A massive military shadow will descend on next week’s Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok when Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes China’s Xi Jinping and Japan’s Shinzo Abe.
It will gradually creep over the proceedings before the curtain finally goes up for the opening session at the Far Eastern Federal University on Russky Island.
As the big three and South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon gather along with a host of other dignitaries on Sept. 11, the clock will start ticking on the Vostok 2018 ‘war games.’
Even the initial title for the EEF confab could not be more apt, or chilling, The Far East: Expanding the Range of Possibilities.
Those possibilities will come into sharp focus when more than 300,000 mainly Russian troops, with a contingent of 3,200 personnel from China, take part in a five-day “exercise,” which conveniently begins on Sept. 11.
In scale, it dwarfs the Zapad 2017 military drill in western regions of Russia last year, which involved 13,000 members of the armed forces, and harks back to the Cold War age of the old Soviet Union.
This time, two Russian naval fleets will be involved in the Sea of Japan, or East Sea, as well as 1,000 military aircraft, 900 tanks and drones.
“The main goal of these grand military drills, the most large-scale ones since 1981, is to check the operational readiness of the Russian Armed Forces,” Frants Klintsevich, the first deputy chairman of the Defense and Security Committee of Russia’s Federation Council, told the TASS news agency.
“First and foremost, I mean the unprecedented pressure that the United States is exerting on Russia,” he continued, referring to Washington sanctions, which are crippling the country’s economy.
“It is some kind of a preventive strike on Russia, an attempt to hinder its inevitable rise, its transformation into a leading global power,” he added. “This is [in] addition to NATO moving east in order to surround our country.”
Last week, Dylan White, a spokesman at NATO headquarters in Brussels, confirmed that Russia’s focus during Vostok 2018 would be on “exercising large-scale conflict” and fitted a pattern of a “more assertive Russia” with increased military spending.
Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, a think tank in Washington, echoed those views in an extensive essay on The Interpreter website, which is published by the influential Lowy Institute in Australia.
By virtue of being in Asia, Russia could “minimize the need to alert Western observers as to what is happening and circumvent existing treaties.”
Including Chinese forces in the operation is also significant, Blank pointed out, as it underscored deepening military cooperation between two countries which dominate Washington’s strategic policy.
“China’s presence here tends to confirm Russian analyst Vasily Kashin’s remarks that this exercise points to an open declaration of a Russo-Chinese military alliance,” Blank, a former MacArthur Fellow at the US Army War College, wrote. “Moscow has previously sought such an alliance and it need not be a formal document such as NATO’s Washington Treaty to meet Russo-Chinese requirements for an alliance.”
Relations between Beijing and Moscow have become extremely cordial in the past few years with Xi and Putin due to meet for private discussions on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum.
The talks will probably include increased economic cooperation through the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as closer military ties, illustrated by the impending deliveries to the People’s Liberation Army of Russia’s high-performance Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets.
Caught in the middle of this realpolitik marriage of convenience might be Prime Minister Abe. His government has already complained about what it described as a Russian military build-up in the Far East and comes at a time when Tokyo is beefing up its armed forces.
Recently, reports have emerged that Japanese aerospace companies could play a key role with Lockheed Martin in building a new fighter, which would combine high-tech features from the F-22 Raptor and F-35.
It would also be yet another important signal to China and Russia that Tokyo will continue to be Washington’s closest ally in the region and vital to the US Asia-Pacific alliance, which also includes Australia, India and South Korea.
“Ultimately, both Moscow and Beijing see the Vostok 2018 exercise as a shot across the bow of Washington’s dominance in international affairs,” Sebastien Roblin, who holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China, wrote on The National Interest website.
In Vladivostok, you can almost see that dark shadow taking shape before a single Putin ‘guest’ has arrived.