners, seemingly creating a Sino-Russian orbit to expand their influence. 

Besides, the dominance of the pro-Russia faction within China's ruling elite remains an important driver in pushing for Beijing's strategic coordination with Moscow. 

Tools for Geopolitical Messaging

Joint exercises are based essentially on a realist understanding of state behavior and are traditionally employed for realpolitik purposes. However, China and Russia are beginning to employ their bilateral and multilateral joint military exercises as ideal tools. Through them, the two countries aim to advance vital foreign policy objectives with strategically important regions and countries. This is demonstrated below.

In March 2024, Chinese, Russian, and Iranian navies staged joint naval drills named Maritime Security Belt 2024. Held in the Gulf of Oman, the drills involved warships and aviation. A grouping of ships from Russia's Pacific Fleet, led by the Varyag cruiser arrived at the Iranian port of Chabahar. China sent its guided-missile destroyer Urumqi, guided-missile frigate Linyi, and comprehensive supply ship Dongpinghu

Past Joint Exercises

Previously, in March 2023, the Iranian, Chinese, and Russian naval forces conducted the 2023 Marine Security Belt war game in the northern part of the Indian Ocean

In February 2023, Chinese, Russian, and South African navies held their second joint maritime exercise. It was conducted in the eastern coastal waters and airspace from Durban to Richards Bay of South Africa. The region is a strategic crossroads where the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean converge.

The exercise involved more than 350 personnel from South Africa's armed forces alongside naval units of Russia and China. The maneuver focused on a "joint operation to safeguard the safety of shipping and maritime economic activities." Notably, this was the second such military exercise in a series of drills that Pretoria hosted with foreign nations, including Russia.


The joint exercises with Russia and China did raise concerns at home for South Africa. Besides, the timing of the military drills was noteworthy. It coincided with the anniversary of the Russia-Ukraine war. Therefore, the drills were tantamount to China and South Africa standing in solidarity with the Kremlin. Unsurprisingly, it also provoked criticism. 

Warships attend the Maritime Security Belt 2024 international naval exercise of Russia, China and Iran in the Gulf of Oman in this handout image obtained on March 12, 2024. (©Iranian Army/West Asia News Agency/Handout via REUTERS)

A Warning to Japan, South Korea, and NATO

Russia, and to a certain extent, China, are still viewed as anti-colonial allies by many African nations. Therefore they are seen as an alternative to Western hegemony. Additionally, China is now the top bilateral trading partner for most of Africa. Moscow and Beijing's joint maritime show with Pretoria became a platform for showcasing an emerging new geopolitical grandstanding.

Subsequently, in July 2023, China and Russia conducted an air and naval exercise in the Sea of Japan. More than 10 naval vessels and over 30 military aircraft from both sides took part in the four-day Northern/Interaction-2023 exercise. 

The Chinese and Russian navies and air forces jointly planned and commanded naval and aerial escorts, deterrence, and repelling exercises. According to the Chinese defense ministry, the joint maneuvers were aimed at "safeguarding the security of waterways." 

However, a more realistic assessment of these drills underlines the deepening military cooperation between Beijing and Moscow. They are nothing short of a warning to Japan, South Korea, and the NATO grouping. 

Russia's navy and air force participated in a joint exercise led by China for the first time under the guise of strengthening naval cooperation. In addition to live artillery fire, the exercises also included anti-submarine and naval combat drills.. 

Military Signals Around the Sea of Japan

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Russia and China have conducted at least five military exercises in the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea since 2022. 

Joint military exercises in the Sea of Japan serve multiple strategic goals for Russia and China. The waterways around the Sea of Japan are critical passages for the Chinese and Russian navies to get to the Western Pacific.

These three naval drills showcase the expanding ambit and emerging priorities of Chinese and Russian foreign policy and military coordination. Their maneuvers also amplify the two navies' signals regarding their range and resolve of military capability. They stretch from the South Atlantic coastline of South Africa to the Indian Ocean and Sea of Japan and along the Gulf of Oman and the northern Indian Ocean.


Russia and China are demonstrating joint deterrence driven by the strategic significance of geographical locations. The selection of locations for their joint military exercises signals active engagement and geopolitical messaging, especially concerning their respective underlying territorial issues in Asia.


Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Learn more about Dr Chansoria and follow her column "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on X (formerly Twitter). The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which she is affiliated.