Joint military activities between China and Russia are poised to get back into full swing, according to announcements that observers said also suggest Beijing and Moscow are stepping up efforts to learn from each other in dealing with the US.
More than 10,000 Chinese and Russian troops are expected to join a five-day drill in a combined tactics training base in China’s inland Ningxia Hui autonomous region from Monday, in what Beijing has described as part of deepening pragmatic cooperation between the two militaries.
This would be the first joint drill hosted by China since the pandemic began. While the Chinese defence ministry said the exercise would focus on
Later this month, it will be time for the northwestern region of Xinjiang to host three competitions under the Russia-led International Army Games, the Chinese defence ministry announced earlier. The Chinese military is expected to join counterparts from Russia, Belarus, Egypt, Iran, Venezuela and Vietnam in the games to sharpen their skills in combat vehicle operation, portable anti-aircraft missiles launches, and nuclear, biological and chemical reconnaissance.
The latest drills come after a period when Beijing and Moscow downgraded joint military activities because of the pandemic, according to Vasily Kashin, a military and China specialist at the Higher School of Economics, a research university in Moscow.
But even during the pandemic, China managed to take part in the Kavkaz-2020 strategic command-post exercise in Russia last year. That was the third Russian strategic manoeuvre joined by China, after Vostok-2018 and Tsentr-2019, Kashin noted.
“It could be expected that, according to usual practice, at some point the Russians would start participating in similar kinds of exercises on Chinese soil,” Kashin said.
As part of efforts to increase mutual trust, Chinese and Russian forces have been regularly doing drills together, bilaterally or on multilateral platforms since 2005. That was when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, for the first time, sent some 8,200 troops to take part in the “Peace Mission 2005” exercises alongside about 2,000 Russian soldiers, to practise air and naval blockades, an amphibious assault and a seizure operation.
Growing acrimony with the US, as well as shared concerns over the destabilisation of central Asia – Moscow’s traditional geopolitical backyard that is seeing the increasing economic presence of China – were pulling the two militaries closer, Kashin sald.
Since then, the two sides have firmly increased interaction: joint naval manoeuvres have been held every year since 2012, and the Peace Mission was in 2007 expanded into a biennial anti-terrorist command and staff exercise under the then six-member SCO.
“They are also sending a powerful signal to the US about their ability and willingness to operate together, which serves as a deterrent.”
Joint exercises could be particularly important to China, which has not been involved in any real armed conflicts since the 1980s while their Russian counterparts have carried out military operations in a number of regions, from the North Caucasus and Georgia to Ukraine and Syria.
“Exercising with the Russians is useful because the Russian military has been engaged in combat operations for the last several decades almost without any rest,” Kashin said.
Such regular joint exercises had become “a foundational tool for institutionalising bilateral defence ties without a formal military alliance”, even though officials with China and Russia had rejected the idea to form a military alliance, said Richard Weitz, a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute in Washington.
“They aim to improve the independent operational proficiency of both militaries by helping them to learn novel tactics, techniques, and procedures,” Weitz wrote in a report published by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) last month.
There are signs that joint military activities between China and Russia are now becoming not only more frequent, but more complex and further from their borders. In 2015, the two sides conducted their first joint naval exercise in the Mediterranean, the maritime backyard of Nato, and in the following two years similar joint naval manoeuvres were held in the South China Sea and the Baltic Sea, both geopolitical hotspots.
Since 2018, the two sides have begun to engage in larger-scale strategic exercises which are designed to train their top-level command to work together.
“That means that they are prepared to jointly conduct strategic level operations which may involve all military branches and require massive troop movements. Such operations will not necessarily take place but the very fact that such operations are being undertaken is a very powerful message to the two countries’ adversaries, primarily to the US,” said Kashin.
Weitz said the joint exercises were expected to further expand, for example, to include practising new missions with more partners in more locations, such as the Arabian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, or even Africa, where China set up its first overseas naval base in Djibouti in 2017.
While Beijing and Moscow have repeatedly affirmed that the joint exercises were not targeting a third party, their more frequent joint exercises have been greeted with suspicion from the West.
In a move that unnerved Japan and South Korea, the Chinese and Russian air forces conducted their first joint strategic aviation patrol in July 2019, when two Chinese warplanes and two Russian bombers flew into the overlapping Japanese and South Korean air defence identification zones over the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan. Another joint patrol was carried out in the Sea of Japan in December 2020, prompting Japan and South Korea to scramble fighter jets.
Countries like Japan, which had territorial disputes with both China and Russia, were deeply concerned by the trend of deepening military cooperation between Beijing and Moscow, said James Brown, an associate professor with Temple University in Tokyo.
“Deepening Sino-Russian military cooperation at sea, on land, and with regard to launch notification for ballistic missiles is a concern for Japan,” he said. “The worst-case scenario for Tokyo would be for China and Russia to forge a military alliance and to support each other with respect to each other’s territorial disputes with Japan.”
Weitz said it was worth watching if the PLA would join the Russia-led Zapad 2021 exercise, which is scheduled next month in Belarus and Russia and could cause alarm for Nato.
“In any case, US public messaging should cite the Sino-Russian exercises to emphasise to Europeans the importance of addressing China as a military threat, at least as a supporting player to Russia,” he wrote in the CSIS paper.