Russia recently conducted a massive military exercise codenamed ‘Vostok 2018’ in which, as stated by its Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, nearly 300,000 troops, up to 36,000 tanks, armored personnel carriers and other vehicles, more than 1,000 aircraft and unarmed aerial vehicles, up to 80 combat and logistic ships, in addition to nearly 3,500 Chinese troops participated. This level of troop participation would make for almost one-third of the entire Russian Armed Forces’ active list. The last time Russia mounted such a huge effort in military maneuvers was during Cold War era in 1981.
The stated objectives of the exercise had been for the General Staff and national leadership to test the country’s ability to mobilize for a general war, gain experience in training and commanding large formations on the move. In recent years, Russia and China have made public declarations of increasing co-operation. President Vladimir Putin met Chinese officials during the exercise. The political significance of this huge effort could thus be seen as signaling by Russia and China about possible emergence of a strategic partnership between them in the future to counter the threat which both countries feel from continued U.S. dominance of the international system.
Russia regularly conducts military maneuvers to keep its armed forces in shape. The general thrust of such activity hitherto fore had been based on threat from NATO in Western Europe and simulated Russian responses in the form of horizontal and vertical escalations, followed by substantial counter-attack, supported by nationwide activity. The character, scale and intensity in exercise areas have generally been consistent with Russian doctrines for strategic operations in escalating conflict situations. All strategic-operational exercises anywhere do have defensive and offensive components but what is unusual about Vostok 2018’ is the sheer size of troop participation as compared to the past. In 2017, in a well calculated counter to NATO’s stepped up presence in Baltics, Russia staged ‘Zapad’ series exercises which were first started in 1999, in which about 45,000 soldiers participated but it caused considerable anxiety in western capitals.
The inter-operability witnessed during Vostok 2018’, through participation of modernized Russian T-90 main battle tanks with support from Chinese Type 99 tanks and air strikes featuring Su-35 fighter jets – a cornerstone of Sino-Russian military collaboration – is unlikely to have been missed by western powers. Russian air defence systems such as S-300 and S-400, already exported to China, were also jointly exercised during Vostok 2018’. The U.S. in the past has expressed concern over this sale as it could pose a threat to U.S. in South China Sea and to NATO in the West. The exercise was a clear manifestation of burgeoning military partnership between Moscow and Beijing as well as a less than subtle pitch for exporting Russia’s top-of-the-line military hardware. In his address on the occasion, Putin vowed to develop ‘international military co-operation’, of which clearly, Chinese participation was a visible symbol.
Not long ago, China was among potential adversaries of Russia. The two countries were involved in an undeclared military conflict in 1969 over the disputed Zhenbao/Damansky Islands along frozen Amur River in Chinese Manchuria’s border with Russia in the Far East, and a permanent accord on border disputes was reached only in 2008. At one stage during course of that conflict, former USSR nearly reached its nuclear threshold but a catastrophe was averted after some behind the scene messaging by U.S. It was therefore very significant to see Chinese and Russian forces operating jointly in a region not far from the 1969 conflict zone and absorb lessons from more technologically sophisticated Russian operations in simulated battlefield environments. Thus, while Vostok 2018 was aimed at countering external threats to Siberia and the Far East, it also sent a strong signal that Moscow didn’t consider Beijing a potential adversary anymore.
The frequent hype by Russia and China about their enduring friendship, notwithstanding, there is little indication of Sino-Russian ties forging into an intense co-operation like strategic alliance which exist between U.S. and its allies in Europe and Japan. This is because of decades of distrust between the two countries. Even during Vostok 2018, China sent a Dongdao-class Auxiliary General Intelligence (AGI) ship uninvited to shadow Russian naval units at sea for intelligence gathering purpose. Monitoring an adversary’s exercise with ships in international waters is nothing new and is even legal under international law, but surveilling and exercising with an ally is rather unusual.
There is so far no formal security pact between Russia and China like NATO in Europe which could embed their military relationship into a mutually beneficial package. China has traditionally eschewed formal alliances and President Xi recently reaffirmed that policy. Russia and China are modernizing their military structure separately. President Trump’s tough line on trade and calling China as ‘the new enemy’ could, however, change all this and China and Russia could be expected to resolutely support each other if pushed against the wall. China has blue water navy ambitions and wants to be able to deny access to U.S. ships in the region and flex its muscles at sea well beyond its shores. This is where closer co-operation with Russia makes sense and can be very valuable.
Trade between China and Russia, in spite of some common economic interest, has not expanded due to soured business deals in the past. The 2015 deal enabling China to buy Russian natural gas has run into difficulties over pricing and pipeline routes issues. The trade volume between the two stands at USD 84 billion, which is well short of Sino-U.S. trade at USD 635 billion (2017). Lately, China Development Bank has recently loaned a Russian state-owned bank over USD 9 billion for infrastructure development but whether or not it materializes remains to be seen. Russia and China have different perceptions of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since it will ultimately cut down Russian influence in Central Asia. China is not happy with Russia’s military aid to its regional rival India and Vietnam and hobnobbing with Afghan Talibans for its security considerations due to an emerging ISIL threat.
There are, nevertheless, some sound common grounds for Russia and China to militarily come closer. China has a larger military force than Russia but it lacks the sophistication of its missiles, radars, jet engines and electronic warfare technology. As a result of decades of cold war with the West, Russian Navy is very good in radar operations and electronic warfare techniques. On the other hand, China excels in modern unmanned aerial technology where Russia is far behind. Russia has sold nearly USD 10 billion worth of military hardware to China since 2010 and is currently developing drones jointly with China. The technology trade as well as exchange of operational experience can, therefore, now flow in both directions as opposed to being unidirectional in the past.
Just how significant is the burgeoning military relationship between China and Russia, is a little early to call. Deeper militarily strategic or special relationship between nation states generally follow deeper political and economic ties and not precede them. A formal Sino-Russia ‘Bloc’ as it were, can thus be ruled out for now but what trajectory their relationship takes in the future, will largely be affected by unpredictable dynamics unleashed by President Trump’s hardline on trade with China and his obsession with imposing sanctions on allies and foes alike, which is increasingly becoming a global irritant. There is a growing concern across the globe against U.S.’ arrogance which could gel Sino-Russia relationship into a much stronger mode in the years ahead.
The writer is a retired Vice Admiral of Pakistan Navy.
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