Russia-China defence ties are at a high but as the recent exercises by the Russian Army in Siberia revealed, Moscow is immensely wary of its powerful eastern neighbour

Earlier this month, Russia and China held their largest joint naval exercises in the Sea of Japan. Later this week, the land armies of the two countries will hold a joint drill in the Ural Mountains in Russia. In between these two events, Russia staged its biggest yet military manoeuvres in Siberia and the far eastern region along China’s borders.

The exercises reflect the dual nature of Russia’s relations with its giant neighbour. China is Russia’s strategic partner but also a source of profound security fears.

Series of drills

Code-named Joint Sea 2013, the joint naval drills were the largest in the history of the two countries and saw the Chinese Navy’s “single biggest deployment of military force in any joint foreign exercise,” according to the Chinese Defence Ministry. For three days, seven Chinese and 16 Russian warships gamed off Russia’s Far East with anti-pirate and search-and-rescue operations, escorting ship convoys, ship resupply, and joint anti-aircraft, anti-submarine and anti-surface vessels defences.

The manoeuvres marked a new high in Russian-Chinese defence ties and despite their non-aggressive scenario, they were clearly directed at Japan, which has territorial disputes both with Russia and China, and at the U.S. military pivot to the Asia-Pacific region.

The naval exercises ended on July 12. The Chinese warships had barely left Russian waters when Russia launched unannounced snap military manoeuvres along the border with China. President Vladimir Putin, who watched part of the war games, said they were the largest ever, involving 160,000 troops, 1,000 tanks, 130 aircraft and 70 ships.

Foreseeing nervous reactions in neighbouring countries, the Russian Defence Ministry informed them of the surprise war games some hours in advance and separately provided “more detailed information” to China. Briefing foreign military attachés in Moscow, Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov denied the manoeuvres targeted any country, but admitted that Russia’s neighbours were watching them “warily.”

Warmer ties

China and Japan indeed had reason to feel concerned. While the naval part of the Russian war games took place in the Sea of Okhotsk not far from the Kuril Islands claimed by Japan, the land operations involved massive redeployment of troops, weapons and hardware across several time zones closer to the Russian-Chinese border to repulse a major land attack.

Over the past two decades, Russia and China have dramatically strengthened their ties. They resolved their long-running border disputes, increased bilateral trade from $5 billion in 2000 to nearly $90 billion last year, and speak in one voice on most global issues. Russia has helped China modernise its military with large-scale supplies of weapons and technologies, and the two countries are forging close military-to-military ties.

Russian Far East

However, behind this happy façade of overflowing friendship, Russia harbours ingrained fears of the rising giant next door, fuelled in large measure by its own weaknesses, but also by China’s policies.

The Russian Far East, which constitutes 40 per cent of the country’s territory, has a shrinking population of 6.5 million, whereas three Chinese regions across the border have 140 million people. Demographic pressures and a growing shortage of resources will eventually prompt China to train its sights on its northern neighbour, experts warn, all the more so since China still considers vast territories in the Russian Far East as unfairly annexed from it in the 19th century.

All these territories fall within China’s “strategic borders” that stretch far beyond its geographic border to guarantee “living space” for the country.

Most Russian experts think that China will pursue peaceful economic and demographic expansion, but some do not rule out the military option. Military analyst Alexander Khramchihin last month published a highly provocative scenario of a Chinese blitzkrieg against Russia describing how the multimillion strong Chinese army could overrun the Russian Far East and much of Siberia within only a few weeks.

Whatever China’s intentions, it is its capabilities that count, according to military experts. They are concerned that China’s two military regions bordering Russia, Shenyang and Beijing, have more troops and firepower than all Russian land forces and have conducted several large-scale manoeuvres of land forces in recent years that involved the relocation of troops across 2,000 km. Such operations are only possible against Russia and Kazakhstan, experts said.

“The Chinese threat, while being highly hypothetic, is one of the main factors defining Russia’s foreign policy and military build-up,” said Vasily Kashin, a China expert with the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.

Under a sweeping military reform currently under way in Russia, the Defence Ministry has taken extra efforts to beef up its forces in the East. When Russia’s seven military districts were pared down to four commands in 2010, the Eastern District was redrawn so as to hand it responsibility for the entire 4,300-km border with China. Today it is the largest military command and it is being rearmed on a priority basis.

The July manoeuvres put to test the overhauled command and control structure of the Eastern Military District and its ability to respond to a sudden attack.

“The manoeuvres showed that we can accomplish a necessary force build-up on the border with China,” said Alexander Sharavin of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis.

Non-military strategy

However, Moscow’s main strategy in dealing with the potential Chinese threat lies outside the military sphere. Judo black belt Putin is trying to lock China in a tight friendly embrace of economic, political and strategic interdependence that would make conflict inconceivable. Russia is on the way to become an indispensable source of oil, gas and other resources for China’s economic powerhouse; it is cementing close defence ties and is engaging China in multilateral cooperative arrangements, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

When China’s new President Xi Jinping paid his first visit abroad to Moscow earlier this year, Mr. Putin said that relations between Russia and China are “the best in their centuries-long history,” while the Chinese leader called Russia China’s “major and most important” strategic partner.

Mr. Putin’s strategy enjoys overwhelming approval in the Russian expert community, but even its ardent supporters admit it is fraught with a risk that the Russian bear may be strangled in the Chinese dragon’s embrace.

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