When on July 12 we described the symbolic, if utterly meaningless ruling by the Hague's Permanent Court of Arbitration on July 12, according to which China had no legal claim on most of the South China Sea (obviously, a ruling that China said repeatedly both before and after it would ignore), we said that "Ironically, in attempting to stem China's territorial expansions in the region, the tribunal will likely just provoke Beijing even more."
Just over two weeks later we got the first official confirmation that this is precisely what has happened, when overnight China's Defense Ministry announced that China and Russia would hold "routine" naval exercises in the contested area in the South China Sea this coming September, "adding that the drills were aimed at strengthening their cooperation and were not aimed at any other country."
Translation: the drills are aimed at the US, whose diplomatic relationship with "uber hacker" Russia is the worst it has been since the cold war, and whose ties with China have been deteriorating over the past several years, and culminating with July's ruling which clearly pinpointed the biggest geopolitical tension point - the South China Sea.
As Reuters trivially adds, "the exercises come at a time of heightened tension in the contested waters after an arbitration court in The Hague ruled this month that China did not have historic rights to the South China Sea and criticized its environmental destruction there. China rejected the ruling and refused to participate in the case."
"This is a routine exercise between the two armed forces, aimed at strengthening the developing China-Russia strategic cooperative partnership," China's defense ministry spokesman Yang Yujun told a regular monthly news conference.
"The exercise is not directed against third parties."
Of course, it isn't.
While China and an isolated by the west Russia, have been developing increasingly closer commercial ties over the past several years, including bilateral currency swaps, a major natural gas pipeline, and joint exploration projects, so far the two countries had not had a chance to demontrate the tight nature of their Eurasian geopolitical "axis." Furthermore, China and Russia are veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, and have held similar views on many major issues such as the crisis in Syria. This has repeatedly put them at odds with the United States and Western Europe.
Last year, they held joint military drills in the Sea of Japan and the Mediterranean. However, nowhere has the tension been higher than in the South China Sea, which is precisely where China will show the US how is boss. And it will have Russia by its side.
Naturally, White House spokesman Josh Earnest played down the significance of the exercises even though he conceded that the South China Sea was "a sensitive diplomatic topic right now".
"I don't know what exercises they are planning, but in the same way the United States and China have a military-to-military relationship, I'm not surprised that Russia and China are seeking to build upon their military-to-military relationship as well," he told a regular briefing.
The question then is whose military-to-military relationship is more important to Beijing.
China has recently taken part in U.S.-led multinational naval drills in the Pacific and a U.S. defense official said he did not expect the China-Russia exercises to affect U.S. military activity or behavior in the South China Sea.
“We're not concerned about the safety of U.S. vessels in the region as long as interactions with the Chinese remain safe and professional, which has been the case in most cases,” the official said. Except for those cases in which it wasn't.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of trade moves annually. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims.
China has repeatedly blamed the United States for stoking tension in the region through its military patrols, and of taking sides in the dispute. The United States has sought to assert its right to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea with its patrols and denies taking sides in the territorial disputes.
And this is why September's drills are important: Russia has been a strong backer of China's stance on the arbitration case, which was brought by the Philippines. Yang said China and Russia were comprehensive strategic partners and had already held many exercises this year.
"These drills deepen mutual trust and expand cooperation, raise the ability to jointly deal with security threats, and benefit the maintenance of regional and global peace and stability," he said.
And, as time goes by, Russia and China will only become closer strategic partners, to the exclusion of the US and Washington's own Pacific Rim sphere of influence.