The week-long exercise between the Chinese and Russian armies in northwestern China shows they are pushing for Nato -level interoperability – opening up the possibility for joint military campaigns to counter their common rival the US, military observers said. The 10,000 troops, from the PLA’s Western Theatre Command and the Eastern Military District of Russia, wrapped up the Zapad/Interaction-2021 exercises in Ningxia region on Friday. The drills gave the PLA an opportunity to test its newest weapons, as well as showing an ability to work coherently with the Russian forces. For the first time, the two militaries used a joint command and control system. The Russian troops were integrated into larger Chinese formations and carried out operations planned by the PLA, according to a statement by China’s defence ministry on Wednesday. It was also the first time Russian troops used armoured assault vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) and other main battle equipment provided by the Chinese military, a common practice in Nato exercises. The exercise was the first joint military operation hosted by China since the advent of the pandemic and has drawn attention over its implications for the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. But observers say the two militaries have an ultimate target in mind – the United States. While relations between Beijing and Moscow were often described as a political marriage of convenience, for Artyom Lukin, an associate professor at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, “it is getting clear that Russia-China military drills are not just symbolic shows of camaraderie, but are increasingly aimed at enhancing battlefield interoperability”. Since their first joint drill in 2005, the Chinese and Russian militaries have sought to increase the frequency, scope and complexity of their exercises, but have yet to demonstrate the ability to conduct a major joint operation. Vasily Kashin, a military and China specialist at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, said sharing of weapons and equipment contributed to a better understanding of each other’s capabilities and was standard Nato practice. “The current exercises, starting from Vostok-2018 joint strategic exercise, are more aimed at fighting a high intensity war against a major power,” he said. “The level of trust appears to be very high. Currently the level of access which the Russians give to the Chinese appears to be similar or higher than that given to the closest allies among the former Soviet countries like Belarus and Kazakhstan.” Retired PLA colonel and military commentator Yue Gang said China had never given this level of access before to a foreign military. “China’s treaty with North Korea is only on paper and the exercises we had with Pakistan were much smaller in scale,” Yue said. “China and Russia have to stick together when facing the United States. We are not allies but as good as allies with our collective capabilities.” The Chinese military, which has not taken part in any real armed conflicts since the 1980s, has long sought to absorb experience from its Russian counterpart. “Russia’s battlefield experience in Syria, Crimea and Chechnya is very valuable to us, in particular on how they have adjusted their military strategy across time,” Yue said. Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that Su-30SM fighters and motorised rifle units took part in the exercise which included strikes with Chinese troops against conventional ground targets with high-explosive fragmentation bombs. The joint forces also rehearsed avoiding enemy air defence systems, it said. In a show of the high level political commitment to the exercises, Russian defence minister Sergey Shoigu flew to China to preside over Friday’s closing ceremony with his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe. The Chief of the Central Military Commission’s Joint Staff Department General Li Zuocheng attended the launch ceremony on Monday and acted as the chief conductor of the exercises. Moscow and Beijing have long maintained their ambiguity about the possibility of forming an alliance or conducting joint operations. But experts said this week’s exercise was forcing Washington to consider the worst case scenario of having to fight both China and Russia in the event of a regional conflict. “Since Russia is present in both Europe and Northeast Asia and can manoeuvre its forces between the two theatres on its own territory, the credible possibility of facing both Russia and China at the same time will at some point make it impossible for the US to contain China militarily,” Kashin said.