Four Russian warships have docked at a Chinese naval base near Qingdao, a port in the south of the country. They are taking a break from guarding vessels in pirate-infested waters near Somalia for joint military drills.
The Russian-Chinese maneuvers dubbed Naval Cooperation-2012 began in the Yellow Sea this Sunday. The exercises are designed to build on what both forces have been doing in the past couple of years in the Gulf of Aden to counter piracy.
Both Chinese and Russian warships have escorted civilian convoys off the coast of Somalia. One of the Russian destroyers, Marshal Shaposhnikov, was instrumental in saving the oil-tanker Moscow University a year ago, when it was captured by pirates who held 23 Russian sailors hostage.
Russian destroyers are used to guarding convoys of between five and 14 merchant ships as they travel in the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Aden. The seamen will now learn to make it a joint effort with their Chinese colleagues.
Three Russian destroyers – Marshal Shaposhnikov, Admiral Vinogradov and Admiral Tributs – are taking part in the drills, along with the missile cruiser Varyag and several support ships. They will be joined by 16 Chinese surface ships.
At the port of Qingdao they are accompanied by the flagship of China's Northern Fleet – the Luhu-class guided missile destroyer Harbin.
Like other Chinese ships in the harbor it looks brand new. The Russian crews were invited on board on Sunday to inspect the vessel for themselves. Chinese sailors visited the destroyer Admiral Vinogradov. The sailors tried immediately to make friends, exchanging “hellos” and “how are yous” in the language of their future mission mates.
Over the next few days, the groundwork will be laid for a joint exercise at sea. Those in command are in the process of painstakingly placing the future locations of the ships on the map.
"The exercises will involve several simulated missions, including the rescue of a hijacked ship, the escort of a commercial vessel, and the defense of a convoy from air and sea attacks," a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said.
Other missions on the agenda are protection of marine lines of communication, and joint supply operations.
Russia has long been a major naval power, while the Chinese navy has been expanding dramatically recently, a strategy to include operations away from its own waters rather than just defensive procedures nearer home.
Both sides stress the war games are not directed against any particular country or military bloc. However, there is increasing concern in both Moscow and Beijing about the US naval build-up in the Asia Pacific. Not to mention the Japanese and South Korean naval forces too – close allies with the US.
Signs of Japanese and South Korean activity were noticeable when the Russian convoy, traveling from Vladivostok, was frequently followed by NATO reconnaissance planes, destroyers and submarines.
After final preparations by commanding officers, the whole fleet will leave Qingdao, to start the naval part of the War Games. They will commence on April 25 and continue for just two days.
A parade of the ships is expected to take place on April 27, followed by the departure of the Russian naval convoy.
While the ships are being prepared for the exercise the crews have some free time, visiting the city (Qingdao is currently one of the fastest-growing ports on the Chinese Yellow Sea coast). The sailors will also compete in sports such as volleyball, basketball and soccer.
Denis Bolotsky onboard Admiral Vinogradov