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PLA troops take part in Russia’s massive war games in eastern Siberia in September. Photo: AP

China to join Russia in war games as Beijing’s ties to Washington unravel

  • PLA among forces from eight nations to take part in six-day military exercise next month

China will join Russia and six other countries in a six-day military exercise involving about 128,000 service personnel next month, a sign of closer bilateral ties as Beijing and Washington become increasingly estranged.

The People’s Liberation Army is one of seven forces invited to join “Tsentr – 2019” (Centre-2019), a series of war games on September 16-21, the Russian defence ministry said on Tuesday.

The exercises will take place in two phases at eight ranges across Russia and the Caspian Sea, and involve 600 aircraft, as many as 15 warships, 250 tanks and 20,000 pieces of military equipment.

The first phase will include anti-terrorist drills, counter air strike operations and reconnaissance, and the second will focus on troop management and simulated combat.

The war games – which will also include Pakistan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – will take place a year after Russia hosted Chinese forces for Vostok 2018 in eastern Siberia near the Chinese border, where 300,000 personnel took part in the largest military drill in Russian history.

China and Russia have been working to strengthen ties in recent years, particularly since 2014 when Moscow’s already deteriorating relationship with the West worsened with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which led to heavy economic sanctions.

Since then, Russian President Vladimir Putin has looked to Asia – and China in particular – to counter the effect of Western pressure on his country’s economy.

Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre foreign policy think tank, said the exercises were part of a pattern of increasing China-Russia cooperation that sent a message to the United States.

“The drills reflect a much broader, longer-term [trend towards] the two largest Eurasian countries accommodating each other’s interests and forming a meaningful security partnership in time which was animated by rivalry with the US on both sides,” Gabuev said.

China’s economic and military ties with Russia are strengthening as Beijing’s relations with the US unwind. Photo: AP

“[Centre-2019] has symbolism in it and sends a signal that two militaries are working together to gain interoperability.”

However, Collin Koh, a military analyst from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said that despite closer military links between Beijing and Moscow, the six other nations in the exercise would also determine how far cooperation could go.

Chinese warship being tracked as it heads towards US-Australia war games

“It’s hard to imagine them agreeing to elevate such a multilateral security mechanism into something deeper and more substantial in scope because of varying interests. Some of the central Asian nations are friendly to the West, and want to at least remain neutral and not part of any new alliance,” Koh said.

“Then you have India and Pakistan in the mix, which means cooperation is limited because of [their] strategic and political sensitivities.”

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This will be the fourth Russian Tsentr exercise, with war games also having been held in 2008, 2011 and 2015.

The 2015 exercises involved armed forces from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation – Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, according to Spanish news agency EFE.