Russia's President Vladimir Putin (center) reviews a military honor guard with Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 8, 2018. Photo: AFP / Greg Baker
Russian President Vladimir Putin reviews a military honor guard with Chinese President Xi Jinping outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 8, 2018. Photo: AFP / Greg Baker

Like most high-ranking military officers, Air Force General Xu Qiliang is direct and to the point. The vice-chairman of China’s powerful Central Military Commission rarely uses six words when one will do.

Indeed, ‘blunt’ could be his middle name.

Yet Xu left no-one in doubt about the depth and breadth of “Sino-Russian relations” at a high-level meeting with Moscow’s Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu in Beijing earlier this year.

“China will continue to strengthen military-to-military relations with Russia to address new security challenges in the world,” he said without mentioning the United States or its NATO and Asian allies.

“Relations are now at an all-time high, characterized by deepening strategic mutual trust and expanding cooperation,” Xu told the government-owned website China Military Online.

Next week, this blossoming alliance will come together for the Vostok 2018 ‘war games,’ which start on the same day as the Eastern Economic Forum in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok.

Military might

In the biggest show of Russian military might since the days of the Cold War and the old Soviet Union, more than 300,000 mainly Russian troops, with a contingent of 3,200 personnel from China, will take part in the five-day “exercise,” which begins on Sept. 11.

The scale of the operation will dwarf the Zapad 2017 military drills which were held in the western regions of Russia and involved 13,000 members of the armed forces.

Included in the military maneuvers will be two Russian naval fleets in the Sea of Japan, or East Sea, as well as 1,000 military aircraft.

“The two militaries will hold joint exercises at the Tsugol training range in Russia’s far eastern Trans-Baikal region from Sept. 11 to 15,” Colonel Wu Qian, a spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense, told China Daily last week. “Thirty fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters have [already] entered Russia to take part in the exercise.

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“The Chinese contingent will primarily practice mechanized defense, fire strikes, counterattacks and other training,” he added.

While the forces sent by President Xi Jinping’s administration are largely symbolic, they illustrate the military bond which has developed between the two armed forces.

In the months ahead, it will continue to strengthen with Wu confirming in the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, that Moscow and Beijing are in “close communication” regarding the Joint Sea-2018 naval exercises, which are scheduled for later this year in the Yellow Sea off the coastal city of Qingdao.

“China and the Soviet Union had a defense pact during the Cold War and it brought a lot of unnecessary pressure to China,” Feng Shaolei, the director of Russian studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai, said.

‘Security relations’

“China is now upholding a new form of security relations based on mutual benefits, respect and cooperation.”

Still, Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, a think tank in Washington, has come up with a different scenario in an essay entitled, Russia’s Vostok-2018: a rehearsal for global war?

He pointed out that Washington’s close allies in the region, such as Japan and Australia, should be concerned about these developments.

“This exercise graphically demonstrates the growing intimacy between Moscow and Beijing,” Blank wrote on The Interpreter website, which is part of the influential Lowy Institute in Australia.

“Vostok-2018 suggests that Tokyo must rethink its government’s entire Russian policy that increasingly appears to have been based on wishful thinking and illusions,” he added. “And beyond Japan, all of Asia has to take this likely alliance into consideration as a factor in their (and possibly Australia’s) defense planning.”

Succinct and blunt … just like General Xu.

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