This month, Russia will hold its largest war games since the Cold War. While the size and scope of the exercises have attracted international attention, so too has the participation of the People’s Liberation Army of China. Officially, the PLA’s inclusion is intended to allay suspicions in China that the games are aimed at it. At the same time, however, the two governments are signaling to the world that they are promoting deeper, more comprehensive military and security cooperation. This trend must be observed, but it is too early to be concerned.
Russia will carry out the Vostok-2018 exercises from Sept. 11 to 15 at its Tsugol training range in the Trans-Baikal region. The games will include nearly 300,000 troops and 1,000 aircraft from the Eastern and Central military districts, the Northern Fleet, airborne troops, long-range and military transport aircraft, and command centers.
Members of the Chinese and Mongolian armed forces will also participate. The PLA will send an estimated 3,200 troops — reportedly elite forces from the Northern Theater Command — as well as more than 900 pieces of weaponry along with 30 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. The PLA contingent, the largest military delegation to ever join a foreign military exercise, will primarily practice mechanized defense, fire strikes, counterattacks and other training.
The war games serve several purposes. For Russia, they are a way to remind the West that its military is still a force to be reckoned with. President Vladimir Putin has made military modernization a priority of his government and is eager to show off the results of those efforts. A Kremlin spokesperson justified the exercises, the largest since 1981, by noting “aggressive and unfriendly” attitudes toward Russia. It is worth noting, too, that they are being held in the Russian Far East, which makes them appear less threatening and reduces the prospect of any miscalculation or accident as a result of Western surveillance.
For China, the exercises are a way for the PLA, one of the few major militaries in the world with no combat experience, to learn about modern fighting. The PLA fought its last major battles in 1979 against Vietnam. It wants to study insights the Russians have gained from fighting in Syria and Chechnya. Participation of the PLA contingent is also a way for Beijing to show its support for Putin and the tightening of ties between the two countries.
China and Russia have been consolidating a comprehensive security partnership for years. Their top leadership meets frequently and the two security communities work together in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. While they share many security concerns, the two countries have forged a strong bilateral relationship that is based on a shared antipathy toward the U.S.-led international order. During Gen. Wei Fenghe’s April visit to Moscow, the first since he was appointed minister of defense, Wei said that he wanted “to show the world the high level of development of our bilateral relations, and firm determination of our armed forces to strengthen strategic cooperation.” The visit was intended to “let the Americans know about the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia.”
Japan must pay close attention to these developments. A pillar of Japanese strategic thinking is giving Russia diplomatic options precisely to prevent the consolidation of the Beijing-Moscow axis. Tokyo also seeks a settlement of the dispute over the islands off Hokkaido seized by Moscow in the closing days of World War II, but Japanese efforts have been frustrated; in fact, in recent years Russia has tightened its grip over the islands. Earlier this year, Moscow has deployed missile-defense systems and more modern aircraft to the islands. In June, it held missile-firing drills on one as well and construction has begun on a naval facility on another island, at the site of an old Japanese base. Russian military aircraft are increasingly evident on Japan’s periphery, prompting 390 scrambles by Air Self-Defense Force jets, a more than fourfold increase from the previous year.
More troubling is Russia’s renewed willingness to sell China some of its most advanced weapons systems. It will deliver 10 Russian Su-35 multirole fighters to China by the end of this year, and a Chinese military spokesperson noted that “relevant work regarding Sino-Russian cooperation in military technology is going according to plan.” Moscow had suspended those sales because China would buy one item and then reverse-engineer its own supplies. Now, however, Chinese complaints and the desire to strengthen their bilateral relationship have encouraged Russia to reverse course again.
There are limits, however. Both governments seek a closer partnership and are working to deepen and broaden cooperation, but their relationship is by no means an actual alliance. There are deep-rooted suspicions of the other in both countries and conflicts in national interest that are currently obscured by their shared desire to undermine the United States. As Japan and its partners watch this partnership evolve, they must not forget these long-term considerations.