Russia’s Vostok 2018 exercise officially commenced on September 11 and concludes September 17. One of Russia’s major military maneuvers held every four years, this year’s Vostok is of special significance because Russia has not held an exercise of this scale since 1981 — reportedly, some 297,000 personnel, 36,000 pieces of ground force equipment, 1,000 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, in addition to 80 ships and support vessels are in participation. Although this number is likely inflated, it is quite obvious that Moscow is sending a message to Russia’s opponents and friends alike that the Russian military stands ready in defense of its Far East territories.
Vostok 2018 takes place during a time of deteriorating relations between Russia and the West. However, Russia’s Zapad 2017 exercise in its western defense sector only involved a total of 12,700 Russian and Belarusian troops, an insignificant number when compared to Vostok 2018. So why is Russia placing greater emphasis on its eastern flanks?
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While Moscow’s topmost security concern has always been in its European end, the Far East is of concern because the possibility of a two front war. Historically, Russia has engaged in a series of wars and conflicts in the Far East against rising Asian powers, often with lasting consequences for Russia’s developmental trajectory.
The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 effectively ended Russian dominance in Northeast China and triggered a revolution back in the Russian heartland. During the Russian Civil War, allied Japanese, American, British, Canadian, Chinese, Italian, and French forces occupied parts of Siberia and propped up anti-Soviet armies in the vast region. The Soviet Red Army’s crushing defeat of China during the 1929 Sino-Soviet War encouraged Japan’s bold takeover of Manchuria in 1931. And the Soviets only terminated Japanese territorial designs and incursions on the Soviet Far East after scoring decisive victories at the Battles of Khalkhin Gol eight years later. Yet the Far East enjoyed only a short period of peace with the emergence of a communist government in China. The intensification of Sino-Soviet border conflicts in the 1960s ultimately facilitated China-U.S. military cooperation against the Soviet Union beginning in 1971 as Beijing and Washington entered a period of rapprochement.
Overall, we can see that although Moscow prioritizes the defense of its western sector, the Far East is equally important. Even in a time of growing tensions with NATO, Russia must make sure its eastern defense is in tiptop shape.
Besides Russia’s 297,000 personnel participating in Vostok, China also sent a contingent of 3,200 personnel, 1,000 military vehicles and equipment, and 30 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) unit did not participate in all scenarios but took part in joint campaign exercises simulating defensive and counteroffensive operations at Zabaykalsky Krai’s Tsugol Training Range, a 768-square kilometer area of plains, hills, grasslands, swamps, and rivers. Nonetheless, the current maneuver differs from past joint Chinese-Russian drills under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in one critical aspect. While SCO exercises focused on nontraditional security threats, the Vostok maneuver simulates a wartime campaign.
There are four key motivations behind China’s participation in Vostok 2018. First and foremost, China hopes to show rivals that China and Russia are standing together. Declining Sino-U.S. relations in the age of Trump are making China more defensive vis-à-vis Washington, something that aligns with Moscow’s position. Moreover, China feels locked in due to tensions with a number of regional rivals, such as India and Vietnam. The Vostok exercise is to demonstrate that China is well capable of fighting a ground war and send a clear message to rivals and rogue states in the region that China can operate on unfamiliar territories without difficulties.
Second, China also hopes to demonstrate to Russia the results of China’s military reform. In addition to rivals and rogue states, China is seeking to flex its newly gained military muscles to other Vostok participants, Russia and Mongolia. China wants to show Russia that the PLA is ready for and capable of modern warfare and can stand its ground alone while also serving as a reliable ally. Mongolia, while participating in Vostok with one mechanized infantry battalion, is simultaneously hosting the annual Nomadic Elephant drills with India in the Five Hills Training Area near Ulaanbaatar. It is in China’s interest to cast the PLA as the superior force in this instance.
Relatedly, China’s third interest is to test the results of its military restructuring in order to make the appropriate adjustments to the ongoing reform. The PLA is currently undergoing its most ambitious and comprehensive transformation, initiated in January 2016. With that being said, the PLA has not yet examined the achievements in context of large-scale joint operations with one of the world’s leading armies. Thus Vostok will serve as an important touchstone in assessing the reform’s progress.
Last but not least, one of the most important reasons why China decided to join Vostok is to learn from Russian counterparts returning from the eastern Ukraine and Syria campaigns, the former a military intervention to support insurgents and the latter an intervention with significant counterinsurgency components. The PLA has not supported an insurgency since the 1980s, when it assisted Cambodian resistance groups against the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. Furthermore, the PLA has not fought a counterinsurgency campaign since the early 1950s when it hunted down Kuomintang remnants and anti-communist insurgents spread across mainland China. Therefore, the PLA desperately needs the valuable lessons that Russian commanders have to offer.
The United States’ readjustment of its global strategy is pushing China and Russia closer together. Yes, there are chasms and distrust between a militarily powerful yet economically weak Russia and an economically sound China with an increasingly able military. While Russia is cautious of growing Chinese influence in its “backyard” — i.e. Central Asia and the Middle East — Beijing is dissatisfied with continued Russian arms sales to China’s rivals such as India and Vietnam. (As a matter of fact, a weapons deal between Russia and Vietnam totaling $1 billion was inked days before Vostok 2018’s commencement.) Yet political necessity and common interests are bringing the two capitals and their respective militaries closer to present a united posture towards the United States, while each has an interest in showing the other its full capability in defending their own sovereignty.
In sum, certain analysts and media outlets’ exaggeration of Vostok 2018 as the start of a new Sino-Russian military alliance suits the interest of Beijing and Moscow perfectly in projecting a strong and unified image despite the existence of mutual suspicion.
Zi Yang is a Senior Analyst with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Follow him on Twitter @ZiYangResearch.