A joint Chinese-Russian military exercise is underway in the Russian Far East, the first between the two countries. 10,000 personnel are involved in an operation that is said to be one of humanitarian assistance:
[T]he scenario for these exercises – aid to a state suffering political violence – isn’t aimed against any specific country.
However, the way in which Russia and China envisage providing this assistance is seen by many as somewhat provocative, to say the least:
Marines will storm beaches, to be joined by paratroopers in a mock invasion of an imaginary country.
So, is it provocative? Well, let’s take a charitable look at the operation first.
Several humanitarian assistance operations have required robust military action in recent years, including on occasion actually landing marines on a beach (remember the fanfare as US marines stormed ashore in Somalia in the 1990s?) or potentially invading a country (a huge amount of planning was put in place for a potential invasion of Yugoslavia to protect Kosovo, for example).
And Russia and China both have on their doorsteps a number of basket-case countries that could potentially require a robust intervention. The most obvious candidate is North Korea which, if it collapses dramatically, may require a speedy response to secure a number of key military and nuclear sites – not to mention the rapid response that would be required to prevent a humanitarian disaster if refugees attempt to flee across the Chinese and Russian borders. It’s fair to say that, if Russia and/or China needed to launch a military mission into North Korea, it would likely involve operations by both marines and paratroopers.
Central Asia is also a cause for concern to both Russia and China. A civil war in Tajikistan in the early 1990s killed more than 50,000 and Russian peacekeepers intervened in response, setting a precedent for Russian-led peacekeeping missions in the region. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan all look relatively unstable at the moment, and given the perceived strength of Islamic extremism in the area, an interventionist response is likely to be strongly considered in the event of any conflict. It’s unlikely that Russian or Chinese troops would be welcomed with open arms by all sections of the population (exactly as the US/NATO operation wasn’t warmly welcomed by all in Afghanistan), and any operation there would need to be prepared for a fight.
So, on the surface at least, there is a clear humanitarian justification for the wargames, and we shouldn’t discount it entirely. It is certainly at least a part of the motivation of both China and Russia.
But the wargames begin to take on an entirely different, more threatening meaning when you consider that just across the sea from China is Taiwan, when you consider the menacing noises that the Chinese government and military have been making recently, and when you consider that an invasion is thought to be the most likely way that China could repossess its errant territory.
China holds similar exercises on its own fairly regularly, so an exercise of this type isn’t that much out of the ordinary for the Chinese military. It becomes a different matter, though, because Russia is involved. The Chinese military in particular will be hoping to get a number of tactical ideas from their Russian counterparts that they can use to enhance their chances of successfully invading Taiwan. They’ll also be keeping a close eye on Russia’s military hardware, to see how it performs in comparison to their own. They’ll be noting any deficiences and then deciding whether to further develop their own hardware, or to buy off the shelf from Russia.
For Russia, the military benefits are relatively small. They will, of course, gain from co-operation with Chinese troops, and will surely pick up a few tactical ideas. But, let’s face it, Russia doesn’t have any particular plans to send its marines storming up a beach in the near future. For Russia, the key practical objective here will be to promote its military hardware, with a view to increasing sales to one of its biggest customers. Chinese observers are very unlikely to see a horde of Russian conscripts running around – instead they’ll see some of Russia’s best trained servicemen operating some of their latest high-tech weaponry.
Geopolitical considerations are also important to this exercise, although less important than the practical Russian and Chinese aims that I’ve outlined above. The two countries have an increasingly close, although still edgy relationship. Any kind of operation like this allows them to develop a closer working relationship and, more importantly, gives an outward show of co-operation to the rest of the world. This show is particularly directed at the United States. From China’s perspective, they will want to give the impression that, should they invade Taiwan, they have at least one major ally. Additionally, both countries will want to demonstrate that they are able to provide at least some kind of counterbalance to American dominance in the world, and that together they provide at least one of the poles of a multi-polar world.
So, what do we have? A complex military exercise with multi-layered objectives, and a large number of justifications. China will benefit more from the exercise than Russia and is, I think, rapidly becoming the senior partner in this relationship – although just how long Russia will be content to remain a junior partner is less sure. There are plenty of internal tensions which will probably pull their relationship apart over time but, right now, we have a hybrid dragon-bear forcefully telling the world at large that it is a major player.
TBH, I think the last thing Russia needs is an armed and capable China on its doorstep. Once the Russian nuclear fleet has rusted its way into inoperability, the Russians could well wake up one morning and find most of Eastern Russia is no longer theirs.