Chinese military hardware on its way to Vostok 2018 military exercises at Zabaikalsk unloading station. Photo: AFP/Evgeny Yepanchintsev/Sputnik
Chinese military hardware on its way to Vostok 2018 military exercises at Zabaikalsk unloading station. Photo: AFP/Evgeny Yepanchintsev/Sputnik

There will be thunder in the east on Tuesday as Russia’s massive Vostok 2018 military drills get underway. In addition to soldiers from across the vast spaces of Russia, 3,000 Chinese troops and 30 aircraft are participating, as are Mongolian forces.

The participation of China’s People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, is unprecedented. Given both the geographic location of the drills, and the testy relationship Tokyo has with Beijing, Japanese authorities are monitoring the exercises.

But otherwise, Japanese reactions are low-key – certainly compared with regional provocations such as North Korea rolling out a missile for testing in Japan’s direction, or a Chinese submarine approaching the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands – the chain that Beijing calls the Diaoyus, and claims as its own.

In fact, in the run-up to Vostok 2018, there has been little recognition that the exercises, which reportedly involve more than 300,000 troops, were even taking place. Now Japan’s  political eyes are turned inward.

“The majority of Japanese politicians and bureaucrats do not know the name of Vostok 2018,” said Japanese defense analyst  Jun Kitamura. “They are just interested in the Liberal Democratic Party leadership election between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his long-time rival, Shigeru Ishiba.”

He added that since Vostok 2018 is mostly a ground exercise, albeit with naval components, defense officials and the media are even more likely to overlook it, despite the presence of the PLA contingent.

A Japanese reporter who covers defense matters for a major newspaper echoed this sentiment, saying the lack of media coverage means ordinary citizens also have little interest in Vostok 2018.  Abe, he says, may prefer it this way.

He noted the Abe administration “clearly distinguishes its security policies versus China and Russia.” For example, he cited Japan’s recently published Defense White Paper, which devoted far less attention and used more circumspect language towards Russia than it did with the PRC.

Abe is said to be banking on his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin – who he has met more than 20 times since taking office – to handle Japan-Russia security issues. That relationship will be on display again when Abe, once again, joins Putin’s pet project – the Far Eastern Economic Forum – in Vladivostok on Wednesday.

As importantly, Abe hopes personal ties will help resolve the “Northern Territories” dispute over Russia’s ongoing occupation of islands seized from Japan at the end of World War II. That seems a vain hope – and Abe’s seeming fixation on the Northern Territories, and on Vladimir Putin – like his persistent drive to change Japan’s constitution – often seems dangerously obsessive to outside observers.

But Professor Stephen Nagy of International Christian University in Tokyo suggests Abe, now seeking a third term, is in fact taking a long-term view of Japan’s interests. “Getting the islands back is unlikely for numerous reasons, but Prime Minister Abe is a pragmatist and I see him trying to secure access for Japanese. The long game for Japan is to develop the Far East to strengthen Russia as a partner in balancing China in the future, but also as a source of energy resources for the Japanese economy.”

Japan’s Ministry of Defense analysts also appear unconcerned about PLA involvement in Vostok 2018, pointing out the serious limitations on the ability of Chinese and Russian forces to inter-operate, and the fundamental lack of trust between the two countries. The fact that the exercises are designed – among other things – to remedy exactly these issues seems lost.

Defense analyst Kitamura seconds the notion that defense authorities and Abe’s team are intentionally downplaying Russia’s military threat to Japan – even if wrongly. He suggests the Abe administration also has a particular interest in downplaying Chinese involvement. He points out Abe is keen for President Xi Jinping – who will also be in Vladivostok for the Far Eastern Forum – to visit Tokyo this autumn, and does want any disruptions.

China mends fences with Russia

However, one person’s statesmanship is another’s myopia. “Japanese authorities lacking strategic thinking is not unusual,” Kitamura said.

He views Vostok 2018 as part of an effort by China to “reduce land border conflicts (with Russia) in order to focus on asserting control over the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Western Pacific.” China is also purchasing Su-35 fighters, S-400 SAMs and other hardware from the Russians. So China joining Vostok 2018 is “no surprise.”

At the end of the day, according to Kitamura, Vostok 2018 won’t have any real impact on Japanese defense policy. Excessive dependence on US military might remains the cornerstone of Japan’s defense, he said.

Less pessimistically, a retired Japan Air Self Defense Force general who describes Abe as a “realist” says it’s unclear if Vostok 2018 is a “political demonstration or a practical alliance.” In either event, he asserts that Japanese forces – particularly the Air Self Defense Force – are paying enough attention to Russia and will continue to do so – even though the main thrust of Japan’s defense is on defending the country’s southern islands against China.

A warning from across the Pacific

However, if the Japanese are largely complacent, one American naval expert is ringing the alarm bells.

Former US Navy Pacific Fleet’s Director of Intelligence, retired Captain Jim Fanell, warns that PLA participation deserves far more attention in Tokyo, Washington and the capitals of Europe. For one thing, he notes, it’s a “significant revelation of the state of Sino-Russian ties,” and also of how the PLA has improved.

“The inclusion of the PLA in Russia’s premier national strategic exercise is not only unprecedented, but demonstrates how close Moscow and Beijing’s militaries have come – and the trend line of the interoperability of their two forces,” Fanell said. “This should be of great concern to the Abe administration.

“The conventional wisdom following the first Joint Sea exercise in 2005 indicated the Russian side felt the PLA’s performance was amateur at best,” he added. “Now, after 13 years of combined Sino-Russian exercises from the Sea of Japan to the Mediterranean, as well as a decade-and-a-half of non-stop engagement with the US military, the PLA now has earned the respect of their Russian counterparts.”

And there is yet another reason for America and her allies in Northeast Asia and Western Europe to be worried.

“Because this exercise sends a signal that the Russian Far East military will not be alone in any global conflict (arising from) the North Korea nuclear crisis, and for those in Europe it is becoming increasingly clear that Russian western military forces will not be burdened by concerns about having to support ‘two-front’ operations and can thus (focus) their attention on NATO,” Fanell said.

Would Moscow back Beijing?

Similarly, Putin might reciprocate and back the PRC militarily and politically – as a professional courtesy of sorts – in the event of trouble involving Taiwan, North Korea or even Japan.

Another American intelligence officer points out that Vostok 2018’s significance differs when viewed from short term and long term perspectives of Russia-China relations.

The Chinese and the Russians may not care much for each other at a fundamental level, but are willing to cooperate in the short term where interests align – principally in reducing US influence and power. Long term, things are different.

Beyond the Putin-Xi love-fest there’s a visceral wariness which dates back to Stalin’s maneuvers which led to Mao taking massive casualties in the Korean War, and to the later rivalry between the two powers for leadership of the global communist movement, particularly in East Asia.

Today, even Putin – who is outwardly seeking investment in the Russian Far East – may worry about waking up one day and finding five new Shenzhens inside Russian territory in the under-populated territory.

So it’s not surprising that the Kremlin is hedging its bets against Beijing.

Prime evidence is Russia’s provision to vehemently anti-China Vietnam with Kilo-class submarines and advanced air defense systems. A Russian oil company – Rosneft’s Vietnamese branch – is also drilling under Hanoi’s auspices in the South China Sea, in Chinese-claimed territory.

And Russia sells fighter aircraft to Indonesia and wants to remain a main hardware supplier to India – both countries with testy relations with Beijing.

So is Vostok 2018 significant?  The Americans say “Yes.” The Russians and the Chinese may say, “Yes – for now.”  The Japanese prefer not to think about it.

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