Today, Russia kicked off what is set to be its largest-ever military exercise, Vostok-2018. Taking place in Russia’s Eastern provinces, it has been reported that the “war games” will involve 300,000 troops, 36,000 military vehicles, 1,000 planes and 80 warships. What’s more, Russia is not operating alone. For the first time, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has sent a military contingent to one of Russia’s major strategic drills.
For both China and Russia watchers, this is big news. Beyond the impressive numbers and anticipated shows of force and tactics, the cooperation between the Chinese and Russian militaries can tell us a lot about the status of Sino-Russian relations. The success of the exercise can help demonstrate their degree of interoperability, but even the fact of the Chinese invitation to the exercise is important. Just by being involved, the two Asian powers send a message to the rest of the world and, in particular the United States, that China and Russia are increasingly close partners in an effort to re-shape the international system.
The Vostok exercise is part of Russia’s four-year rotation of military drills held across the country. Vostok-2018 will take place in Siberia and the Trans-Baikal region, with the naval component being held in the Sea of Okhotsk, the Bering Sea, and the Sea of Japan.
In the run up to the drills, comparisons have been drawn to Zapad-1981, the largest exercise of the Soviet era, which involved between 100,000 and 150,000 Warsaw Pact soldiers. If the number of troops partaking this year given by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu are accurate, this exercise will be the biggest to take place since these 1981 drills during the fragile geo-political standoff of the Cold War.
Russia’s exercises are largely seen as a show of force, not only in terms of logistics and size, but also of new techniques and technologies that will likely be showcased. These new technologies include anti-ship, nuclear-capable Iskander missiles and modernized tanks and fighter jets.
The Vostok exercise also carries significant political weight. For the first time, China – and a smaller contingent from Mongolia – was invited to take place in these exercises. Sending some 3,200 troops and related hardware, the inclusion of China could mark a new era in Sino-Russian cooperation.
However, the relationship between Russia and China has not always been as cooperative as it has seemed in recent years. The Vostok exercises were in fact originally meant to prepare for war with China over border clashes. The countries came to near-war over a border disagreement, and mistrust remains between the two countries since the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s.
Recently, however, Western and Eastern analysts alike have been hailing a renewed Sino-Russian relationship. A cooperative trend seems to have begun in 1996, when the two countries agreed to be “strategic partners.” A few years later, in 2001, they signaled their intent to cooperate further by signing the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation. 2014 was a pivotal year for Sino-Russian relations, particularly as, facing sanctions from the West after the annexation of Crimea and an increasingly dire economic situation, Russia reoriented in many ways towards China.
With increased economic and military cooperation and a burgeoning personal relationship between Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, analysts have come close to calling the relationship an alliance.
Signals to the U.S.
Joint participation in military exercises, especially ones this major, serve a myriad of technical purposes that boost possible military performance: For China’s PLA, which has not seen real combat since the late 1970s and just recently underwent a major overhaul of its organization and training, the exercise may provide the opportunity to test the PLA’s combat readiness and learn new techniques from the Russian military. For Russia, the drills can serve as a signal of Russian military strength and raise its profile in Asia. For both parties, Vostok-2018 can increase interoperability and military-military communication.
Regardless of the technical lessons that might be gleaned from this year’s Vostok exercises, the joint participation signals that the two countries are cooperating more closely than before, and both Russia and China will be conscious of this perception. In fact, they may very well be trying to send exactly that message: That they are cooperating more closely than was first assumed, and together they can influence the international system. This signaling may indeed be more important than the actual practical and technical lessons gleaned from the exercise itself.
Russia and China have an increasingly similar worldview, which is focused on revising the international status quo to be (from their perspectives) more inclusive and equal. Both governments question the perceived U.S. hegemony and argue for a more multilateral system – while at the same time are also fearful of Western disruptions of authoritarian regimes. More concrete divisions with the West have also brought the two closer together as Russia still faces consequences for the annexation of Crimea and election interfering. Moreover, China is growing increasingly at odds with the U.S. over the escalating trade war. Both having mounting dissatisfaction with the current international system.
However, the closeness of the Sino-Russian relationship should not be overstated. Deep tensions remain. China was unhappy with the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the two states may butt heads once again as China grows its influence in the traditionally Russian-led region of Central Asia.
It should also note be noted that this is not the first exercise that the two militaries have participated in together. For example, they just completed a counterterrorism exercise in Central Asia with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Last year, they also conducted a joint naval exercise in the Baltics. However, the cooperation in Vostok-2018, with its significant size, should still raise flags.
Despite Chinese and Russian reassurances otherwise, Sino-Russian cooperation should concern the U.S. and its partners. Not only do the two states together provide a formidable economic and military threat, but increased cooperation between the two states also occurs at a time when the U.S. has been disrupting its own alliance network. Chinese involvement in the Vostok exercises sends a purposeful signal to the U.S. and its allies that China and Russia are closer partners than analysts often prescribe. The U.S. will be listening close to this signal – and paying attention in the coming days to see how the military cooperation plays out.