Inter Press Network

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Significance of Sino-Russian Military Exercises

Drafted By: Erich Marquardt, Yevgeny Bendersky

Between the dates of August 18-25, 2005, Russia and China participated in their first ever bilateral war games, dubbed Peace Mission 2005. The games were symbolic of the growing cooperation between the two powerful states. Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, which led to an increasingly influential role for Washington in Central Asia, Moscow and Beijing have drawn together under the common interest of preventing further U.S. influence in the region.

Their mutual interest formed after a series of "colored revolutions" in the region; these revolutions weakened Russian influence in its near abroad and concerned China that an intensified U.S. role in Central Asia would lead to regional instability in an area that Beijing hopes to exploit for energy resources. For instance, China National Petroleum Corporation is expected to win a bid for the Canadian energy company PetroKazakhstan, which holds oil reserves in Kazakhstan and owns a major refinery there. [See: "Economic Brief: China's Energy Acquisitions"]

The purchase of PetroKazakhstan will go hand-in-hand with China's construction of a 988 kilometer (614 miles) oil pipeline that runs from Atasu, Kazakhstan to Alashankou, China. If the U.S. continues to increase its influence in the region and in the former Soviet states -- such as in Kazakhstan -- it could endanger China's access to energy.

China, too, did not desire a firm U.S. presence on its western borders since it already faces an often antagonistic relationship with the United States in East Asia, where the U.S. supports Taiwan and often engages in discourse on the need to "contain" China.

In addition to Peace Mission 2005, the most public display of this newfound cooperation has been through Moscow's and Beijing's manipulation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (S.C.O.). The two countries have transformed the S.C.O. into a more cohesive body, hoping to use it to prevent further U.S. influence in the region and, if possible, to end U.S. influence there altogether.

Peace Mission 2005 and Other Regional Military Exercises

Peace Mission 2005 marked the first bilateral war games between Russia and China, consisting of land, sea and air exercises. While the two countries have engaged in joint war games in the past, they have included states from Central Asia and were never of the scale of Peace Mission 2005. The war games marked an important shift in Sino-Russian relations. While the two countries had been bound together before, such as in the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship alliance, both states always harbored distrust for the other, preventing the formation of a more united bloc.

Peace Mission 2005 involved some of Russia's most advanced military equipment. China, which is bent on upgrading its huge military that still utilizes outdated technology, has been a major recipient of Russian arms sales. During the exercises, Russia was able to showcase its long-range bombers that hold the capability of carrying cruise missiles and nuclear weapons across far distances; long-range bombers are an important missing component of China's military, and the purchase of these aircraft would increase China's military capabilities. As of now, the only regional state that possesses such aircraft is India, giving it an unchallenged edge over China and other regional powers such as Pakistan. [See: "India's Project Seabird and the Indian Ocean's Balance of Power"]

By augmenting its military capabilities, China will be able to better assert itself in the region and provide it with more leverage in achieving its foreign policy goals. For instance, the acquisition of long-range bombers gives it the ability to threaten U.S. carrier fleets in the Pacific.

The war games also satisfy both Russian and Chinese political needs. They give China the ability to show Taiwan and other states in the region that it is increasing relations with Russia, still one of the world's most powerful states when it comes to military capabilities. For Russia, the war games allow it to earn more currency from arms sales, but also give it the ability to show the United States and the former Soviet states in Central Asia that increased Russia-China cooperation will make it more difficult for the U.S. and the West to penetrate the region -- hopefully limiting any more attempts of colored revolutions.

Additionally, it shows the S.C.O. that Russia and China are still relevant power actors in the region, and also sends a message to India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia -- states that hold observer status in the S.C.O. -- that they should consider working with the S.C.O. to achieve their strategic regional objectives.

Since Peace Mission 2005 completed successfully, Moscow and Beijing are planning similar exercises in the future, with the goal of including other influential states in the region.

