Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Sep 13, 2018
The Russia-China military exercise: Implications for Asian military balance

Russia is hosting this week its largest war games, Vostok-2018.  This is considered by the far the largest war games that Russia has held since the end of the Cold War.  The Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu had said that Vostok-2018 (East-2018), scheduled to take place in Russia’s central and eastern military districts, will see the participation of almost 300,000 troops, over 1,000 military aircraft, two of Russia’s naval fleets, and all its airborne units.  Shoigu also said that this “will be the biggest military exercise since 1981.”  He added that “it will be unprecedented in terms of geographic scope and the strength of command and control centers and forces due to participate.”  Justifying the Vostok-2018, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that this is “essential” as it has to have the capability and capacity to defend itself under the prevailing international situation, which Moscow characterises as “often aggressive and unfriendly toward our country.”  In addition to the Russian armed forces, Vostok-2018 will see the participation of the Chinese and Mongolian militaries.  China said that it will send “about 3,200 troops, along with more than 900 pieces of weaponry and 30 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.”  Russian analysts say that the Russia-China partnership is a “de facto military alliance, purposefully not codified to maintain ambiguity.”

For long, Russia has remained concerned about NATO’s eastward expansion and the military exercises are a way of possibly deterring any military action its close neighbourhood.  The war games also come in the backdrop of the increasingly worsening political and strategic ties between Russia and the West, primarily driven by the Russia’s Crimea annexation in 2014.  The accusations of the Russian election meddling in the US and Europe have not helped the situation.  Since the Ukraine crisis, Russia has sought  stronger strategic partnership with China.  Speaking about the Chinese participation in Vostok-2018, the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that it is a sign of the expanded partnership between the two sides.  Though China has come out and said that the war games are not targeted at any particular country, suspicions abound among the NATO states, especially those close to Russian borders.  In a press statement, NATO’s acting Deputy spokesperson, Dylan White noted that they “fit into a pattern we have seen over some time: a more assertive Russia, significantly increasing its defence budget and its military presence.”

Since 2009, Russia has held periodic military exercises, usually every four years. However, since the Crimean annexation, NATO has been far more concerned about these war games.

Since 2009, Russian has held periodic military exercises, usually every four years.  However, since the Crimean annexation, NATO has been far more concerned about these war games.  For instance, last year’s Zapad-2017 exercise covered a vast area from Belarus’ and Russia’s western borders up into the Arctic..  Although Moscow claimed only 12,000 troops took part in it, Western countries put the number at around 100,000.  Similarly, Russia’s 15-day war games in the North Caucus region, bordering Georgia, also led to concerns in Georgia and other countries.

Russia has its own concerns about NATO exercises involving East European countries, many of which simulate defense against a Russian attack.  Earlier this summer, 19 countries came together in the Sabre Strike exercise, which took place in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland and simulated a scenario of a Russian attack.  In yet another show of strength among the western allies, 13 countries including the UK came together recently to conduct the Noble Partner exercises in Vaziani, outside Georgia’s capital Tbilisi.  This is the fourth time that Georgia was hosting the Noble Partner exercise.  Even though Georgia is not a NATO member, it contributes to the NATO Response Force and NATO has justified these exercises saying that there is a genuine Russia threat, especially for Eastern Europe member states.  Russia on the other hand criticised these exercises saying that the US-led west is creating “Russophobia” and that these exercises could possibly bolster “militarist sentiments” and exacerbate the tensions.

But more critically, the Russia-China military drills in September will demonstrate their growing closeness at a time when the US has referred to Russia and China as two “revisionist powers” that are “attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”

The inevitability of these exercises by Russia and the NATO members (four non-NATO member countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine – also do take part in these exercises) are understandable given the state of hostile relations between the two sides.  But these exercises also increase the possibilities of accidental conflict and aggravate the already-tense political relationships.  But more critically, the Russia-China military drills in September will demonstrate their growing closeness at a time when the US has referred to Russia and China as two “revisionist powers” that are “attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”  Though Russia continues to be somewhat suspicious and wary of China’s growing military might, the so-called tactical relationship between Moscow and Beijing seems to be becoming a lot more strategic.  As some experts have pointed out, “while there is still a lot of distrust between Moscow and Beijing, Moscow sees no other choice but to work with China, especially as relations with the US remain unstable and Chinese financial support is needed to mitigate the effects of Western sanctions.”  China has stated that its participation will consolidate “the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination, deepening pragmatic and friendly cooperation between the two armies, and further strengthening their ability to jointly deal with varied security threats, which are conducive to safeguarding regional peace and security.”  Other experts have pointed out, Russia did not want China to get the wrong impression that these exercises were aimed at Beijing.  Chinese military source were also reported to have said that they are looking forward to learning from Russia’s recent military experience in Syria as “The PLA is the only major military force that has no real battle experience and it is very eager to get its hands on some real lessons.”

The strengthened strategic engagement between Russia and China especially in the defence and security sectors has important implications for the Asian military balance.  To give only one example, India, one of Russia’s closest partners, will be increasingly worried about what Moscow’s growing closeness to Beijing will mean for the future of the India-Russia relationship.

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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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