When Chinese President Xi Jinping meets Russian President Vladimir Putin at this week’s G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, they can express their mutual satisfaction with their countries’ strong bilateral defense relationship. After several years of declining sales, China’s purchases of Russian weapons have experienced a remarkable resurgence and now compare with their peak levels of the 1990s. The two governments have reaffirmed their solidarity regarding Syria, Afghanistan, and U.S. missile defenses. China-Russia economic relations continue to improve, with China’s emerging as Russia’s most important foreign trading partner, a status that will likely continue and perhaps even deepen if the two countries consummate their long-discussed natural gas sales deal.
One core element of the China-Russia relationship is their growing joint military exercise program. Whereas during the Cold War, Chinese and Russian troops confronted each other across a lengthy militarized border, they now regularly join together on various bilateral and multilateral military exercises. Some of these drills occur within a multilateral framework, whereas others, such as the two held this year, are predominately bilateral exercises to which foreign observers are invited. China has become more eager in recent years to pursue defence diplomacy with the United States and other countries, but Russia remains its main foreign arms supplier and defence exercise partner of choice.
In early July, China and Russia held their second bilateral naval exercise, “’Joint Sea-2013.” This eight-day naval drill in the Sea of Japan comprised 18 surface vessels, including four guided missile destroyers, a submarine, two missile frigates, a supply vessel and three helicopters. The PLA Navy contingent was the largest ever sent on a joint maritime exercise. The drills involved a total of 4,000 military personnel, including Special Force units from both countries. The July 2013 maritime maneuvers exceeded the scale of the April 2012 Russia-China naval exercise in the Yellow Sea.
From July 27 to August 15, China and Russia held their largest joint ground force exercise this year at Chebarkul, Russia. The Chinese military told the media that the drill, Peace Mission 2013, simulated a campaign-level operation involving more than 25,000 soldiers. As only 1,500 soldiers were physically present, the remaining personnel were “virtual solders,” which worked fine for the deployment and planning phases, which involved computer simulations as well as joint staff meetings.
In the live-fire drills on August 15, Chinese and Russian elite troops operated in mixed formations. According to the PLA, both sides no longer followed their former tradition of depending solely on their respective national command systems and executing the planned flow of events with little bilateral interactions. Instead, they now worked side by side with each other, coordinated activities in a real-time manner, and delivering orders bilingually. In his view, these integration improvements transformed their previous parallel planning into veritable “joint planning.”
One interesting issue is why these exercises were explicitly described as bilateral drills and not, as often in the past, characterized as occurring under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The fact that this year’s Russia-China exercises occurred outside the SCO framework provides further evidence that Beijing and Moscow do not see the SCO as a NATO-like regional security organization. The SCO has made no recent effort to develop an integrated military structure, standing collective military units, or the other elements seen in a strong, NATO-like collective defense alliance.
It is not evident that Washington welcomes this development. US policy makers have ceased seeing the SCO as a military threat and are hoping that China, Russia, and their Central Asian partners will pick up some of the security slack that will arise after NATO withdraws most of its combat troops from Afghanistan byte end of next year. But the SCO has been moving away from earlier suggestions that the organization develop some kind of military component, perhaps based on the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. Instead, the SCO has focused on simple counterterrorist, law enforcement, and internal security functions as well as promoting economic and social cooperation among its members.
More generally, the China-Russia exercises have not presented a military threat to the United States or its allies. These drills are considerably less extensive than those that the United States conducts with its treaty allies such as NATO and Japan. (China and Russia do not have a formal military alliance.) China and Russia could at best adopt a joint but not combined military exercise, with their units operating in different sectors in, for example, a joint operation to suppress renewed rioting in Kyrgyzstan.
Meanwhile, their militaries have been engaging in much larger exercises without foreign partners. Just this summer, the Russian military conducted its largest national exercise in history, in the Russian Far East near the Russia-China border, in what some Russian analysts termed a warning to China not to even consider threatening Russia militarily—which Beijing has no intention of doing anytime soon. In addition to enhancing their tactical interoperability for modest security missions, one unstated function of their exercises is to promote mutual confidence building by reassuring each other about their peaceful intentions toward one another—the same reason the United States conducts joint exercises with China.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.