Russia’s annual military exercises occur within a four year rotation, with each year within that cycle devoted to a particular facet of Russian military operations. Last year, they held their massive Zapad (meaning “West”) drills in Belarus, prompting concerns from NATO allies in the Baltics. This year, their Vostok exercises (this time, meaning “East”) took place on the nation’s other flank and for the first time included the presence of Chinese troops in a bid for increasing the interoperability of the two military forces.
The presence of a relatively small contingent of around 3,500 Chinese soldiers served as a red flag for many defense analysts that rightly see the Chinese inclusion as a sign of strengthening ties between America’s two primarily military and diplomatic opponents. China, who represents the more formidable threat, also gained important tactical experience in these drills — because despite having the largest military force on the planet in terms of uniformed soldiers, China’s troops are woefully inexperienced by comparison to Russian or American troops, who have been conducting combat operations in the Middle East for years.
However, despite the concerns of Western analysts as they watch Sino-Russian ties further develop, it would seem even China is maintaining a cautious eye on Vladimir Putin’s military presence in the Pacific. While Chinese troops trained alongside Russians on land, the naval portion of the massive Vostok drills involved only Russian vessels… that is, except for a single Chinese flagged intelligence gathering ship that tailed the Russians from a distance throughout.
The People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) is perhaps the most rapidly developing facet of the Chinese armed forces, so it comes as a bit of a surprise that they were either not invited or opted not to participate in the naval portion of the drills, but the presence of a Dongdiao-class auxiliary general intelligence (AGI) vessel (that was reportedly not invited) suggests that China still sees Russia as a potential threat, or at least, not as an ally.
The Chinese Navy also sent a similar spy ship to monitor the recent U.S. led RimPac or Rim of the Pacific exercises. In both instances, the Chinese navy did not violate the law, as the exercises are often conducted in open international waters where no national navy has the right to demand their departure. However, China’s decision to monitor the Russian navy in the same manner as the American one could be seen as a rebuke of concerns that the economic pressure America is placing on both nations through alternate channels may be pushing them closer and closer toward an alliance based on their mutual distaste for the globe’s only remaining super power.
Despite their willingness to participate in the drills, and even Chinese claims that the training helped to “battle harden” their troops, even China’s official rhetoric seems to seek maintaining a comfortable distance from Russia in the lens of global attention.
“China and Russia are not allies, and they are firm in not forging an alliance,” China’s state-owned Global Times said during the Vostok drills. “But the outside world shouldn’t make China and Russia feel an urgent need to strengthen their military cooperation.”
China’s narrative management efforts are managed very differently than Russia’s. Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy seeks to simultaneously sow discord in competitor states while overstating their military capabilities in a manner that keeps them in consideration as a legitimate threat, despite the nation’s weak economy. China, on the other hand, leverages its powerful economy to manage perceptions more indirectly — using money to purchase influence within foreign states, as demonstrated by America’s shifting movie industry placing a larger emphasis on Chinese markets (and in turn, showing China in a positive light). It seems likely that even if China seeks a military alliance with Russia, they’ll need to do so carefully, in order to protect their carefully cultivated image of a stable and reasonable diplomatic power for the 21st Century.