This year is shaping to be a pivotal one for Sino-Russian defense ties. Both countries have agreed to boost the number of "exercises and events" planned for 2016. From Sept. 12 to 19, they held their sixth exercise in the Joint Sea series, conducting a naval warfighting drill in the South China Sea to enhance their ability to "jointly respond to maritime security threats." The Joint Sea series began in 2012 as an anti-submarine warfare and maritime rescue activity off the Chinese coast, near Qingdao. With each passing year, Joint Sea has grown in scope and complexity. The August 2015 iteration was reportedly the "largest ever," involving 23 surface ships, two submarines, over a dozen fixed-wing aircraft, and six helicopters in the Sea of Japan.

The series has captivated the U.S. national security community, with some observers cautioning that Beijing and Moscow may be drifting toward an alliance. It has also caught India's attention, with one analyst citing fears that the "growing intimacy" between both countries "could impact the balance of power in Asia." Context is important, however. Although the uptick in Sino-Russian military cooperation is striking, it pales in comparison to the United States' impressive portfolio of bilateral and multilateral (i.e., "combined") exercises.

Each year, U.S. Pacific Command participates in over 1,500 exercises, training events, and professional engagements with regional militaries. The vast majority of U.S.-led exercises pass with little fanfare here in the United States, but Beijing and Moscow tend to view them through a dark lens. In June, when U.S., Indian, and Japanese forces were underway in the Philippine Sea for exercise Malabar, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang remarked, "Everyone should keep an eagle eye on their true intentions." Likewise, Russia's Ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko, slammed the 43rd-annual BALTOPS naval warfare exercise in the Baltic Sea as evidence of NATO's "hostile policy" toward Moscow. Even U.S. officials have partaken in the war of words. Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, has criticized China and Russia for their decision to hold Joint Sea 2016 in the South China Sea — the first time the series has been held in that location. Adding to the controversy, reports abound of Chinese and Russian "spy ships" shadowing U.S.-led exercises, as well as aggressive Russian overflights and reactionary "snap" exercises.

Amid all the accusatory rhetoric, it is useful to take a step back and demarcate the objectives and limitations of the U.S. exercise program. Doing so will provide a clearer picture of U.S. intentions. With those intentions in mind we can properly discuss how the United States should interpret Sino-Russian exercises and the collaboration they represent.

The Objectives of Bilateral and Multilateral Exercises

Generally, U.S.-led exercises with allies and partner nations — which fall under the rubric of "theater security cooperation" — are designed to serve a mix of military and political ends. The military aim is to enhance readiness and interoperability, so as to prepare partner nations for potential coalition operations. Some exercises focus on traditional warfighting competencies, such as naval gunnery, anti-submarine warfare, and mine counter-measures — theoretically strengthening deterrence in the process. Others focus on command and control requirements or testing new concepts of operations. With certain partners, exercises focus instead on non-traditional security skillsets, for instance humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, maritime search and rescue, and counter-terrorism, depending on regional threat vectors and partner domestic sensitivities.

Yet non-traditional security missions are gradually being edged out of many U.S.-led exercises, as concerns over "great power" conflict and high-end combat at sea have returned to prominence. This shift is reflected in Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson's recent warningthat "for the first time in twenty-five years, the Navy is engaged in competition for maritime superiority." Since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, for example, the curriculum for exercise BALTOPS has doubled down on naval and amphibious warfare. Contrast that with BALTOPS 2009, which stressed "disaster relief efforts, humanitarian assistance, and peacekeeping." A similar transition is underway in the annual U.S.-Philippine exercise Balikatan, which has shown a renewed emphasis on Philippine territorial defense as China continues to press its sweeping sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

On the political front, one important use of exercises is assurance; sometimes showing up and operating together heartens allies that, if a crisis or war erupts, commitments will be honored. Concurrently, exercises aim to build deeper relationships with the military and political leaders of the participating countries, with a view to maintaining (or obtaining) U.S. basing access in the event of a regional crisis. In some cases, the United States seeks to build more generalized goodwill with the partner or allied nation's population. It is for this reason that many U.S.-led exercises held in the developing world feature aid projects such as the construction of clinics, schools, and latrines, as well as medical, dental, and even veterinarian civic action programs.

