Asia Defense

The Threat of a Sino-Russian Fleet Circumnavigating Japan

How should Japan respond?

The Threat of a Sino-Russian Fleet Circumnavigating Japan
Credit: Mark Schiefelbein / AP Photo

In late October, ten vessels of the Chinese and Russian navies, which had been conducting joint exercises in the Sea of Japan, passed out of the Tsugaru Strait into the Pacific Ocean, and entered the East China Sea through the Osumi Strait via the waters off the Izu Islands. Both navies had circumnavigated Japan in the past, but this joint cruise was a first. Yet in light of the deepening military cooperation between China and Russia in recent years, this is hardly a surprising development, and indeed it is likely to be repeated in the future.

With the end of the Cold War, the hostile relationship between China and the Soviet Union (and later Russia) eased, and China, facing economic sanctions from the West after the Tiananmen Square massacre, began to purchase Russian-made weapons to modernize its military capabilities. However, a dispute eventually ensued over China’s imitation of Russian-made weapons and the price of Russian crude oil. Military cooperation between the two peaked in 2005 and subsequently stalled.

In the years following, Russia became increasingly concerned about China’s military buildup, and the first passage of a Chinese fleet through the Tsugaru Strait in 2008 is said to have shocked the Russian military. In 2012, China and Russia launched an annual naval exercise called “Joint Sea.” Some observers believe that the Russians wanted to show their superiority to the Chinese.

However, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 isolated it internationally, while Beijing was becoming increasingly concerned about U.S. encirclement. As a consequence, military cooperation between the two sides resumed in earnest. The combined maritime exercises became a venue for the two navies to enhance their capabilities in areas such as surface warfare, air defense, anti-submarine warfare, landing warfare, and search and rescue. The two countries chose to hold their exercises in the Mediterranean Sea after the annexation of Crimea, and in the South China Sea following the arbitration process with the Philippines.

More recently, China and Russia have been increasingly conducting joint operations around Japan. The first such instance was confirmed in June 2016, when Russian and Chinese naval vessels simultaneously entered the Senkaku Islands’ contiguous zones.

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Later, in August 2017, the day after a Russian aircraft entered the East China Sea from the Sea of Japan through the Tsushima Strait and flew around Japan in an eastward direction, a Chinese aircraft flew a similar route to the waters off the Kii Peninsula, suggesting the possibility that the two countries were coordinating their flights.

Also, in February 2018, military aircraft from both countries flew over the Sea of Japan, as if rendezvousing. Then, in July 2019 and December 2020, China and Russia officially announced that their strategic bombers had conducted “joint flights” from the Sea of Japan to the East China Sea.

After the Joint Sea exercise off Vladivostok in 2013, 16 Russian naval vessels were followed by five Chinese naval vessels passing through the Soya Strait and entering the Sea of Okhotsk. At that time, China and Russia did not pass through the strait together, and the Russian ships outnumbered the Chinese.

In the case of October 2021, however, the ships passed through the Tsugaru Strait and the Osumi Strait together, with an equal number of five ships each, and both countries officially designated it as a “joint patrol.” Considering that “joint flights” by Chinese and Russian bombers have been carried out several times, it is difficult to imagine that there will just be a single “joint patrol” by their navies.

In recent years, the U.S. Navy has increased the frequency of its transit through the Taiwan Strait, and other countries outside the region, such as the United Kingdom, France, and Canada, have also begun to pass through the Strait. In addition, frequent large-scale naval exercises have been conducted in the Western Pacific, coinciding with the deployment of a U.K. carrier strike group to the Far East.

The British ships had conducted a freedom of navigation maneuver in the territorial waters off the coast of Crimea before coming to the Western Pacific, and it is believed that Russia is also concerned about the deepening cooperation among the navies of Western countries. It may also have been meant as a check against the deepening cooperation among the U.K., U.S. and Australia in military technology such as nuclear submarines under the new AUKUS security framework.

If the Chinese and Russian navies continue to step up their passages through Japan’s straits in the future, how should Japan respond? The short answer is that Japan should do nothing unless there is a violation of international law.

The Tsushima Strait, Tsugaru Strait, Soya Strait, and the Osumi Strait are “Designated Sea Areas” under Japanese law. As such, instead of declaring a territorial sea of 12 nautical miles, which is allowed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the sea area is limited to three nautical miles. On this occasion, the Sino-Russian fleet were merely exercising the freedom of the high seas.

Still, Japan will need to monitor the practice, and in fact, the Self-Defense Forces was doing this effectively. There is no problem as long as Japan maintains the ability to “monitor” in peacetime and “blockade” in times of emergency.

Some argue that all of these specific waters should be declared territorial waters, but if this were to happen, these straits would be positioned as “straits used for international navigation,” the narrow high seas portion would disappear, and foreign submarines would be allowed to submerge in any part of the straits. This would make peacetime surveillance more difficult.

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The “designated straits” were likely established to avoid the violation of the “three non-nuclear principles” (i.e., “no nuclear weapons shall be carried into territorial waters”), when nuclear-capable ships of the United States and the Soviet Union passed through the straits during the Cold War. Even today, it makes sense to keep the high seas part of the straits in order to promote international freedom of navigation. In that case, the free navigation of the Chinese and Russian fleets should be allowed.

However, if China and Russia are able to practice freedom of navigation around it, Japan should also exercise its right of navigation in the waters surrounding China and Russia. If China and Russia can pass through Japanese straits, then there is no reason for the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) to hesitate to pass through the wider Taiwan Strait. In addition, Russia considers the Peter the Great Bay off Vladivostok to be inland waters and restricts the navigation of foreign vessels, but this is not recognized as having a basis in international law. The JMSDF should exercise the right of navigation in the Bay.

For Japan, as a maritime nation, freedom of navigation is a vital interest. Japan must not allow China and Russia to maintain the double standards of obstructing the navigational rights of foreign warships in their own waters while enjoying freedom of navigation in the waters of other countries. Japan should work with the United States and other maritime nations to reject this and protect the freedom of the seas.