Military drills and administrative cooperation

During his visit to Beijing in September 2015, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said,

“The most important issue of the Russian-Chinese military cooperation is the military exercises. They contribute to improving combat training of the Armed Forces of the two countries and demonstrate our readiness to counteract modern threats”.

Since 2003, when China and Russia first participated in a collective military exercise, the two countries have conducted approximately 50 exercises together by the end of 2019 showing increasing complexity in terms of joint operations and coordination, particularly since 2014.

About a third of these exercises were held under the auspices of the SCO focusing on antiterrorism and conducted with less than 1000 personnel, usually consisting of special force troops. In other exercises the number of personnel has varied from a thousand to tens of thousands.

For the Chinese PLA these exercises have been valuable for gaining experience and useful information. The exercises have allowed the PLA to interact with the Russian military leadership, operate in unfamiliar environments outside China, address linguistic, cultural and other barriers to effective communication with Russian troops, practice battlefield tactics and combat methods and apply lessons learned to joint operations. They also enable China to collect intelligence on Russia’s military capabilities, defense organization and direct battlefield experience derived from Ukraine and Syria.

China and Russia use the exercises to demonstrate their increasing military capabilities and the strength of China-Russia defense ties to the international community, particularly the United States and countries in the Asia Pacific. The exercises, due to Russia’s participation, also provide China an opportunity to operate in strategically important areas like the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Japan.

Overview of exercises

In the late 1990s, a few small-scale joint maneuvers of Russian and Chinese navies and border troops took place but the 2001 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation formed a watershed in the Sino-Russian military cooperation including joint military exercises.

In 2003 China and Russia organized the small scale collective military exercise. Russia and China started actual substantial military cooperation in the second half of the 2000s. The two countries conducted their first-ever joint military exercise – “Peace Mission 2005” in August 2005. In 2007, China and Russia with all other members in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), conducted a joint anti-terror military exercise – “Peace Mission 2007.”

Peace Mission” exercises have been in 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2018. All were driven by China and Russia but involved also SCO member states as either observers or participants. Each Peace Mission exercise has consisted of high-level consultations on defense cooperation and global and regional security issues between chiefs of general staff and defense ministers before combat exercises and live fire drills commence. Typically, 3000 – 6000 troops were involved and besides China and Russia, exercise places have been in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In Peace Mission 2018, there were first time about 300 servicemen from India and also around 100 troops from Pakistan in the SCO exercise.

Since 2012, China and Russia have conducted Joint Sea Exercises, an annual bilateral naval exercise.  The time and place of these exercises:

  • 2012, waters nearby Qingdao, China
  • 2013, Peter the Great Gulf, Russia
  • 2014, East China Sea, China
  • 2015, Mediterranean Sea, Peter the Great Gulf, Sea of Japan (in three places)
  • 2016, South China Sea, China
  • 2017, Baltic Sea (part 1), waters nearby Vladivostok (part 2), Russia
  • 2018, Yellow Sea, China

In 2016, China and Russia expanded their exercise portfolio to include missile defense, signaling opposition to the US-led missile defense network in Northeast Asia and representing another step forward in bilateral defense cooperation.

The decision to hold “Aerospace Security-2016”, the first computer-simulated missile defense exercise appeared to be a direct response to the start of US-South Korean deploying a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery in South Korea following a period of increased North Korean provocations. Chinese military commentator Yue Gang said that THAAD is a common threat to both China and Russia. In 2017, the six-day Russian-Chinese air defense drills dubbed “Aerospace Security – 2017” was organized in Beijing.

Russia organized the International Army Games in July 2018 in southern Russia. China joined Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Iran in the war games. China’s air force sent strategic bombers, fighter jets and transport aircraft for drills. China’s Xian H-6K bombers, which have been patrolling the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, participated for the first time in such an event.

Vostok-2018, an exceptionally important strategic military exercise

The culmination of the combat training year in Russia’s Armed Forces results in an annual large-scale main military exercise in one of four rotating theaters: Kavkaz (“Caucasus”), Tsentr (“Center”), Zapad (“West”) and Vostok (“East”) exercises.

The Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, announced that Vostok- 2018 will involve forces from Mongolia and China, which marks the first inclusion of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) units in a Russian strategic-level military exercise. Russia’s largest military training exercises since the Cold War were taking place in the country’s Far East.  Vostok 2018 war games wereset to eclipse the Soviet Union’s largest-ever exercise, held in 1981. About 300,000 troops, 1,000 aircraft, 36,000 combat vehicles and as many as 80 ships were involved and the drills took place across five training areas, as well as the Sea of Japan, the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk.

According to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Vostok-2018 strategic military exercise is “unprecedented” in its scale being the first foreign military exercise that China has sent the largest group of troops to attend. It is a test for the PLA’s capability to carry out long range delivery, conduct operations in unfamiliar regions and seasons, and ensure the adaptation of weapons and equipment to the new environment.

German military observers have taken particular note of China’s involvement: 3,200 soldiers along with over 1,000 pieces of weaponry (battle tanks, combat vehicles and artillery), 30 fixed-wing aircraft as well as attack and other helicopters to participate. Never before has the PLA been involved so massively in a joint exercise overseas. Russia and China have trained together about 40 times since 2003, but this is the first time China has participated at a strategic level.

