China is set to host Russia for mass drills together involving counterterrorism training next month just as the last of the U.S. soldiers are set to exit Afghanistan.
The Chinese Defense Ministry and Russian Defense Ministry issued a joint statement Thursday stating that the Western Theater Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army will join troops from Russia’s Eastern Military District for a large-scale exercise called West-Interaction 2021, which will be held in early and mid-August in the city of Qingtongxia, which lies along the Yellow River in China’s northern Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
The two militaries are set to establish a joint command center overseeing the activities of some 10,000 troops along with various aircraft, artillery and armored equipment. The plan is to mix personnel from both sides for enhanced interoperability for the combined maneuvers involving an array of objectives.
“The two sides’ participating troops will be mixed into teams to make plans jointly and conduct training together,” the statements said, “in a bid to verify and improve both troops’ capabilities of joint reconnaissance, search and early warning, electronic information attack, and joint attack and elimination.”
The overriding goals were both political and tactical.
“The exercise is aimed to consolidate and develop the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination in the new era, deepen the practical cooperation and traditional friendship between the two militaries, and further demonstrate the two sides’ resolve and capability to fight against terrorist forces and jointly safeguard regional peace and security,” the statements added.
As these exercises are playing out in China, U.S. troops are set to near completion of their withdrawal from neighboring Afghanistan, a pullout intended to end by August 31.
Both Beijing and Moscow have expressed concerns over the future of Afghanistan as U.S. forces leave for the first time in 20 years. While both powers have been critical of Washington’s role in the conflict, they now see themselves as having to step up for the sake of stability and preventing any regional blowback.
In addition to their bilateral exercises, China and Russia are also to interact militarily with other nations as well.
Also in August, China and Russia will participate alongside Belarus, Israel, Mongolia, Serbia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan for the annual International Army Games, which will run from August 22 to September 4. On Thursday, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that a contingent of People’s Liberation Army equipment had crossed the Sino-Russian border at Zabaikalsk station.
In Beijing, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Colonel Wu Qiang told reporters Thursday that such games play “an active role in enhancing the friendship between the Chinese military and the military of participating countries, including Russia, strengthening exchanges in the field of training and improving the level of actual combat training.”
The games will be followed in September by the biennial Peace Mission exercise of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
The eight-member bloc includes both China and Russia as well as India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Military representatives of these nations met Wednesday in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe to discuss regional affairs and express their unanimous support for joint security and counterterrorism measures such as the Peace Mission drills.
These efforts were especially emphasized as Afghanistan, a Shanghai Cooperation Organization observer state, underwent a spike of unrest amid nationwide Taliban gains against the embattled forces of the internationally recognized Kabul-based government.
The conflict in Afghanistan was one of the topics on the agenda, as defense chiefs in Dushanbe “discussed issues of strengthening peace, stability and security,” according to a joint statement.
“Expressing concern over the rapid deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan,” the statement said, “they noted the need to prevent destabilization of the situation in the SCO space and a significant increase in the activity of terrorist organizations in the region after the withdrawal of military contingents of NATO and other countries from Afghanistan.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called on Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states to collectively boost joint counterterrorism measures, double down on multilateral maneuvers such as the Peace Mission and increase cooperation between them and other countries and international organizations in the security realm.
“In the current conditions,” Shoigu said, “the relevance of practical cooperation between the defense departments of the participating countries, the creation of effective tools to ensure common security in the SCO area of responsibility has significantly increased.”
The Russian military chief also met with his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe on the sidelines of the gathering.
“Despite the challenges brought about by the pandemic all over the world, together,” Shoigu said of his meeting with Wei, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, “we have managed to find new ways of interaction and continued fruitful collaboration.”
Wei, for his part, praised how China and Russia have “maintained strong and unwavering bilateral relations, becoming an important stabilizing force of the world today.”
“Wei suggested that the two sides should continue to strengthen all-round and all-weather strategic cooperation and maintain a stable and high-level development of the Sino-Russian relations,” according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s readout.
And he also noted the rapidly developing situation in Afghanistan and its potential effects on Central Asia, where both Beijing and Moscow have deeply rooted interests.
“In terms of dealing with the changing situations in Afghanistan and Central Asia and jointly fighting against terrorism,” Wei said, “the two sides should get to know each other’s positions and arrive at consensus, strengthen cooperation and coordinate actions, resolutely safeguarding the core interests of China and Russia, unswervingly upholding the world equity and justice and regional security and stability.”
The remarks were the latest in a series of warm exchanges coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation signed by China and Russia in July 2001, just months before the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan emerged in the wake of 9/11.
Today, both countries have cautiously assessed their potential role in Afghanistan’s future while continuing to cooperate with the U.S. on the shared goal of peace and stability in the war-torn nation.
This included receiving Taliban representatives who most recently traveled to Tianjin for talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other senior officials. Earlier this month, Moscow hosted separate delegations of the Taliban and Afghan government.
And while Washington, Moscow and Beijing all agree that stability is a top priority in Afghanistan, the U.S. is aligned on little else with its two top rivals.
The U.S. leader said Putin “has a real problem. He’s sitting on top of an economy that has nuclear weapons and oil wells and nothing else.” He said that this “makes him even more dangerous, in my view.”
As for Xi, Biden said he’s “deadly earnest about becoming the most powerful military force in the world, as well as the largest, the most prominent economy in the world by the 2040s.”
Xi has proclaimed his goal for the People’s Liberation Army to become a “world-class” military by the middle of the century, and has capitalized on Russia’s warfighting experience in order to achieve it. In turn, trade has risen to historic levels between the two countries, as has the intersection of their interests in Central Asia and beyond.
Following a virtual meeting last month between Xi and Putin, the two leaders issued a joint statement in which they boasted a bond “based on equality, deep mutual trust, commitment to international law, support in defending each other’s core interests, the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
“While not being a military and political alliance, such as those formed during the Cold War, the Russian-Chinese relations exceed this form of interstate interaction,” the statement said. “They are not opportunistic, are free of ideologization, involve comprehensive consideration of the partner’s interests and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, they are self-sufficient and not directed against third countries, they display international relations of a new type.”