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Russia, China Confirm Joint Naval Drills as Both Enhance Syria Presence

After announcing the planning stage of the exercises last month, Russian and Chinese officials have confirmed the dates for a series of land and sea military exercises reported to take place in the South China Sea, where China claims vast swaths of territory belonging to six other nations.

The Russian news outlet TASS reports that the exercises, dubbed Joint Sea-2016, will take place between September 12 and 19. “During the final planning conference, the parties held a field inspection of the exercise area, agreed on the plans for the drills, signed the sports and cultural activities plans,” Russian Pacific Fleet Captain 2nd Rank Vladimir Matveyev confirmed Monday. The two nations have not yet revealed where, specifically, the exercises will take place. If they occur in disputed territory in the South China Sea, local fishermen may be at risk of arrest or attack if they accidentally stumble upon the drills.

When the exercises were announced in July, Chinese officials referred to them as “routine.” The Chinese military clarified that they expected to conduct them on both land and sea while focusing on diffusing “maritime security threats.” While the location was never specified, reports noted they would likely take place in the South China Sea given the officials tasked with planning it. The location would raise questions for Russian ally Vietnam.

Chinese military officials have already begun alarming neighbors this week, as Beijing banned all ships from the northern coast of Vietnam for live-firing exercises in the Tonkin Gulf. China claims territory in the South China Sea internationally recognized to belong to Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia, as well as waters off the coast of Indonesia’s Natuna island. The Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague ruled against China’s claims in July, a verdict the Chinese government has refused to acknowledge.

Experts have speculated that Russia may be looking to China for greater military cooperation “due to the great pressure Russia receives from the West in Europe.” A month later, Russia has more than Europe to worry about after recalling its military assets from an incensed Iran, which referred to Russia’s diplomatic behavior as “un-gentlemanly.”

The Russian government had made public Moscow’s use of an Iranian airbase to store and refuel fighter jets in its air campaigns against what the Russian government refers steadfastly to as “terrorists” but includes a variety of jihadist groups like the Islamic State and Nusra front as well as Kurdish separatist armies and Sunni Arab ant-Assad rebels.

Cozying up to China may be just what Russia needs in Syria, as Beijing looks to expand its role in the ongoing Syrian civil war. Last week, Beijing sent Chinese Rear Admiral Guan Youfei to Damascus to touch base with the government of dictator Bashar al-Assad, in an attempt to “strengthen cooperation” between the two governments. Chinese advisers, according to the state-run Global Times newspaper, are “already on the ground in Syria to train regime forces in the use of Chinese-bought weapons including sniper rifles, rocket launchers, and machine guns.”

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