Russia’s annual military exercises occur within a four year rotation, with each year within that cycle devoted to a particular facet of Russian military operations. Last year, they held their massive Zapad (meaning “West”) drills in Belarus, prompting concerns from NATO allies in the Baltics. This year, their Vostok exercises (this time, meaning “East”) took place on the nation’s other flank and for the first time included the presence of Chinese troops in a bid for increasing the interoperability of the two military forces.

The presence of a relatively small contingent of around 3,500 Chinese soldiers served as a red flag for many defense analysts that rightly see the Chinese inclusion as a sign of strengthening ties between America’s two primarily military and diplomatic opponents. China, who represents the more formidable threat, also gained important tactical experience in these drills — because despite having the largest military force on the planet in terms of uniformed soldiers, China’s troops are woefully inexperienced by comparison to Russian or American troops, who have been conducting combat operations in the Middle East for years.

However, despite the concerns of Western analysts as they watch Sino-Russian ties further develop, it would seem even China is maintaining a cautious eye on Vladimir Putin’s military presence in the Pacific. While Chinese troops trained alongside Russians on land, the naval portion of the massive Vostok drills involved only Russian vessels… that is, except for a single Chinese flagged intelligence gathering ship that tailed the Russians from a distance throughout.

The People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) is perhaps the most rapidly developing facet of the Chinese armed forces, so it comes as a bit of a surprise that they were either not invited or opted not to participate in the naval portion of the drills, but the presence of a Dongdiao-class auxiliary general intelligence (AGI) vessel (that was reportedly not invited) suggests that China still sees Russia as a potential threat, or at least, not as an ally.