The growing bonhomie between Russia and China reached an all-time high last week as their warships jointly sailed close to the US waters along the Alaskan Coast, an incident that has rattled the United States.
The US Northern Command (NORTHCOM) announced on August 6 that a Russian and Chinese naval formation patrolled “near Alaska” last week but “was not considered a threat. The development was first reported by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in an exclusive story last week.
The report stated that the US Navy had dispatched four destroyers to tackle the approaching naval force, which it claimed was the largest flotilla to approach the US maritime borders in a long time. The WSJ stated that the formation consisted of 11 Chinese and Russian ships. American politicians have reportedly confirmed this number.
The report was finally confirmed recently by NORTHCOM, which told the media that “air and maritime assets under our commands conducted operations to assure the defense of the United States and Canada, and the patrol remained in international waters and was not considered a threat.”
Although the NORTHCOM dismissed it as not posing a significant threat to the country, it is certainly a big show of force to Washington by its arch-foes Russia and China. Although Russia has grown more bellicose in its rhetoric against the US, it is yet to comment on the development.
U.S. Navy Destroyers were dispatched after Russian and Chinese warships conducted patrols off the coast of Alaska. @IkeEjiochi reports on the growing tensions between the U.S., China and Russia. https://t.co/BZ6dU1CdHT pic.twitter.com/tahX8iIdw2
— World News Tonight (@ABCWorldNews) August 7, 2023
The Chinese Embassy in the US told the WSJ: “According to the annual cooperation plan between the Chinese and Russian militaries, naval vessels of the two countries have recently conducted joint maritime patrols in relevant waters in the western and northern Pacific Ocean.”
Moreover, the Chinese embassy spokesperson said this move was not directed at any particular party and was unrelated to the present international and regional circumstances. China and Russia often tow this line as they continue to deepen military cooperation and carry out joint military drills and patrols, particularly in the Pacific, close to the seasoned US allies.
However, the recent activity close to the US coast may be a first and could be very alarming for Washington. The Pentagon had been monitoring and anticipating this patrol for several weeks, much before the drill started, an unnamed US official source told ABC News. A P-8 reconnaissance aircraft and four American destroyers were dispatched to respond.
The joint patrol undertaken by Russian and Chinese Navies could be particularly worrying for the United States as they come against the backdrop of US hostility and condemnation of Russia for the protracted Ukraine war and China for preparing for a potential invasion of Taiwan, respectively.
Brent Sadler, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a retired Navy captain, told WSJ, “It is a historical first. Given the context of the Ukraine war and Taiwan tension, this move is highly provocative.”
The Ukraine war, which has led to international sanctions and the isolation of Russia, has paved the way for closer military cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. Although the arrangement for joint patrols precedes the war, it has seen an uptick in the last year. Despite being frowned upon by the US, these patrols had been limited to the Indo-Pacific.
Russia will dispatch naval and air forces to participate in "Northern/Interaction-2023"drills in the central region of the Sea of Japan organized by the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Northern Theater Command, according to Chinese Ministry of National Defense. Chinese… pic.twitter.com/yAJMe9OZtD
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) July 15, 2023
Late last month, Chinese media reported that the country was readying to launch its third joint naval patrol with Russia, sending warships from both nations into the West and North Pacific following the Northern/Interaction-2023 joint exercises in the Sea of Japan.
However, this may not be the first time US adversaries have undertaken such a patrol. A US Senator from Alaska, Dan Sullivan, said on social media that the Chinese and Russian navies conducted a similar operation off the coast of Alaska last summer.
“Given that our response was tepid, I strongly encouraged senior military leaders to be ready with a much more robust response should such another joint Chinese/Russian naval operation occur off our coast,” he wrote. The senator also drew attention to a potent US response which he thinks would send a strong message to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Alaska Is Back In Focus As Tensions Simmer
More notably, the incident has again brought Alaska into the limelight, with politicians and military watchers calling attention to its vulnerability due to its geographical proximity to Russia and China. On its part, Russia often flies its warplanes close to Alaska that are intercepted and monitored by North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) while they are in flight.
A previously unforeseen threat from Beijing was exposed earlier this year as an alleged Chinese balloon entered the continental United States after flying near airspace in Alaska and Canada. The balloon flew over critical US military installations before the F-22 Raptor of the US Air Force finally hunted it.
Incursions like this are why we are working so hard to secure funding and resources to expand our military’s capacity and capabilities in Alaska, and why our colleagues must join us in supporting those investments.
— Sen. Lisa Murkowski (@lisamurkowski) August 6, 2023
The above events have expectedly caused a furor in the United States, with Republican senators from Alaska, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, calling for a hike in defense spending. Murkowski, for one, said, “This is a stark reminder of Alaska’s proximity to both China and Russia, as well as the essential role our state plays in our national defense and territorial sovereignty.”
“I think it just underscores the need for the continued build-up of not only forces in Alaska but the infrastructure that can handle them, particularly infrastructure like the deepwater port of Nome and a greater naval, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps presence in Alaska,” wrote Republican Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan on platform X.
Last summer the Chinese and Russian navies conducted a similar operation off the coast of Alaska. Given that our response was tepid, I strongly encouraged senior military leaders to be ready with a much more robust response should such another joint Chinese/Russian naval…
— Sen. Dan Sullivan (@SenDanSullivan) August 6, 2023
The joint patrol approaching US frontiers may be significant as it comes after repeated incidents of US military activity in what Russia and China consider their backyards. Both Russian and Chinese theaters have recently seen confrontations with the US.
In an unprecedented incident earlier this year, a Russian Su-27 harassed a US MQ-9 Reaper over the Black Sea while the latter was on a surveillance mission, triggering alarm of an escalation. The drone was later crashed into the Black Sea by the US operators.
Similarly, US warships frequently sail through the volatile Taiwan Strait under their Freedom of Navigation Operation missions, where the PLA shadows them. Against that backdrop, America’s biggest arch-foes focusing on Alaska could be a worrying precedent.
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