There was much reporting in the international media of the China-Russian war games last week. Here in China, the games received blanket coverage and headlined the official state television news bulletins round the clock. The question is: why the fuss? After all, a mere 10,000 troops (8,200 from China and 1,800 from Russia) simply went through a week of co-ordinated air, sea and land exercises, including amphibious and parachute landings. Hardly groundbreaking stuff, and as Donald Rumsfield said, “Countries do that.”
YaleGlobal offered an interesting analysis:
Russia and China launched their first joint military exercise yesterday in a show of force calculated to dissuade the US from presuming a dominant role in global security.
While analysts say the exercises are mainly an excuse for Russia to showcase aircraft to its biggest military hardware client, the two countries are keen to erode Washington’s image as a world policeman.
Moscow and Beijing’s interests converge in central Asia, where both hope to quell Islamic extremism, preserve trade interests and stifle US attempts to dominate the region.
“It’s an attempt to remind the US that a different truth exists which can also be enforced by military might,” said Ivan Safranchuk of the Center for Defense Information.
Officially, Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan said the exercises were to “Improve capabilities to meet new challenges and threats and to fight international terrorism, extremism and separatism”. While Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Ivanov, said “Only when we are closely united can we meet new challenges and threats,” and argued that the friendship of China’s and Russia’s armed forces would become a major guarantee for peace in the Asia-Pacific region and the world as a whole. The eight-day exercise was based on a scenario in which the two countries, acting under U.N. authority, aim to stabilize a country in the midst of ethnic strife.
It was significant that the Russian soldiers used in the airbourne assault were a reinforced company from the 76th Division, battle-hardened elite fighters and veterans of the Chechnya War. It was also touted as an opportunity for China to see Russia’s elite divisions in action and learn from them.
Ties between Beijing and Moscow have grown closer in recent years around points of common ground that include concern about instability in Central Asia. Both countries want to keep political turmoil in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan from spilling over their borders and to check the U.S. presence in the region.
China has also been looking to Russia for energy resources to feed its booming economy, while Moscow is keen to boost sales to Beijing of military hardware like the advanced bombers and fighter jets showcased during the war games. Many analysts believe Russia is using the drill to showcase weaponry it hopes to sell to China, in particular Tu-22M3 “Backfire” strategic bombers. The maneuvers saw the deployment of Beriev/Ilyushin A-50 early warning aircraft from the Russian military.
Earlier this week, Ivanov said the Tu-22M3 and Tu-95 “Bear” strategic bombers taking part in the drill would carry non-nuclear cruise missiles only. Other sophisticated Russian equipment being used includes an A-50 reconnaissance plane, which Ivanov said would be able to monitor any aircraft within 2,000 kilometers from the centre of the exercise. Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta claimed China was potentially interested in procuring up to 40 of the Tu-22M3 “Backfire” strategic bombers, which would have the capacity to threaten U.S. aircraft carriers in the Pacific with nuclear weapons.
Some observers see this as significant as China is reported to have sought to buy this aircraft from Russia after a planned purchase of a similar Israeli plane failed to materialize, reportedly over US objections.
The China state-run People’s Daily said on Friday the two countries would increase military trade to a volume of $60-$80 billion by 2010. China would also pour $12 billion of investment into Russia’s energy sector and infrastructure construction before 2020.
Russian media have said China paid for the entire exercise, reflecting the high value attached to it by Beijing. However, this contradicts statements from Deputy Army Commander Vladimir Moltensky who said the joint military exercise cost it some US$5.5 million.
Russian newspaper Kommersant also cited the fact that Russia has supplied 85% of Chinese arms imports since the early 90s and pointed out that if the EU embargo were lifted, Russia would receive serious competitors in the arms market. “For that reason, the maneuvers should persuade the Chinese that the Russian arms are the most reliable and the cheapest in the world and they should keep using them.”
The liberal daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta suggested that China and Russia were practicing a scenario for “World War III,” calling the exercise an unprecedented anti-American military demonstration. Izvestia, a respected daily, suggested that China and Russia could be practicing a mission to invade North Korea, should Kim Jong-il’s leadership collapse.
Japanese minister, and right-wing hawk, Shoichi Nakagawa offered his own opinions of the exercises:
Joint military exercises on China’s Shandong Peninsula mark the start of a strategic initiative in which Russia would support Beijing’s suppression of any move by Taiwan towards independence, a Japanese minister has suggested.
Economics, Trade and Industry Minister Shoichi Nakagawa noted that the unprecedented Sino-Russian war games, which ended on Thursday, were directed at curbing terrorism and separatism, “which obviously means they have Taiwan in mind, as well”.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.