China and Russia Hold First Joint Naval Drill in the Baltic Sea

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MOSCOW — Chinese and Russian warships practiced together in the Baltic Sea on Tuesday, in the first joint naval exercise the two countries have held in the area, which has been a focus of heightened tensions between Russia and the West.

All sides appeared eager to avoid inflaming the tensions. The NATO alliance, which has six member nations on the Baltic, noted matter-of-factly that the naval drills were being monitored “as a matter of routine.” Chinese and Russian commanders insisted that the exercises were not aimed at any third country.

China and Russia have been holding joint military exercises for more than a decade; they started holding joint naval drills in 2012. The countries see their budding military partnership as a way to show that they do not stand alone, despite efforts by the West to isolate them over various disputes.

NATO, which has repeatedly complained in the past about snap Russian military exercises that were not announced in advance, said on Tuesday that it had been aware of plans for the Russo-Chinese naval maneuvers, called Joint Sea 2017, for several weeks. The alliance said it arranged for allied navies to greet the Chinese vessels last week as they headed for the Baltic Sea.

Piers Cazalet, the acting spokesman for NATO, said that the naval drills in the Baltic Sea “are an example of China’s growing military capabilities and its increasingly significant global role.”

A Chinese destroyer passed through the Great Belt strait in Denmark on Friday on its way to the Baltic Sea, where China and Russia are holding joint naval exercises this week.

Royal Danish Navy, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Though China’s rapidly growing navy is still focused mainly on the seas around China, particularly the disputed South China Sea, it has extended its reach far beyond, venturing into the Mediterranean, the Baltic and other distant seas.

China, whose leader, Xi Jinping, has established close ties with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, has not endorsed Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But neither has it joined Western calls for Russia to hand the peninsula in the Black Sea swiftly back to Ukraine.

China and Russia share a distaste for Western-style democracy and stress traditional values and the primacy of order, seeing themselves as superior alternatives to Western models rooted in political pluralism.

The naval exercises this week include three Chinese ships and around 10 Russian vessels, led by a joint command center in Baltiysk, a port in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad that serves as the home base for Russia’s Baltic Fleet.

At a joint ceremony over the weekend, Russian and Chinese naval commanders said the main aim of the exercise was “to train and improve cooperation procedures at sea,” according to the Russian defense ministry.

Last year, the two countries held a joint naval exercise in the South China Sea, which China claims in its entirety, including all the islands, islets and reefs in it, in defiance of rival claims by other countries in the region and opposition from the United States.

The Baltic Sea is also fraught with geopolitical tension. Baltic nations like Estonia often complain that Russian warplanes and naval vessels operate too close to their borders without warning.