Last week, China and Russia began their first ever joint military exercises. The drills have some armchair strategists warning of a new entente between Beijing and Moscow that could pose a threat to the existing regional security order. The truth about the exercises is considerably less exciting. For all their historical significance, they are a signal to various governments not to ignore China or Russia in their calculations. For Moscow, the exercises are marketing tools for weapons sales to China. But Beijing and Moscow remain wary of each other, and fears of a new axis of global, or even regional, power are overblown.
The weeklong Peace Mission 2005 exercises involve 10,000 troops (more than 80 percent of which are Chinese) and some impressive high-tech equipment. The drills, divided into three parts, focus on counterterrorism, the scenario for which is ethnic conflict in an unnamed third country that appeals to its neighbors and the United Nations for help. They include offshore blockades, amphibious landings, evacuations, live-fire exercises and joint command components.
Xinhua news agency said Peace Mission “aims to improve the capabilities of the Chinese and Russian armies in combating new threats, dealing with crises and organizing coordinated actions in the backdrop of the fight against terrorism, separatism and extremism.”
The exercises were organized under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the six-nation security group designed to help stabilize the Central Asian republics (and maximize Chinese and Russian interests in the region). Peace Mission follows previous SCO counterterrorism exercises. Other member governments are observing these drills. To the extent that they, too, having been troubled by ethnic conflict in recent years, will likely be reassured by the demonstration of available military capabilities — except perhaps those displayed during the naval portion of the exercises, since the nations are landlocked.
Beijing is not interested in sending Central Asian troublemakers a message about China’s naval prowess. The recipient of that message is the government of Taipei. China had originally wanted to hold the drill in Zhejiang province, opposite Taiwan. Russian officials felt that was too provocative, so the two governments compromised by moving the drill further north to Shandong province and insisting at every opportunity that the drill was not aimed at impressing any third party.
That is not exactly true. Beijing wants the Taipei government to understand that it has the capability to respond if Taiwan takes the fateful step of declaring independence. Other countries in the region are being signaled as well. Both Beijing and Moscow are reminding all Asia-Pacific nations that they are still formidable military powers and that they have interests to protect during crises — and that their governments will protect them. Japan, with which both nations have territorial disputes, is among the intended recipients of that message.
For Russia, Peace Mission is one of a series of drills that have mobilized the Russian military across the country and reasserted the centrality of the military establishment in the modern Russian state. Under President Vladimir Putin, who views the security forces as the backbone of his administration, the defense budget has more than doubled. As one Russian daily newspaper opined, “Never before has Russia held so many exercises at a time, in locations so far apart.”
Nevertheless, experts question whether this massive machine is capable of responding to 21st-century threats. The regular disasters visited upon the military — a near-tragedy involving a mini-submarine was averted earlier this month — suggest that skepticism may be in order.
While the Russian military may be hobbled, its equipment is still first rate. Although China purchases about $2 billion in military equipment from Russia each year, it complains that Russian industries withhold the newest technologies. Peace Mission is showcasing the fighters, bombers and other power-projection technologies that Beijing wants to buy.
Beijing and Moscow have worked assiduously for several years to iron out the wrinkles in their relationship: They have settled border disputes, cooperated on energy and other important economic projects, and gone out of their way to show that each is highly regarded as a partner. But suspicions persist and each government knows that it has more important partners to cultivate: Beijing eyes Washington, and Moscow courts both Europe and the United States.
Peace Mission is a reminder of what the two countries’ militaries can do when they have to, but it is plain that their hearts — and their strategic interests — lie elsewhere.
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