For instance, even as the Peace Mission 2005 exercises were taking place, Russia engaged other former Soviet states in a new round of joint military exercises that dealt with air defense and counter-terrorist operations. On August 25, Russian air defense forces participated in a joint exercise with their Belarusian counterparts. The exercises were a precursor to the large-scale exercises on August 30 that were monitored by the defense ministers from Russia, Belarus, Armenia and Tajikistan. Also in August, Russia and Kazakhstan held joint anti-terrorist exercises in the Caspian Sea region, involving Russia's Federal Security Service forces, as well as Kazakhstan's National Security Committee and Emergency Ministry troops.

Russia's rapid pace of joint exercises hints at increased steps of preparedness of not only the special forces that attempt to conduct anti-terrorist operations, but the regular armed forces as well. The Russian military has been long hindered by deteriorating conditions as a result of the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, but it has slowly been beginning its emergence onto the world scene as a more coherent and better prepared force. While its latest series of war games utilizes only a small fraction of actual forces, the frequency of joint exercises with its near abroad counterparts hints at the desire to not only achieve a high level of preparedness, but to showcase to the U.S. that the Russian military is not dormant while the number of American military bases in Central Asia increases.

Nevertheless, the actual extent of Sino-Russian military cooperation has its limits. Russian analysts and mass media commented on the fact that during Peace Mission 2005, Moscow tried very hard to impress its Chinese counterparts with its military hardware. While the quality of many of the military pieces utilized in the exercises is not in doubt, Beijing was interested in seeing newer, more high-tech hardware.

China already possesses state-of-the-art Su-30 fighter bombers and manufactures Su-27 fighter planes. One of the factors that prevents China from establishing its military dominance over Southeast Asia is that it has only been able to acquire a small quantity of these advanced fighters. Given China's drive to modernize its military, it is interested in acquiring more and more advanced weaponry, which Russia is unwilling to provide at the moment since it still wants to retain a technological edge over the Chinese military. Furthermore, Russia also does not want to set off a new arms race in East Asia.

One of the major contracts to emerge from Peace Mission 2005 were Chinese orders for Russian-made Il-76 air transport planes and Il-78 air refueling tankers, as well as an agreement potentially to modernize Chinese Su-27 fighters with more advanced avionics.

Peace Mission 2005 was successful in showcasing Russia's desire to seek parity with the U.S. -- if not directly in terms of military budgets, then as being in a powerful and mutually beneficial cooperative relationship with China. Currently, Russia is drawing up plans for joint Russian-Indian exercises, as well as for possible Sino-Russian-Indian military exercises later this year.

One of the undeniable advantages of the U.S. military is its global presence, allowing it to hold joint exercises with its partners in practically any part of the globe. While Russia lost this ability with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, it is regaining this effective geostrategic policy by first engaging its near abroad and then expanding its influence through joint actions with new, emerging powers.

As China and India develop more advanced militaries in the near future, Russia will benefit in terms of actual partnership with these powers, even if the revenues from its arms trade will fluctuate in the next 15 to 20 years due to China and India increasing their domestic military production capabilities. Additionally, if the embargo on European sales of military hardware to China is lifted, Russia will find its major share in military sales greatly eroded by its European counterparts, potentially leading to the loss of billions of dollars of revenue.

Moscow and Beijing Create a More Cohesive S.C.O.

Since the colored revolutions, Russia has used the support of China to increase the cohesiveness of the S.C.O. Through Peace Mission 2005 and potential future war games, China and Russia are demonstrating to regional states the security blanket that they can provide. For instance, Russia has stated that it will double the size of its airbase in Kyrgyzstan, will open up a new intelligence-gathering center in Tajikistan, and conduct joint war games with Uzbekistan in late September.

Additionally, there is talk that China will open up its own air base in Kyrgyzstan. If a Chinese base were to be established there, it would mean that Russia, China and the United States would all have airbases on Kyrgyz soil. How long the U.S. will be able to keep its airbase in the country in the face of growing Chinese and Russian opposition is questionable.

