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Russia joins forces with China in biggest ever war games amid tensions with US

The Vostok 2018 drills involve more than 300,000 troops. Photo: AP

Hundreds of thousands Russian troops swept across Siberia on Tuesday in the nation's largest ever war games also joined by China — a powerful show of burgeoning military ties between Moscow and Beijing amid their tensions with the United States.

Moscow said that the weeklong Vostok (East) 2018 maneuvers will span vast expanses of Siberia and the Far East, the Arctic and the Pacific Oceans and involve nearly 300,000 Russian troops — nearly one-third of the country's 1-million-strong military. They will feature more than 1,000 aircraft, about 36,000 tanks and other military vehicles and 80 warships.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has described the drills as even bigger than the country's largest Cold War-era exercise called Zapad 1981 that put NATO allies on edge.

A retired Russian general said that the giant war games come as a warning to the United States against ramping up pressure on Russia.

"The maneuvers are aimed at deterring the aggressive intentions of the United States and NATO," Ret. Gen. Leonid Ivashov said. He was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that the drills are "also a response to the US sanctions."

China is sending about 3,200 troops, 900 combat vehicles and 30 aircraft to join the drills at a Siberian firing range, a significant deployment that reflects its shift toward a full-fledged military alliance with Russia. Mongolia also has sent a military contingent.

Analysts have speculated that the exercises are in part to train a response to a potential nuclear conflict on the Korean peninsula, and ballistic missile units are among those involved.

Closer China-Russia ties

The exercise began as President Vladimir Putin held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Russian port city of Vladivostok.

During their meeting, Putin praised the trust between the two countries, while Xi said that their cooperation was taking on "greater and greater importance" in an oblique reference to tensions with the United States.

Although China has previously joined Russia for drills like naval games in the Baltic Sea last year, this is the first time it will participate in Moscow's annual strategic exercises, which train far-flung forces for large-scale conflict.

Moscow and Beijing have forged what they described as a "strategic partnership," expressing their shared opposition to the "unipolar" world, the term they use to describe perceived US global domination.

"With its Vostok 2018 exercise Russia sends a message that it regards the United States as a potential enemy and China as a potential ally," wrote Dmitri Trenin, a former Russian army colonel and director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.

Some experts pointed out that the United States helped spawn closer Russia-China military ties by labeling them strategic competitors.

"They feel they need to embrace to deal with the increasingly high pressure and containment from the United States," said Yue Gang, a military expert and retired Chinese army colonel.

He noted that China feels that the Washington's hostile attitude and actions, such as deploying the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea, relieve it of any need to take US views into consideration when deepening strategic trust with Moscow.

"The war games have laid a foundation for China and Russia to enhance cooperation on international arena and will lift the combat proficiency of both sides," he said.

Washington is fighting a trade war with China and imposing mounting sanctions on Russia. The Trump administration has reoriented the US national security strategy toward "great-power competition" with Russia and China, describing both countries as seeking to "shape a world antithetical to US values and interests."

Few expect Russia and China to enter a formal alliance akin to NATO. But the two countries are sending a signal that they could partner up in a military entente in the event of a confrontation with Washington in which their interests align.

Chinese officials generally shy away from open talk of joining forces with Russia against the United States. But in the lead-up to Xi’s trip to Vladivostok, China’s state-run media was full of effusive commentary lauding the relationship between Moscow and Beijing.

Bilateral trade between China and Russia also is booming — it is expected to cross $100 billion this year, up from $84 billion last year — and the countries are deepening their economic cooperation.

Russia could supply its neighbor with energy, while China could share its expertise in e-commerce, analysts said.

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba said on Tuesday that it would partner with a prominent Russian oligarch and the Russian sovereign wealth fund to expand into Russia.

Gaining combat experience

Russia has said it will train methods developed during its Syria intervention, giving Chinese forces, which have not fought in a war since 1979, a glimpse of real combat skills.

Hong Kong-based commentator Song Zhongping said that China is anxious to acquire more experience in large-scale operations that might become a factor in a conflict with the United States and others over territorial claims in Asia.

"Russia has very strong real combat abilities and the participation of the PLA in such a large-scale military exercise that is specially tailored for an anti-invasion war indicates China's intention to learn more valuable combat practices and lift its ability for joint combat,' Song said.

From China's perspective, the emerging military alliance with Russia sends a strong signal to the United States and its ally Japan as Beijing moves to defend its interests in the South China Sea.

The deepening military bond between Moscow and Beijing, analysts say, gives China valuable access to Russian military technology and Russia's field experience in Syria and Ukraine.

Russia in recent years started selling China some of its most advanced weapons, including the S-400 surface-to-air missile system and Su-35 fourth-generation fighter jet. Such sales had been hindered in the past by Moscow's worries that China was a potential adversary and that it would steal the technology.

Watched attentively

The United States and its NATO allies are closely eyeing the exercises for what they reveal about military cooperation between Russia and China and their mounting military might.

"We're obviously aware of it, we're watching it closely," said Army Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman. "We're aware of Russia's right to sovereignty and to exercise in order to ensure their readiness."

NATO Spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said that the training "fits into a pattern we have seen over some time: a more assertive Russia, significantly increasing its defense budget and its military presence."

She also noted that "China has growing military capabilities and is playing an increasingly significant global role," adding that "it's important for NATO to engage with China."

Asked if the United States is worried about a possible military alliance between Russia and China, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Pentagon reporters on Tuesday that, "I think that nations act out of their interests. I see little in the long term that aligns Russia and China."

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