Photo/Illutration A Russian frigate carries a helicopter on its deck as it sails around the Japanese archipelago. (Provided by Defense Ministry's Joint Staff)

When close to 10 Russian and Chinese naval ships were spotted earlier this month in waters near Japan, defense analysts were sent scrambling to parse the motives of the two nations.

Some of it was obvious in that they want to send a message to Japan and the United States about Ukraine and Taiwan, and the power of the united front posed by Russia and China. But some of it was less obvious, in that they staggered their voyages.

“It was a clear demonstration of cooperation between China and Russia,” one high-ranking Defense Ministry official said.

But some notable differences from previous moves like this suggest other agendas are also at play.

In October 2021, the two navies formed an armada of 10 ships and sailed around the Japanese archipelago. But this time, they were less united, with a glaring time difference of a few days between the trips by the two nations.

Defense Ministry officials said that five Russian and four Chinese naval ships were spotted circling the archipelago along the Pacific coast, with the Russians emerging first.

The Russian ships were first observed on June 9 southeast of the Nemuro Peninsula in eastern Hokkaido, the main northern island.

Officials believe they were involved in a major submarine warfare exercise because vessels specially designed to attack submarines were included in the fleet.

Later, two other ships joined the fleet and sailed southward along the Pacific coast of the main Honshu island between June 15 and 17 before passing the Izu chain of islands, south of Tokyo.

Five of the Russian ships sailed between the main Okinawa island and Miyakojima island on June 18. After that, they headed to the Sea of Japan after passing through the Tsushima Strait on the northern side of Nagasaki Prefecture on June 21.

Meanwhile, four Chinese naval ships were spotted on June 12 and 13 sailing eastward through the same Tsushima Strait. The fleet included an advanced missile destroyer, which plays a key role in defending aircraft carriers.

Two of those Chinese ships passed through the Tsugaru Strait separating Hokkaido and Aomori Prefecture on the northern tip of Honshu on June 16.

The two other ships passed through the Soya Strait off the northern tip of Hokkaido.

Three of the four ships came together on June 19 to sail southward along the Pacific coast of Honshu, following a similar path taken earlier by the Russian ships.

They passed the Izu islands and then the fourth ship followed suit on June 26.

Russia has directed a large amount of its firepower into its invasion of Ukraine, but analysts said Moscow also wants to show the world that it is not leaving the Far East unattended.

Many Russian nuclear submarines are deployed in the Sea of Okhotsk to the north of Hokkaido, so the U.S. military has focused its intelligence-gathering on that region.

Cooperating with China in waters near Hokkaido would have strategic importance for Russia.

In addition to its own maritime advances, China wants to leverage Russia’s power, especially near the Nansei chain of islands near Taiwan, to place other nations in the region on alert, sources said.

The time lag in the routes led one high-ranking Defense Ministry official to suggest it is an attempt to distance the two fleets.

“China may have wanted to avoid openly working with Russia, especially at a time when it is facing international criticism for its invasion of Ukraine,” the official said.


But Russia and China have also taken steps individually that appear to be based on their own unique motives.

Between May and June, a Russian intelligence-gathering ship sailed around Hokkaido. Nine other Russian naval ships passed through the Soya Strait in that same period.

On June 7, what appeared to be four Russian jets were spotted making strange maneuvers, flying straight toward Hokkaido before veering off just before reaching territorial airspace.

Under the former Soviet Union, it was not unusual for fighter jets to repeatedly engage in threatening maneuvers, such as flying from the Pacific coast in the direction of the central part of Tokyo.

One Defense Ministry source was reminded of that past and said, “It might have been an expression of a strong warning against Japan for the support it is providing Ukraine.”

China has taken its own provocative steps as well.

On June 21, six naval ships sailed south near waters around Okinawa and Taiwan. On June 23, when Okinawa held a memorial ceremony to remember those who died in World War II, three Chinese bombers flew between the main Okinawa island and Miyakojima, while five naval ships sailed through nearby waters.

Defense Ministry officials said it was a veiled threat against Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who attended the memorial ceremony.

Some Self-Defense Forces officers believe China’s actions constitute a salami-slice strategy of making various threats, piece by piece, to achieve its goal.

But a high-ranking Defense Ministry official said Japan must “view the situation calmly and not go beyond the limits of provocation,” since there has been no confirmation that Chinese ships or jets ever entered Japanese territorial waters or airspace.

The Asahi Shimbun