Vostok-2018 type exercises are significant to the PLA primarily for two reasons.

First, only large-scale exercises can truly reveal the capacity of a military in terms of strategic planning, power projection, command, control and communication. Therefore, the more sophisticated the exercises, the better. Since the PLA has not been involved in any wars for tens of years, its capacity building and operational readiness can only be verified through military drills.

Secondly, these exercises are meant to address large conflicts rather than non-traditional threats such as terrorism,piracy and natural disasters. It is noticeable, that the exercise focuses mainly on “traditional security” implicating the war, where the large national military forces are against each other.

China may have the massive military force with modern equipment but it is “far behind Russia in terms of officer training and the movement, deployment and command of troops,” the German military observers stated. China is looking to profit from Russia’s recent wartime experience in Syria and Ukraine, the observers explained.

China played a critical role in this military exercise. The PLA actively participated in the Russian strategic military exercise in three aspects:

  • Strategic background conception and exercise direction, battle command, and exercise with real troops.
  •  The troops simulated a classic anti-invasion campaign at the training range in eastern Siberia.
  • The two militaries formed a joint operational command system during the drills. General Li Weiya, a commander at the Chinese operational command headquarters, said the event has historical significance because it fully demonstrated the new cooperative form and level of the two armies.

Military exercises for some twenty years

For more than a decade, China and Russia have deepened military cooperation, as the two sides have increased the frequency, scale, and participating arms and services of military exercises. China-Russia joint military exercises have increased from once in several years and once a year to several times a year, from single service participation to multiple service- participation. At present, the joint military exercises between China and Russia have become regular and frequent in 2018-2019.

In May 2019, Chinese and Russian navies conducted their first ever joint warship-based live-fire missile exercise, as naval vessels from both sides launched surface-to-air missiles and successfully intercepted incoming anti-ship cruise missile dummies. The six-day exercise was part of the Joint Sea-2019 China-Russia naval drills in Qingdao, East China’s Shandong Province.

In July 2019, Russian and Chinese strategic bombers have flown their first mission together over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea. Two Russian Tu-95Ms and two Chinese Xian H-6 bombers patrolled a pre-planned route above the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea The first-ever joint patrol of the long-range aviation in the Pacific was the beginning of a wider program, which aims to boost the ability of Russian and Chinese air forces to work together. 

In November 2019, China, Russia and South Africa organized first joint maritime exercises. The South African navy was hosting the Multinational Maritime Exercise with Russia and China in Cape Town. It is the first trilateral exercise between the three countries and is scheduled to take place off the southern coast of South Africa.

In December 2019, China, Russia and Iran organized the first joint Chinese-Iranian-Russian naval drills in the northern Indian Ocean to support the regional balance of power

High-level military personnel contacts

China and Russia have maintained high-level military contacts through a number of ongoing bilateral dialogues and international defense forums. These contacts provide opportunities for defense officials and officers to facilitate arms packages, prepare combined and joint exercises, and discuss regional and global security concerns.

The primary venues for advancing defense cooperation include the following:

  • China-Russia Intergovernmental Joint Commission on Military Technology Cooperation: Established in1992 and usually co-chaired by Russia’s defense minister and China’s vice chairman of the CCP’s Central Military Commission (CMC), China’s highest military policy making body, this commission is the most important annual meeting between the PLA and Russian Armed Forces on military-technical cooperation, particularly for facilitating arms sales.
  • Exchanges between Services: The two militaries hold bilateral visits at the service head level and betweenthe commanders of certain units within the respective military services, mostly to discuss technical maintenance of Russian systems, improve coordination and communication and build positive ties.
  •     China-Russia Staff Headquarters Strategic Consultation: This annual meeting, held since 1997, bringstogether the deputy chiefs of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff Department and the PLA Joint Staff Department to manage and improve cooperation between the two militaries and discuss regional and global security concerns.  
  •     Multilateral Defense Forums: In recent years, the expansion of annual multilateral forums focused on defenseand security issues has created more opportunities for interactions between high-level PLA officers and their Russian counterparts. These include China’s Xiangshan Forum, the South and Southeast Asian Nations Defense Chiefs’ Dialogue, Russia’s Moscow Conference on International Security and the Association for Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus). The annual Shangri-La Dialogue also provides a venue for senior military officers to discuss relevant issues and on the sidelines of the event for bilateral meetings.
  •     Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO): Established in 2001, the SCO is a multilateral entity throughwhich China advances its security agenda in Central Asia. In 2003, the PLA and Russian Armed Forces conducted their first major combined exercise under the auspices of the SCO. Defense ministers of SCO member countries meet annually at the SCO Defense Ministers Meeting to discuss regional security issues.

Since 1990, China and Russia have had approximately 120 official high-level military-to-military contacts, more than half of these occurring since 2005. Between 2010 and 2012, there was a drop in total exchanges but again in 2013 and 2014 top-level and senior-level exchanges increased slightly compared to the previous three years.

2015 was a landmark year for military contacts amounting up to the most since the two countries normalized relations in 1989. This strong momentum in high-level exchanges has continued in 2016 – 2019.