China’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) recently confirmed that the Russian and Chinese armed forces will take part in the ZAPAD/INTERACTION-2021 military exercise, which will be held in China later in August. Senior Colonel Wu Qian, spokesperson of China’s MND, said that the two countries have arrived at a consensus on the exercise and that it will take place at the combined-arms tactical training base of the PLA Army in Qingtongxia city of west China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region under the theme of jointly safeguarding regional security and stability.
According to China’s defense ministry, the Chinese troops participating in the exercise will come mainly from the PLA Western Theater Command. Russia will send its troops from its Eastern Military District. The exercise will host more than 10,000 troops in total and will see the participation of a number of different aircraft, artillery, and armored equipment. The joint exercise is meant to test, validate, and augment their capabilities to undertake joint reconnaissance, early warning, electronic information attack, and joint strike capabilities.
Welcoming the Russian troops, a readout from the China’s MND said that Lieutenant General Liu Xiaowu, deputy commander of the Western Theater Command and commanding officer of Chinese forces in the Zapad exercise, noted “that in the context of the big changes and pandemic, this is the first joint strategic exercise participated by Russian troops in China.” The ministry reportedly added that this is the “fourth consecutive training held by the Russian and Chinese militaries after the Vostok (East) 2018, Tsentr (Center) 2019 and Kavkaz (Caucasus) 2020 exercises” held in different parts of Russia.
Improving tactical capabilities is an important aspect of the upcoming joint military exercise, but more importantly, it is a clear demonstration of the broader and reinforced China-Russia strategic partnership, based on a number of shared goals including development of the multipolar world order. According to China’s defense ministry, the Zapad 2021 exercise is meant to “to consolidate and develop the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination in the new era, deepen the practical cooperation and traditional friendship between the two militaries, and further demonstrate the two sides’ resolve and capability to fight against terrorist forces and jointly safeguard regional peace and security.”
At a broad strategic level, Richard Weitz in a recent report argued that the increased number of military exercises between Russian and Chinese armed forces is “to improve both forces’ capabilities, enhance interoperability, encourage defense industrial collaboration, send signals to third parties, and promote mutual reassurance and confidence building. The drills have become an important tool for the institutionalization of Sino-Russian defense ties without establishment of a formal alliance.” There are also others who suggest that a number of factors including “reduced bilateral military tensions, overlapping external security conditions, converging leadership perceptions, and harmonious defense economic conditions” have brought the Russia-China military relations to a matured level that could be called a “de-facto military alliance.”
This is not a consensus opinion. Some analysts like Eugene Rumer and Richard Sokolsky argue that the China-Russia joint exercises have little “utility beyond geopolitical posturing.” Even as there is limited utility, they say that the “biggest benefit Russia and China gain from their partnership in the defense sphere is intangible: it frees both countries from the necessity of vast military deployments on their 4,000- kilometer border.” Massive deployments along the China-Russia border were maintained during the Cold War years; today’s Sino-Russian bonhomie takes away the pressure to maintain large forces on their border. This is especially important for Russia, which faces a significant demographic crunch and will have difficulty in building larger ground forces. More importantly, this situation makes it possible for both Russia and China to focus on the United States as well as on U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific. Nevertheless, this exercise, the first since the COVID-19 pandemic began, shows an enormous trust and confidence in each other.
Despite the limited utility argument, that the two militaries have conducted around 30 joint exercises, beginning in 2003, suggests a certain amount of momentum in the China-Russia strategic relationship. According to reports, Major General Kui Yanwei, defense attache at the Chinese embassy in Russia, wrote in the Russian Defense Ministry’s official Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) newspaper that “The China-Russia tandem has become an unshakable guarantee of world justice and a progressive force that contributes to world development and prosperity, firmly protecting world security and stability.”
Recently, the two countries celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Sino-Russian Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, with President Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping noting in a joint statement that their partnership is not a “political” or “military alliance” like those of the Cold War years but one that “exceed[s] this form of interstate interaction.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pledged that the two countries will continue to “step up strategic coordination to firmly foster a strong pillar for maintaining world peace and security.”
Wang’s remarks on hegemonism and power politics ring hollow given China’s pursuit of a hegemonic and power-centric view in its dealings with many countries. Back in 2015, in a speech by Liu Zhenmin, then vice foreign minister of China, at the Sixth Xiangshan Forum meeting, he spoke of the of “big countries” developing spheres of influence while articulating that small and medium countries should not choose sides between big countries. That the global and regional systems can be categorized into big, medium, and small countries is indicative of the hierarchical viewpoint that China holds of international system and the differentiated role that states can play according to the size of the country are problematic.
Nevertheless, China-Russia relations appear to be rooted on strong fundamentals for the time being. Their security relations seem strong despite the long-term Russian wariness of China. In the face of isolation from the West, Russia feels that it has no choice but buttress this strategic partnership with China. Though there have been some suggestions by analysts about attempting to split Russia away from China, others have pointed out that this is unlikely in the immediate future.