China and Russia have conducted their first military exercise since Moscow launched its military operation in Eastern Ukraine, in the midst of a visit by US President Joe Biden to the region.
The nuclear-capable bombers of China and Russia on Tuesday conducted a joint flight over the Sea of Japan, East China Sea, and the Western Pacific on Tuesday, according to China's defense ministry.
The ministry said that the patrol is part of the two countries’ “annual military cooperation plan.”
The two countries had previously held such patrols in 2019, 2020, and 2021 but in the latter half of the year.
Russia said the 13-hour flight was carried out “strictly in accordance with the provisions of international law” and was not directed against third countries.
Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, however, condemned the exercise as “provocative” and “unacceptable.”
He said Tokyo conveyed “grave concerns” to both Russia and China through diplomatic channels and scrambled jets, although none of the aircraft entered the country’s airspace.
The exercises were conducted as Japan was hosting the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) grouping of countries that includes Biden and leaders of Australia, Japan, and India.
The Quad – an informal grouping led by Washington – was formed in part to counter Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific region.
“We believe the fact that this action was taken during the Quad summit makes it more provocative than in the past,” Kishi said.
Separately, South Korea said it also scrambled fighters after at least four Chinese and four Russian warplanes entered its air defense zone on Tuesday.
Citing a senior US official, the New York Times said Washington was also tracking the military drill.
“We believe the fact that this action was taken during the Quad summit makes it more provocative than in the past,” he said.
Another US official said the exercise showed China was continuing military co-operation with Russia in the Indo-Pacific “even as Russia brutalizes Ukraine,” The Financial Times wrote.
“It also shows that Russia will stand with China in the East and South China Seas, not with other Indo-Pacific states,” the official added.
Russia has faced a barrage of sanctions from the US and its Western allies after President Vladimir Putin launched an offensive against Ukraine on February 24.
Russia to focus on developing ties with China: Lavrov
In a related development, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that Moscow will focus on developing relations with China, while it will also consider offers from the West to re-establish ties.
Lavrov said Western countries had espoused “Russophobia” since Russia launched the military operation in Ukraine.
“Now that the West has taken a ‘dictator’s position’, our economic ties with China will grow even faster,” Lavrov said.
The Russian diplomat said Moscow would count on “only ourselves and on countries which have proved themselves reliable and do not ‘dance to some other piper’s music’.”
“If Western countries change their minds and propose some form of cooperation, we can then decide,” he added.
Washington has become more vigilant about relations between Beijing and Moscow, since Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin described their friendship as having “no limits” earlier this year.
Since the war began in Ukraine, the Biden administration has sent heavy weaponry to Ukraine and shared intelligence with the embattled government in Kiev, despite warnings from Moscow that the unfaltering Western support would indefinitely prolong the war.
Moscow says ‘deliberately’ slowing Ukraine offensive
On Monday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow was deliberately slowing its offensive in Ukraine in order to allow civilians to evacuate.
“Ceasefires are being declared and humanitarian corridors are being created in order to get people out of the surrounded settlements,” RIA news agency reported on Tuesday.
“Of course, this slows down the pace of the offensive, but this is done deliberately to avoid casualties among the civilian population,” he added.
Ukraine has so far rejected any peace deal that would involve it giving up Ukrainian territory and has dismissed calls for a truce that would involve Russian forces remaining in the territories.