A few weeks after a huge NATO exercise in the Baltic – provocatively conducted around three sides of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad – ships of the Chinese navy have arrived in the Baltic to conduct joint naval exercises with the Russian navy there.
Here is a video of the ceremony marking their arrival in Russia’s port of Kaliningrad
The arrival of the Chinese navy in north European waters – to be precise the enclosed waters of the Baltic Sea – is a totally unprecedented event which would have been unimaginable even a decade ago.
If nothing else it demonstrates a dramatic shift in the global balance of power. It has been the US and European navies which have up to now exercised in all the seas and oceans of the world. This has been so since the so-called ‘treasure voyages‘ of Chinese admiral Zheng He in the fifteenth century, and those reached no further than the east African coast.
No longer. Now China’s fast growing naval power is reaching as far as north west Europe – the very heartland of Western power – even as it mounts a growing challenge to the US’s hitherto unchallenged naval dominance of the Pacific.
This has been made possible because of China’s de facto alliance with Russia. It is Russian ports in the Baltic which have provided the Chinese with access to the Baltic Sea, just as it is the Russian navy which will be conducting the joint naval exercises with the Chinese navy in these waters.
Chinese and Russian naval cooperation of course also extends to the Pacific where the Russian navy will shortly join the Chinese navy for more joint exercises in the South China Sea.
However it is the exercises in the Baltic which represent the biggest shift. Following Crimea’s reunification with Russia the Black Sea has once again become a Russian lake, with Western naval forces unable to sustain a continuous presence there, and at risk of immediate destruction in the event of an armed conflict.
By contrast the Baltic is a heavily contested flashpoint, with both the Russians and NATO building up their naval and military presence in the area. With Russia itself a Baltic state Russia however possesses the military advantage, which over time can only grow greater.
The presence of Chinese ships conducting joint exercises with the Russian navy gives Russia China’s political support in this region, emphasising the extent to which Western and NATO defence planners when they worry about Russia must now worry about China too.