China and Russia are holding joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea. This comes at an interesting time. China has been involved in a serious of confrontations with virtually every nation bordering the South China Sea, including one currently ongoing with the Philippines. Chinese obstreperousness has had an effect quite the opposite of what its leadership likely intended. It has driven all of these littoral nations into deeper relationships with the United States.
China is a striving naval power, and Russia is a declining one, so Russia is definitely playing Sancho Panza in these exercises. Moreover, China and Russia are rivals in many spheres. Russia is deeply concerned about China’s rise, and the threat that poses to its vast Siberian territories. Moreover, China’s rise, and Russia’s absolute and relative decline, is deeply humiliating to Russia. For its part, China believes that it should exercise far more influence than Russia, given its greater economic heft. There are also longstanding grievances between the countries, and China in particular has a very long memory.
Consequently, these joint exercises (like other ones the countries have put on) don’t presage the development of an enduring alliance based on deep common interests. There are more points of contention than common goals. But in the short run, both share an antipathy for the nation they perceive to be the hegemon that is thwarting their ambitions. So they can come together to form a common front against the US.
But if anything, this is only likely to reinforce the concerns that east Asian nations have about China. Moreover, the decrepitude of the Russian fleet makes this gesture purely symbolic. Even if this is more than just a one-off display of solidarity against the US, Japan, South Korea, and other American allies in the region, it will have virtually no effects on the balance of sea power in Asia.
Everyone knows that about the only thing that China and Russia have in common is a desire to overcome American hegemony, especially in areas they perceive to be their special spheres of influence. These exercises are merely a reflection of that well-known fact, and little more.