China said Wednesday it has dispatched navy ships in preparation for joint exercises with Russia’s sea forces, in a sign of Beijing’s continuing support for Moscow’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
The move comes despite the growing economic and humanitarian repercussions of the bloody 16 month-old air, sea and ground assault.
China claims to be neutral in the conflict, but has accused the U.S. and its allies of provoking Russia and has maintained robust economic, diplomatic and trade ties with Moscow. The exercise involves more than 10 ships and 30-plus aircraft, according to China’s Xinhua News Agency.
The ministry and Xinhua gave no details, but the exercises are believed to be set for parts of the Sea of Japan in coming days.
China has reliably backed Russia in opposing U.S. condemnation of the Ukraine invasion in international forums, but says it won’t provide arms to either side in the war.
The Defense Ministry said in a news release Wednesday that Chinese ships had linked up with their Russian counterparts at noon. Those included the guided missile destroyers Qiqihar and Guiyang, the guided missile frigates Zaozhuang and Rizhao and the supply ship Taihu. The Chinese ships carried four helicopters, the report said.
Russian participants included the frigates Gromkiy and Otlichnyy, which have been hosting visitors for a week in the financial hub of Shanghai, China’s largest city and biggest port.
A pair of Russian navy ships are visiting China as the countries reaffirm their military ties amid the war in Ukraine.
The joint drills focus on ship-to-ship communications, maneuvering in formation and maritime search and rescue, according to Chinese reports.
The visit follows a meeting in Beijing between China’s defense minister and the head of Russia’s navy, the first formal military talks between the friendly neighbors since a short-lived mutiny by the Russian mercenary group Wagner.
China has reassured Russia of its continued support since the uprising. Minister of National Defense Li Shangfu told Russian Adm. Nikolai Yevmenov that China hoped for increased exchanges, joint exercises and other forms of cooperation to help defense ties “reach a new level,” the Chinese Defense Ministry said.
China operates the world’s largest navy by number of hulls and vastly outstrips Russia’s navy in both size and technical ability. The countries’ fleets have held a series of exercises and joint maneuvers since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, as have their air forces.