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Why China-Russia military exercises should provoke soul-searching in the West

Zhou Bo says the massive Vostok 2018 joint exercises were not just mutually beneficial to both countries in military terms but also signify a political rapprochement

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 September, 2018, 1:11pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2018, 3:22am

Vostok 2018, Russia’s biggest war games in nearly 40 years involving almost 300,000 troops, over 1,000 military aircraft and two Russian naval fleets, took place from September 11 to 15 in Russia’s central and eastern military districts.

What made it more exceptional is that it was attended by 3,200 troops with 30 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, and a great deal of armoury and artillery from China. Never before has the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) been involved so massively in a joint exercise overseas.

Such exercises are significant to the PLA primarily for two reasons. First, only large-scale exercises can truly reveal the capacity of a military in terms of strategic planning, power projection, command, control and communication. Therefore, the more sophisticated the exercises, the better.

Since the PLA has not been involved in wars since 1980, its capacity building and operational readiness can only be verified through military drills. Russia was once a superpower. Its military doctrine and lessons learned from wars in Chechnya, Georgia and Syria could be useful to the PLA.

Secondly, these exercises are meant to address large conflicts rather than non-traditional threats such as terrorism, piracy and natural disasters. The PLA’s military exercises with foreign armed forces are nothing new – China and Kyrgyzstan started a joint drill in 2002 – but most are still focused on preparing for non-traditional threats.

Russian war games prepared Chinese troops for battle, PLA says

Today, China is still not fully reunified, as some Chinese territories remain occupied by other countries. If large-scale conflicts or wars cannot be ruled out in the future, then such sophisticated exercises with Russia involving different services and arms are certainly good practice for the PLA.

However, the gains of China’s participation in the Russia-led military exercises should not be seen as one-sided. Thanks to China’s ever stronger defence industry, the PLA is growing rapidly. For example, tanks and armoured vehicles made in China have proven to be as good as those made in Russia in multinational military contests.

Watch: Vostok 2018 – Russia’s biggest war games in 40 years

Some Russian media has pointed out that, one day, Russia may have to buy warships from China given the decline in Russia’s shipbuilding industry.

A joint military exercise looks like a natural extension of the political rapprochement of the countries involved

Being one of the leaders in artificial intelligence technology, China has vowed to build an “intelligent military” and the road map of the PLA, as laid out in the report of the 19th party congress, is clear – to become mechanised by 2020, modernised by 2035 and world-class by 2050.

China and Russia did not just reap military rewards from Vostok 2018. If Carl von Clausewitz is right in saying that “war is but the continuation of politics by different means”, then a joint military exercise looks like a natural extension of the political rapprochement of the countries involved.

The fact that Russia invited China – and Mongolia – to attend its largest exercise clearly indicates that Moscow views Beijing positively as a political partner in the international arena and vice versa.

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In fact, at the time of the exercise, Chinese President Xi Jinping was attending the fourth Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The warming of ties between China and Russia is in part a response to the pressure they both face from the West, albeit to varying degrees and for different reasons, and in part because of their similar views on the international order.

If Vostok 2018 worries the West, it should also provide a moment for soul-searching as to why China and Russia are getting ever closer

These views are best reflected in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which has Chinese and Russian as the official languages. The alliance stresses the “Shanghai spirit” of mutual trust, mutual benefits and consultation.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation took the courageous step of including both India and Pakistan, which are often at loggerheads. Unlike Nato, it looks inward to address internal threats such as terrorism, extremism and fundamentalism, rather than looking outward for enemies.

Around the world, Western triumphalism over its “liberal international order” is receding. Beijing maintains, and Moscow concurs, that their joint military exercises are not directed against third parties, and that China and Russia are partners rather than allies.

Does this comes as a relief to the West, whose worst nightmare is a China-Russia alliance? If Vostok 2018 worries the West, it should also provide a moment for soul-searching as to why China and Russia are getting ever closer.

Zhou Bo is an honorary fellow at the PLA Academy of Military Science in China