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China to Join Russia Military Exercises as U.S. Rivals Deepen Ties

The Wall Street Journal. 8/17/2022 James T. Areddy, Ann M. Simmons
© yuri kochetkov/epa/Shutterstock

The People’s Liberation Army of China said it would join military exercises led by Russia in the latest demonstration of partnership between the two U.S. rivals.

Building on a “no limits” pact their presidents signed this year, the Russian and Chinese militaries will drill side-by-side starting later this month in the Russian Far East, according to China’s Ministry of Defense. The exercises will mark their second joint show of force in the region this year after bombers from each country in May conducted a 13-hour drill close enough to Japan and South Korea that those nations scrambled jet fighters, as President Biden was visiting Tokyo.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the exercises, which Moscow scheduled for Aug. 30 to Sept. 5.

Last month, the Russian ministry said units of its Eastern Military District, in the nation’s Far East near the borders of China and North Korea, as well as airborne, long range aviation and military transport aviation personnel and equipment, would participate in training maneuvers along with military contingents from other states it didn’t name. Reports, including China’s Defense Ministry statement, said India, Belarus, Tajikistan, Mongolia and other nations would join. Russia hasn’t confirmed the participants.

The Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine in February, and recent Chinese live fire exercises around Taiwan, have elevated military tensions this year and put both Moscow and Beijing on the receiving end of criticism from Washington. Rather than formal treaty allies, China and Russia appear aligned primarily over shared interests, including a desire to check global dominance of the U.S., according to analysts.

A Russia specialist at Georgetown University, Angela Stent, said the exercises are likely to be scrutinized for signs of Russia’s fighting capability considering its troubles prosecuting the Ukraine war. “The message will be, we have been criticized and sanctioned by the West but we have a range of other countries that are partners. We are not isolated,” she said, noting that position will be enhanced by the participation of both China and India.

China has declined to criticize or publicly endorse Russia’s Ukraine invasion, which began shortly after Chinese leader Xi Jinping hosted his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Beijing and they signed a lengthy joint statement that rejected the U.S.-led global political order. After Beijing practiced a possible military blockade of Taiwan this month in response to a visit to the island by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Kremlin blamed the U.S. for heightening tensions.

Mr. Putin this week called Mrs. Pelosi’s visit a “thoroughly planned provocation” by the U.S. to sow chaos. China’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday welcomed the remarks and said they demonstrate “high-level strategic coordination between China and Russia, and the firm support the two countries have rendered each other on issues concerning their core interests.”

Clear limits exist in the Russia-China relationship, which has often been deeply troubled in the past. Beijing has criticized Western governments for cutting trade relations with Russia in an effort to penalize Moscow for the Ukraine invasion and continued to buy its energy exports, but many of China’s biggest government companies have also appeared to quietly abide by some of the sanctions.

The Russian and Chinese militaries have practiced together on various occasions in recent years, often sparking protests from the U.S. and other nations. Details are limited about the coming military exercises, which are known as Vostok 2022, referring to the Russian word for East. Moscow hosts similar large-scale wargames annually and rotates them between different regions.

A spokesman for the U.S. State Department said that most of the countries involved routinely participate in exercises with the U.S. as well.

“We don’t read anything into their engagements in this activity,” Ned Price said Wednesday. “The broader point is that we have seen a burgeoning relationship, including in the security realm, between [China] and Russia.”

China’s three-sentence statement said the coming event aims to deepen practical and friendly cooperation between participating countries and is unrelated to the “current international and regional situation,” likely referring to Ukraine and Taiwan.

They follow a series of similar military exercises in Asia, where China’s air force in recent days has flown alongside Thai jets and U.S. Army troops have practiced in Indonesia with allied forces, including Australia and Japan.

When Russia hosted Vostok exercises in 2018, it described the scale as unprecedented since the Soviet era. It said 300,000 troops participated along with 1,000 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, 80 ships, and 36,000 tanks, armored and other vehicles.

As a first-time participant in the Vostok exercises in 2018, China said it sent 3,200 soldiers, along with more than 1,000 pieces of weaponry and 30 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

Thomas Graham, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former Russia specialist on the National Security Council, said the actual number of combatants in such exercises tend to be smaller than the advertised numbers, but in 2018 the militaries did demonstrate a degree of interoperability, such as in the command structure and sharing communications. The question now, he said: “Is this an exercise that shows the two militaries can fight together in a significant way or is it largely a propaganda show?”

Russia’s Defense Ministry has sought to play down the participation of other states in the coming exercises and wave off doubt about its military capabilities as it suffers the high costs of prosecuting its war in Ukraine. In July, Russian officials warned “that a number of foreign media are spreading inaccurate information about alleged mobilization activities.” They said that only part of Russia’s armed forces was involved in Moscow’s military action in Ukraine and the number was sufficient enough to fulfill Mr. Putin’s goals in the campaign.

Write to James T. Areddy at james.areddy@wsj.com and Ann M. Simmons at ann.simmons@wsj.com

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