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Why It Matters

Asia's bear and dragon show

China's planned joint naval exercises with Russia in the South China Sea send a signal that Beijing is not short of powerful friends in the wake of its discomfiture over an arbitration tribunal at The Hague ruling decisively against its claims to most of the waters there.

A Chinese spokesman said on Thursday that the drills will "consolidate and develop" their comprehensive strategic partnership as well as "enhance the capabilities of the two navies to jointly deal with maritime security threats".

The Chinese and Russian navies have exercised together before, but never in the South China Sea. This lends a new edge to the drill at a time when several other navies, including the United States navy, are also present in the region.

What's up? At first glance, this looks like Beijing whistling up a muscular friend at a time when it suspects that a US-led containment policy is afoot that seeks to roll boulders into its access routes to the Pacific and Indian oceans. But Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, is an enthusiastic participant as well.

Mr Putin is eager to push back against his own sense of encirclement from the eastward expansion of Nato. Hence, his robust interventions in the Middle East, and now East Asia.

He is also wary about a potential Hillary Clinton presidency in the US. The Russian leader apparently believes Mrs Clinton's State Department tried to foment discord against him some years ago.

Most of Russia's land mass is in fast-developing Asia, hence its desire for its own pivot to this region. It has tight defence ties with Vietnam and India, two nations uneasy about China. That puts limits on a mating dance between the Russian bear and the Chinese dragon.

As long as the Russians are in it for themselves, Asia would not have to worry. But a Putin pushed to the wall by sanctions and a crumbling economy may just be ready to play second fiddle to China. That would be cause for concern.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2016, with the headline 'Asia's bear and dragon show'. Print Edition | Subscribe