The Chinese and Russian military are teaming up, but analysts say the two sides have different goals

The joint exercises were the first of their kind to use a joint command and control system that incorporated Russian troops into Chinese formations, according to a statement by the Chinese Defense Ministry.

The exercises also provided an opportunity for both sides to test new weapons and, for the first time, enable Russian forces to use Chinese-made equipment, including armored attack vehicles.

The joint exercises, some of which were intended to strengthen counter-terrorism capabilities, come as the security situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate amid the collapse of the US-backed government in Kabul.

However, analysts in the West and Russia have questioned the true military worth of the exercises, suggesting that Beijing and Moscow likely had different goals, from propaganda to economic ones.

Speaking to CNN, Peter Layton, a fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia, described the exercises primarily as theater performed for the media.

To illustrate his point, the exercises called Zapad Interaction-2021 in Russian or Xibu Unity-2021 in Chinese dominated the Chinese state media last week with multiple stories, photos and videos of the activities in northern China.

Layton said the exercises appeared to be very choreographed, with little opportunity for what he called “free play” when field commanders have to make crucial decisions in the heat of the moment.

“Free play is what refines military skill, not heavily choreographed airshow-like events,” Layton said.

Regional cooperation

In the past few weeks, the West’s headlines have been filled with stories of military cooperation between the U.S. allied nations in the Pacific, including a British-led carrier battle group in the South China Sea and intensive exercises in Australia with American, Japanese and South Korean units.

But while Beijing does not have the number of allies and partners Washington has, the exercises provided the PLA with an opportunity to demonstrate its own ability to work coherently with a regional partner.

Although both sides have emphasized their close ties, an actual Sino-Russian alliance does not seem in sight, said Alexander Gabuev, chairman of the Russia-in-Asia-Pacific program at the Carnegie Foundation in Moscow.

“Military cooperation does not require a mutual-commitment defense pact to go to war when the other party is attacked / wants you to participate in a conflict,” Gabuev wrote on a Twitter thread.

A formal alliance would limit the autonomy of both sides, both of which they treasure, he said. China needs no commitment to engage in Crimea, while Russia has no real interest in Taiwan or the South China Sea, Gabuev said.

In the long term, Russia’s motives for increased cooperation may be more monetary than military.

Gabuev said on the Twitter thread that Russia sees a “window of opportunity” to sell more weapons to China, which, despite its rapid military modernization, still needs Russian technology.

And when training alongside the Russian armed forces, China buys something else, notes Gabuev, battlefield experience.

For example, the Russian military has been tested in Syria and Crimea in recent years. Some of this can be conveyed to the Chinese troops during joint exercises.

The last time China went to war during a border conflict with Vietnam in 1979.

New equipment

When the exercise began last Monday, Chinese state media highlighted the appearance of the J-20, the first time the PLA Air Force’s top ten-year-old aircraft participated in joint exercises.

The state-run Global Times said the J-20’s first appearance in joint exercises shows improved military cooperation between China and Russia in the face of security challenges in Asia and “direct threats from the US and its allies.”

The report did not specify the nature of these alleged threats, but the J-20’s appearance at the China-Russia exercises comes just weeks after the U.S. Air Force held its largest stealth combat demonstration in Asia to date, more than two Dozen F-22 Raptor jets on a training exercise in the Pacific islands of Guam and Tinian.

A stealth fighter jet J-20 of the Air Force of the Chinese People's Liberation Army flies in 2018 during a training session in the city of Zhuhai, China.

When the J-20 first flew a decade ago, China touted it in response to American F-22 and F-35, the world’s leading stealth aircraft. And after the PLA declared its readiness to fight in 2018, Chinese military expert Song Zongping said in a post on the PLA’s English-language website that the J-20 “will in the future come into contact with rivals who dare to take China in the air provoke”. . “

While the J-20 may have put on a show last week, they won’t be part of the contingent of fighter jets China is sending to Russia’s upcoming 2021 International Army Games, slated to begin August 22nd.

State-run Xinhua news agency reports that the PLA’s armed forces at these games include J-10B fighter jets, J-16 fighter jets, and Y-20 large transport planes, all of which will make their debut outside of China.

A Global Times report said H-6K bombers will also be in the fleet of 11 PLA aircraft.

To illustrate Gabuev’s position on real combat experience, the Global Times report, citing unnamed Chinese analysts, said that their participation in the competition will allow Chinese troops to interact with other militaries who “have experienced and are serving in real combat.” to further improve their skills “. to fight in a real war. ”