Chinese participation in Russia’s Vostok 2018 command staff exercise has been an important new step for the two countries’ bilateral military cooperation, which was already very close to begin with. For the first time, the Russian and Chinese military command bodies were learning to work together in the context of a large military conflict with a third state.
Prior to early 2018, Russia and China had already had long experience of joint drills – but none of those drills were on quite the same scale as the Vostok. They were operational/tactical exercises involving a significant sharing of best practices and efforts to improve the interoperability of Russian and Chinese forces in local conflict scenarios. It is now clear that those exercises were laying the ground for a whole new level of cooperation.
The Peaceful Mission drills, held once every two years since 2005, are counterterrorism exercises involving members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Their scenario has become more complex and extensive over the years, but their focus remains on cooperation in the event of major incidents in Central Asia, such as a large force of terrorists crossing the border from Afghanistan, an uprising by the terrorist underground, etc.
The Naval Cooperation drills are tactical-tier exercises involving small numbers of ships. In recent years, Russia has been represented by two large anti-submarine boats, a supply ship, and occasionally a large amphibious landing ship. The first such event was held in 2012.
Another annual exercise launched in 2016 is Aerospace Security. It involves air defense forces and is held in the form of a computer simulation. Finally, there are regular drills involving the Russian National Guard and Chinese People’s Armed Police forces. In addition, China is an active participant in various military competitions (Tank Biathlon, Suvorov Offensive, Avia Darts, etc.) initiated by Russia in 2013-2014. In fact, some of these events are now hosted by Russia and China on a rotational basis.
All these events have enabled the two countries’ military to learn more about each other, improve their tactical-tier cooperation, and get to know each other’s hardware and tactics.
Vostok 2018 has taken that cooperation to a whole new level. Held at the Tsugol range, the event involved a reinforced mechanized brigade of the People’s Liberation Army, six JH-7A tactical bombers of the Chinese Air Force, and 24 helicopters (Z-19 attack helicopters, Z-9 multirole helicopters, and Mi-171). The total number of Chinese troops involved was approximately 3,500.
The PLA’s Northern Strategic Command deployed a field command station equipped with a modern automated command and control system at the Tsugol range. To the best of our knowledge, the exercise involved a degree of integration between the Russian and Chinse C&C systems.
According to Russian MoD reports, the Chinese forces at the Tsugol range represented an entire PLA army group, which worked together with the 35th, 36th, and 29th armies of Russia’s Eastern Military District to defeat the hostile “blues” represented by troops of Russia’s Central Military District.
Vostok 2018 also involved Mongolian troops, but that was a token participation as the country sent only a single platoon. Nevertheless, the political implications are clear: under its new President Khaltmaagiin Battulga, Mongolia has abandoned its previous “third neighbor” policy (which boiled down to improving relations with Washington in order to strengthen Mongolian independence) and chosen instead to pursue closer ties with Russia and China.
It has already been made clear that joint Russian-Chinese strategic drills will continue in the years to come. It is therefore safe to assert that bilateral military cooperation between the two countries has attained the level of a full-blown military alliance, even though that alliance has not been formalized in any bilateral treaties.
There are growing signs, however, that the alliance may indeed be formalized at some point in the future. Witness, for example, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s prediction of “closer cooperation in all areas between the two allies”; that remark may have been a hint of things to come.
Up until recently, Russia’s annual strategic military drills involved only such close Russian allies as Belarus (the Zapad drills) and Kazakhstan (the Tsentr drills).
It is possible that future joint maneuvers will alternate between Russian and Chinese training ranges. We also expect a greater participation of the Chinese Air Force (our understanding is that the number of Chinese aircraft involved in Vostok 2018 was limited by the available ground infrastructure). Another possibility is joint drills involving the Russian and Chinese navies. The Russian strategic maneuvers already include a significant naval component, but on that occasion, China did not take part.
Moscow and Beijing have not disclosed when the decision to proceed with the joint drills was made. We believe it was finalized during a sitting of a bilateral commission on military cooperation and the arms trade held in Moscow in December 2017. The visit by the Chinese delegation involved a meeting in the Kremlin between Col. Gen. Zhang Youxia, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, and President Putin, suggesting that the two sides needed to discuss an important and sensitive matter - such as initiating high-level joint drills.
The decision was being made amid a clear deterioration in Sino-American relations (and an ongoing crisis between Russia and the US). By the time the joint Russian-Chinese drills kicked off, Russian-US relations were already in ruins: witness, for example, the severe political fallout from the Russian-US summit in Helsinki. Meanwhile, Sino-US relations were also going from bad to worse, hammered by the ongoing trade war, sanctions against high-tech Chinese companies, and growing military-political tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Against that backdrop, Russia and China have already become each other’s main military partners, and that partnership is going from strength to strength.
Their joint maneuvers have drawn international attention and highlighted the positive trends in their bilateral relations. In the 1990s and 2000s, those relations were viewed with a degree of condescension in foreign capitals; it has now become clear that such an attitude was misguided. At the same time, it would be a mistake to believe that the Russian-Chinese maneuvers were merely a demonstration whose main goal was to draw the attention of the West or prod Western leaders into pursuing negotiations with Russia, China, or both at the same time.
It is now the prevailing opinion in both Moscow and Beijing that their conflict with the United States is irreversible, long-term, and systemic. Additionally, Russia is no longer capable of maintaining a balancing act between China and the United States because almost all the channels of communication with Washington have already been destroyed.
The Chinese regard the trade war with the United States as Washington’s attempt to strike a blow against their preferred model of industrial development. Even though a compromise between Washington and Beijing on trade issues remains possible, the Chinese are well aware that such a compromise can only be temporary and very limited.
Taking all this into consideration, it is easy to see the main goal of the joint Russian-Chinese drills: both countries are bracing themselves for a protracted conflict with the United States – a conflict that could at some point spiral into a full-blown war. The timing for a formal announcement of the Russian-Chinese alliance may be chosen so as not to jeopardize Moscow’s and Beijing’s relations with third countries. It still remains important for Moscow to keep freedom of maneuver in its dealing with major Asian actors such as Japan and India, while for China is it is very important to maintain a partnership with the EU, including the East European members.
Russia and China will now focus on building new standing mechanisms of coalition planning and a deeper integration of their strategies for defense innovation management. Their former model of military and technical cooperation, which revolved around one-off arms and defense technology programs, should be replaced with a strategic cooperation to include long-term joint programs in cutting-edge defense technology.
Russia and China will both have to reconcile themselves to their long-term mutual dependence in several areas of military science and technology – the same kind of interdependence that exists between the United States and some of its key allies. But on their path to these goals, the two countries are likely to face strong resistance from their military and defense industry bureaucracies, so this path will be neither quick nor easy.