Just as important, exercises often play a signaling role to prospective adversaries. Operating in unison during peacetime conveys solidarity among exercise partners. It implies that if deterrence fails, allies and partners will fight together and do so more effectively given better interoperability and command and control relationships.

The objectives of combined exercises therefore lie on a politico-military spectrum. Amid the ongoing spike in tensions with China and Russia, many U.S.-led exercises have been retooled to maximize military readiness, such as BALTOPS and Balikatan. Others, such as the 26-nation RIMPAC series —held biennially off the Hawaiian coast with a mix of NATO allies and Pacific Rim countries — are primarily instruments of politics and naval diplomacy. After all, a multinational roster "often comes at cost to the complexity of the operational training." Still, the broader point is that most, if not all, combined exercises perform essential functions at multiple levels, and adversaries — real or potential — are often an intended audience. Analysts should be mindful of this when interpreting the Joint Sea series. To be sure, Moscow and Beijing hope to demonstrate solidarity and enhance their ability to interoperate, but the U.S. experience outlined above reveals that such objectives are not intrinsically malevolent.

Return on Investment?

Despite their ambitious objectives, combined exercises and other forms of security cooperation have significant limitations. For one, the notion that the goodwill generated from exercising with foreign partners will necessarily translate into political influence or contingency basing access is dubious; the outcome depends on the nature of the crisis and the actors involved. A request for basing access to strike terrorist camps is one thing, but a country's leadership would certainly hesitate to grant access if it risked embroiling itself in hostilities with a great power. It is therefore imprudent to interpret a combined exercise as a bellwether for the broader political relationship among the participants. It is simply a lone data point in a sea of data.

Moreover, the degree to which exercises measurably enhance partner nation capacity for coalition operations is unclear. Although a 2013 RAND report discusses preconditions for successful capacity building in counter-terrorism, intelligence, and constabulary functions, interoperability was outside the scope of the study. And while the Department of Defense maintains a database known as the Theater Security Cooperation Management Information System (TSCMIS) for "planning more effective cooperative security activities," Barry Posen argues its data is incomplete. As a result, it may be difficult for planners to identify the exercises whose interoperability benefits are fleeting or even illusive.

It is reasonable to assume that the Chinese and Russian exercise programs are hostage to the same challenges. Further, it would take far more than a handful of naval exercises sprinkled across the globe over multiple years to produce effective Sino-Russian operations in an actual crisis. It is hard to imagine Russia contributing significantly to Chinese naval operations in the South China Sea or, conversely, China providing substantial support to Russia in any militarized dispute in the eastern Mediterranean. Besides, these well-publicized events provide important opportunities for American and international observers to assess Chinese and Russian readiness and capabilities.

Caveats also apply to land-based exercises. Take, for example, the Peace Mission series — a Sino-Russian counter-terrorism drill with participation by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The exercise has been held intermittently since 2005, but in recent years, its scale has ebbed and flowed. Whereas Peace Mission 2014 set a series record at 7,000 troops, the next year, a lack of media reporting suggests no follow-on exercise took place. As for the 2016 iteration, reports indicate it involves only 1,100 personnel, with China contributing less than 300 troops. This fluctuation suggests the near-term benefits of Peace Mission for its participants may be marginal, at best.

Bottom Line

Understanding the inherent limitations of combined exercises should ease the anxiety and finger-pointing they often provoke among China, Russia, and the United States. It is in nobody's interest to allow bilateral or multilateral exercises to become yet another source of friction in an already-fraught international security environment. Militaries, and especially navies, conduct exercises regularly. They have done so throughout the modern era. In fact, the U.S. Navy occasionally exercises with its Russian and Chinese counterparts. Exercises serve legitimate purposes as part of a nation's statecraft; to respond with sharp rhetoric, aggressive fly-bys, troop deployments, and other provocative actions simply opens the door for misperception and inadvertent escalation. To assume that cooler heads would necessarily prevail among local commanders and key decision-makers in a hypothetical crisis is dangerous. After all, Clausewitz's "chances and incidents" apply equally well to peacetime as to war.

Ryan W. French is a researcher with the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College, where he tracks geopolitical and military issues across the Asia-Pacific.

Dr. Peter Dombrowski is a professor of strategy in the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the U.S. Naval War College.