More details have emerged revealing just how extensive the joint China-Russia week long 'Vostok' war games will be, set to kick off Tuesday, which is to involve a combined total of 300,000 troops, 36,000 military vehicles, 1,000 aircraft, two Russian naval fleets and all airborne units, along with a contingent from China, a clear sign to the west of just how close military ties between the two nations have become.
The two powers are cooperating in the military games, said to be the largest such exercise since 1981 under the Soviet Union. During Vostok, China is to deploy an unprecedented number of its People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops and equipment, which also constitutes the first time a country not from the former Soviet bloc has conducted joint games with Moscow and on Russian soil.
According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP) China has sent about 3,200 PLA elite forces troops, along with 30 fix-wing aircraft and helicopters to deploy during the exercises.
And a new Financial Times report describes that the joint deployment will include "Hundreds of Russian and Chinese tanks, attack helicopters, fighter jets and thousands of soldiers..." in "a show of strength and friendship between Asia’s two largest military powers".
In total it's expected that 300,000 troops and close to 40,000 vehicles will participate in Vostok, which is to coincide with talks between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in Vladivostok on Tuesday. This further includes another hundreds of aircraft and helicopters.
President Putin has of late sought closer relations with China, which Russia shares a massive 4,200km border with, amidst both countries experiencing deep tensions with the West, including US sanctions against Moscow and a growing trade war between China and Washington. Over the past century the powerful neighbors have laid claim to contested energy resources in border areas at different times, resulting in sporadic conflict, in spite of for most of the 20th century sharing communist ideology.
A Carnegie Moscow Center analyst, Alexander Gubuev, summarizes why the West will closely monitor the games with increased alarm, per FT:
“This is pretty huge. These major exercises are designed to simulate responses to aggression from external enemies. For decades, China has been considered one of those potential threats. Thus, to invite them to participate suggests that now they are seen as allies against other aggressors.”
The exercises, which are annual and held in different regions which Moscow considers among four strategic military sectors, are designed to simulate an attack on a foreign power.
“Both Beijing and Moscow are looking to demonstrate that trade wars and sanctions will only push them to develop new alliances," comments senior analyst Florence Cahill for a risk consultancy group as cited in FT. And explained further, “As long as their prevailing worldview is shaped by an animus towards a US-led international order, co-operation on all levels between Moscow and Beijing will likely be more pronounced than competition between them.”
What is widely reported to be a growing personal friendship between Presidents Putin and Xi is also said to be driving increased closeness in military relations between the two powers.
Crucially, with NATO expanding up to Russia's Western border and with "non-aligned" Scandinavian countries Sweden and Finland increasingly cooperating in NATO war games, one major element to the games sure to attract the attention of Washington military planners is the inclusion of simulated nuclear weapons attacks.
Both Russia and China are among the world's major longtime nuclear armed powers, and both are experiencing soaring tensions with the United States.
In response to the impending Vostok-18 games Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon announced late last month, "We urge Russia to take steps to share information regarding its exercises and operations in Europe to clearly convey its intentions and minimize and potential misunderstanding."
Prior Pentagon reports suggest the games will be closely watched by U.S. intelligence agencies especially due to Russia's willingness to simulate nuclear combat.
Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russia’s general staff, described some of strategic maneuvers to be employed in the games: “There are plans to practice massive air strikes, cruise missile training, defensive and offensive operations, raids, and bypass manoeuvres."
Gerasimov described further, “Aircraft will practice support to an offensive mounted by ground forces and beach defense. Planes and helicopters will practice bombings and [the] use of air-launched missiles.”
Meanwhile Russia's foreign ministry has sought to downplay the significance of the sheer volume of forces deployed for Vostok-2018 as well as Chinese cooperation. Spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova, said: “Unfortunately, we are used to the allegations that Russia is preparing for some big conflict. We have been hearing such statements from Nato representatives and some of its members. But there are absolutely no grounds for that.”
Apart from China, a contingent of Mongolian troops will also be part of the games.
No doubt, both Russia and China relish the opportunity of flexing military muscle just as US threats are heating up and tensions are at boiling point over Syria, where both countries have condemned past American and Western military actions targeting the Assad government.