Russia has launched its largest military exercise since the Cold War, with war games that will also involve thousands of Chinese troops in a show of burgeoning military ties between Moscow and Beijing.
Moscow said the Vostok (East) 2018 manoeuvres will span vast expanses of Siberia and the Far East and involve nearly 300,000 Russian troops, more than 1,000 aircraft, about 36,000 tanks and other military vehicles and 80 warships.
China is sending about 3,200 troops, 900 combat vehicles and 30 aircraft to join the drills at a Siberian firing range, a significant deployment that reflects its shift toward a fully fledged military alliance with Russia. Mongolia has also sent a military contingent.
As the manoeuvres kicked off, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Russia to attend an economic forum in Vladivostok.
President Vladimir Putin treated him to pancakes with caviar and shots of vodka in a show of their warm personal ties.
Moscow and Beijing have forged what they described as a “strategic partnership”, expressing their shared opposition to the “unipolar” world, the term they use to describe perceived US global domination.
Some experts pointed that the US helped spawn closer Russian-Chinese military ties by labelling them strategic competitors.
“They feel they need to embrace to deal with the increasingly high pressure and containment from the US,” said Yue Gang, a military expert and retired Chinese army colonel.
He noted that China feels that the US’s hostile attitude and actions, such as deploying a missile defence system in South Korea, relieve it of any need to take Washington’s views into consideration when deepening strategic trust with Moscow.
“The war games have laid a foundation for China and Russia to enhance co-operation in an international arena and will lift the combat proficiency of both sides,” he said.
China’s media touted the Chinese involvement in the manoeuvres as the country’s largest-ever dispatch of forces abroad for war games.
Some noted that the People’s Liberation Army, which has not fought a war since the attempted invasion of Vietnam in 1979, is keen to learn from Russia’s experience in the Syrian campaign, where it tested its latest weapons and tactics.
From China’s perspective, the emerging military alliance with Russia sends a strong signal to the US and its ally Japan as Beijing moves to defend its interests in the South China Sea, which China claims virtually in its entirety, as well as Taiwan and the Senkaku and Diaoyu islands controlled by Japan but claimed by Beijing.
For Russia, the increasingly robust alliance with China is particularly important amid growing tensions with the US and its allies and a looming threat of more biting US sanctions.
The US and its Nato allies are closely eyeing the exercises for what they reveal about military co-operation between Russia and China and their mounting military might.
“We’re obviously aware of it, we’re watching it closely,” said Army Colonel Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman.
“We’re aware of Russia’s right to sovereignty and to exercise in order to ensure their readiness.”
Nato spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the exercise “fits into a pattern we have seen over some time: a more assertive Russia, significantly increasing its defence budget and its military presence”.
She added: “China has growing military capabilities and is playing an increasingly significant global role. It’s important for Nato to engage with China.”