Developments in Afghanistan are likely to spur even greater security cooperation between China and Russia. Though Beijing and Moscow are trying to engage with the Taliban, they naturally fear that the victory of one Islamic militant group in Eurasia could encourage further extremist movements in their neighborhood. Their defense ties have surged already in recent years, with additional defense sales and prominent military exercises despite the COVID pandemic. In addition to Afghanistan, mutual concerns about the United States have been driving their deepening defense connections. Yet, China’s absence from the current major Zapad drills in Europe shows that Beijing still circumscribes Sino-Russian joint security activities that could arouse heightened Western anxiety.
In June, Beijing and Moscow renewed their 20-year Sino-Russian Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, which provides for enhanced security cooperation. To celebrate, Xi and Putin issued a joint declaration affirming that their “new type” of partnership was "based on equality, deep mutual trust, commitment to international law, support in defending each other's core interests, the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity." The statement pointedly argued that “While not being a military and political alliance, such as those formed during the Cold War, the Russian-Chinese relations exceed this form of interstate interaction” because "they are not opportunistic, are free of ideologization, involve comprehensive consideration of the partner's interests and non-interference in each other's internal affairs, they are self-sufficient and not directed against third countries.”
Marking the anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army on August 1, 2021, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin observed that Sino-Russian defense ties are “characterized by a high development dynamic” and “consistent expansion of interaction spheres and more intensive contacts.” In mid-August, China and Russia conducted their first strategic-level exercise on PRC territory, “Sibu/Interaction 2021.” The drills took place at the Qingtongxia Combined Arms Tactical Training Base in northwest China’s Gobi Desert. In a press conference reviewing the results, Tan Kefei, spokesperson for the PLA Ministry of National Defense, said that the exercise “has charted the course for a new high-point in bilateral relations.” Alluding to Afghanistan, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, a spokesperson for China's Ministry of National Defense, stated that the exercise’s purpose was to “display the determination and ability of both sides to combat terrorist forces and maintain regional peace and security.”
Despite their lack of a formal mutual defense alliance, China and Russia’s strong military partnership was a recurring and prominent theme in the Chinese media coverage of the drills and other joint military activities. Tan told the media that, in the future, Beijing and Moscow would “continue exploring new models of international military cooperation, so as to add new dimensions to the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era.” This phrase is chosen deliberately to describe a close partnership that is not technically an alliance.
The PRC media stated that all these developments “displayed a high-level of cooperation and mutual trust between the Chinese and Russian militaries.” Retired PLA colonel and military commentator Yue Gang said that, “We are not allies but as good as allies with our collective capabilities.” Zhang Xin, an associate professor at Shanghai's East China Normal University, maintained that, "This kind of exercise shows a move towards a closed but flexible collaboration between two militaries without entering into a full-scale alliance." Another PRC commentator, noting that some of the Russian forces used Chinese weapons during the drills and formed joint task forces during the exercises, observed, that” China and Russia…are not allies, but their relations weigh more than allies…as long as two countries fully understand and communicate with each other and trust each other's strategic intentions, they can build a solid partnership and they don't need an alliance treaty and form cliques by making common enemies.”
As usual, the Chinese and Russian governments denied that their exercise threatened other countries. PRC Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe claimed that, “These drills are not aimed against third countries and are focused on raising the capability to jointly respond to risks and challenges.” Yet, the anti-American statements by experts cited in the Chinese media were more overt than usual. PRC analysts told the South China Morning Post that the “exercise was forcing Washington to consider the worst case scenario of having to fight both China and Russia in the event of a regional conflict.” Yue affirmed that, “China and Russia have to stick together when facing the United States.” Ye Hailin, deputy director-general at the National Institute of International Strategy of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, maintained that, “If certain countries conceive a new iron curtain from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the Indian Ocean, the sound of artillery from Qingtongxia is the best answer to such plots.” PRC military commentator Song Zhongping related to Global Times that, “By enhancing strategic cooperation, China and Russia can be the terminator of the US hegemony.”
Interestingly, China is prudently not sending troops to the current annual strategic command and staff exercises in western Russia. These Zapad (“West”) drills, which began on September 10, are taking place in Russia’s East Central European territories as well as Belarus, adjoining NATO countries, as well as European security hotspots like Ukraine. Moscow rotates these annual strategic exercises among its four military districts. When the last Zapad occurred in 2017, NATO leaders feared the drills could be a rehearsal, or even a prelude, to an attack on Ukraine or the Baltic states. Conversely, the PLA prominently participated in the subsequent Vostok (East) 2018, Tsentr (Center) 2019 and Kavkaz (Caucasus) 2020 maneuvers. Sending PLA forces into Belarus and other countries near NATO at the present time would have aided the already growing Western alarm about China’s global military power.