Moscow and Beijing are now attempting to use the S.C.O. to rally the region's states into a more united bloc that will be better able to resist U.S. encroachment. What Moscow and Beijing offer these states in return for their commitment to the principles of the S.C.O. are not only economic and military support, but critical assurances that they will support the region's current governments in maintaining political power in their respective country's. This was most evident in the example of Uzbekistan where Russia offered support to Uzbek President Islam Karimov when he brutally cracked down on protestors in Andijan province.

In a sign of Moscow's and Beijing's success at instilling more cohesion in the S.C.O., the grouping released a report on July 5, 2005, signed by all of its members, containing a clause that rejected attempts at "monopolizing or dominating international affairs" and insisting on "non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states." The S.C.O. also jointly called for a timetable for the ending of U.S. military bases in the region.

Shortly after the release of the report, the clause's terms materialized in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan, which after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington had improved relations with the United States in order to gain some leverage with Russia, had allowed the U.S. to utilize the Karshi-Khanabad airbase in southeastern Uzbekistan for use in Washington's operations in Afghanistan. Russia, of course, became increasingly nervous over Washington's newfound influence in Uzbekistan, a country that sat in its near abroad.

However, after Karimov suppressed a rebellion in the city of Andijan on May 13, 2005, Washington joined Brussels in calling for an independent investigation of the incident. Moscow and Beijing, on the other hand, backed Karimov's actions, an action that was in line with their security assurances offered to the governments of other S.C.O. states. A little more than a month after the protests, Tashkent restricted U.S. flights out of Karshi-Khanabad. Then, a month after that, on July 29, Tashkent chose to evict the United States from the base altogether. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Uzbekistan-C.I.S."]

The fact that Washington joined Brussels in placing pressure on Tashkent for its internal suppression tactics, and that Russia and China did not, led Karimov to realize that its current regime was safer without having the U.S. involved in his country. Indeed, Uzbekistan and Russia have scheduled joint war games for September 21-23, 2005. The war games act as a message to the United States that Washington's influence is ending in Uzbekistan, and that Moscow -- with the assistance of China -- is planning on securing its influence in other states in the region.

Continued U.S. Resistance

Despite Russia's and China's newfound commitment toward preserving regional stability and limiting the U.S. role in Central Asia, Washington has and will continue to resist these attempts. As long as U.S. operations in Afghanistan continue, Central Asia will remain an important staging ground for U.S. forces.

The eviction of the U.S. from Karshi-Khanabad airbase in Uzbekistan will most likely result in more refined "rules of the game" when it comes to Central Asia and its energy-military importance. As Russia is prepared to assume greater influence in Uzbekistan, the U.S. is already courting Azerbaijan as a potentially crucial strategic partner. Azeri troops are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the U.S. is a primary supporter of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline that will export oil from the Caspian Sea to the West.

The U.S. presence in Kyrgyzstan also places Washington in the very middle of the S.C.O.'s sphere of influence. While Sino-Russian pressure to end U.S. presence there might increase, Washington will remain firmly rooted in the region as long as it engages in support and state-building in Afghanistan. [See: "Pakistan: a Geopolitical Crux"]


In the face of increased U.S. influence in Central Asia, and the wave of colored revolutions in the region, Russia and China have seen a convergence of interests. Both states have as a foreign policy goal preventing further U.S. encroachment in the region and are attempting to use a more cohesive S.C.O. to reduce Washington's current influence there. Moscow's and Beijing's use of the S.C.O., and their scheduling of regional military exercises, are manifestations of this convergence in interests.

Washington is aware of these developments, and will attempt to retain its influence in Central Asia even though it has lost the use of Uzbekistan as a staging point for its operations in Afghanistan. It will no doubt continue to lobby Kyrgyzstan in the hopes of keeping its military base in that country secure.

Central Asia truly is a strategic battleground between the West and the two blocs of the East, Russia and China. The region's strategic energy reserves and its proximity to Russia's borders make it a hotly contested region in the coming years. It will be essential to watch whether China and Russia continue to improve their bilateral relations and attempt to pull all of the region's states firmly into their sphere of influence.