Is This the Start of a Russia-China Military Alliance?
With the United States withdrawing from Afghanistan, Moscow and Beijing have become much more aware of the security situation on their own peripheries.
Russian and Chinese troops will hold a massive round of joint drills in August, the latest in a pattern of steadily deepening defense ties between Moscow and Beijing.
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian announced on Thursday that Russia and China will hold joint military exercises in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in northern China during the first half of August. “Based on the consensus reached between China and Russia, the Russian Armed Forces will take part in the drills West/Interaction-2021 that will run in China at the beginning and in the middle of August,” Wu Qian said. The spokesman added that the drills will be held at the army base in the Chinese town of Qingtongxia.
The drill’s underlying premise remains vague, with the Defense Ministry reportedly stating that the aim is to “strengthen and develop a comprehensive strategic partnership between Russia and China, maintain regional peace and stability and demonstrate the resolve to fight terrorism.” 10,000 military personnel will take part in the drills, which will also involve aircraft and artillery. Wu added that the drills will test joint reconnaissance, early warning, electronic warfare, and strike capabilities. Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe invited Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to attend the drills.
Russia’s Defense Ministry confirmed the joint drills in a subsequent statement, adding that the Russian military will be represented by the Eastern Military District: “Units of a large military formation of the Eastern Military District will take part in the West/Interaction 2021 joint Russian-Chinese operational/strategic drills that will run on the territory of the People’s Republic of China in mid-August pursuant to the accords reached between the defense ministries of both countries.” China has been a consistent participant in Russia’s major Eurasian drills, including Vostok-2018, Tsentr-2019, and Kavkaz-2020, but experts say this is the first time that Russian forces will join a large-scale China-hosted drill on Chinese soil. These will also be the first joint drills held in China since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Chinese state news outlet Global Times framed the exercises in stark geopolitical terms, averring that the upcoming drills display “a high level of mutual trust between the two militaries while also eyeing security and stability in Central Asia as the United States irresponsibly withdraws troops from Afghanistan.” The article argued that the Biden administration’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan “has left a burden for neighboring countries” and that Russia and China need to “play their roles, jointly safeguard regional peace and stability, and prevent the development of terrorist forces in the region.”
The contours of Russian-Chinese cooperation in Afghanistan are already beginning to take shape. Both Beijing and Moscow have held high-level talks with the Taliban as the militant group inches closer to becoming the dominant actor in the country. Beijing has thrown its weight behind Russia’s ongoing efforts to secure the border between Afghanistan and Central Asia within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which counts both Russia and China as members.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.