The Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), in a joint Sino-Russian large-scale exercise, is showcasing its increasing modernization and testing its newest tactics and weapons. 

The five-day Zapad/Interaction 2021 exercise, which began on Monday, involves more than 10,000 troops and is taking place in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region in the country’s northwest. Russia sent motorized rifle units, air defense forces as well as SU-30m aircraft. Russian troops will also be using Chinese equipment during the joint drills. 

Liu Xiaowu, the deputy commander of the PLA’s Western Theater, who is acting as the commander of the Chinese troops, told state broadcaster CCTV on Monday that 81 percent of the weapons used during the exercise are “brand new.” He added that the drills include innovative combat tactics, like emergency troop and heavy weapon drops, long-range strikes by J-16 fighter bombers, and the use of drones.

“We have created a joint counterterrorism mechanism covering four networks: battlefield information, intelligence, commanding, and logistics, that will bring every aircraft, cannon, armored vehicle, and even single pawns together,” Liu said.

Sino-Russian Military Exercise
Flags of China and Russia fly at the joint exercise as jets pass overhead. (Chinese military)

China’s official Xinhua News Agency said, citing Chinese and Russian officials, that the purpose of this latest exercise was to “demonstrate the firm determination and strength of the two countries to jointly safeguard international and regional security and stability.”

“[The exercise] reflects the new height of the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era and of the strategic mutual trust, pragmatic exchanges, and coordination between the two countries,” Xinhua added.

A Sensitive Region

The Ningxia autonomous region borders Xinjiang, where China is accused of genocide and detaining more than one million Uighurs in internment camps. It also shares a narrow border with Afghanistan. With the U.S. withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Chinese government is concerned with the possibility that ethnic Uighurs in Afghanistan will begin spilling across the border amid the violence. 

Both China and Russia benefitted from the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and had both called for the U.S. to leave. Now that this is happening, their borders in Central Asia could become precarious. China establishing relations with the Taliban could be seen as a safeguard against regional instability. 

Perhaps tellingly, the Russian military on Tuesday completed joint exercises in Tajikistan, near the Afghan border, with Uzbek and Tajik forces.

The Sino-Russian Relationship Deepens

This year’s Sino-Russian exercise marks the fourth straight year that the two countries have conducted joint training operations and the first time the exercise has been held in China. The two countries have been conducting joint exercises since 2005.

Sino-Russian Military Exercise
Chinese troops march in the opening of Sino-Russian joint exercise. (Chinese military)

Ever since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Russia’s relationship with the West has deteriorated to levels not seen since the Cold War. This has led to a warming of relations between Moscow and Beijing bringing about expanded trade, high-tech cooperation, and mutual political support, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Moscow has backed China in its claims to nearly the entire South China Sea, where China has built seven artificial reefs to project militarily in the region.

Back in October, Putin hinted that a Sino-Russian military alliance is possible. “We don’t need it, but, theoretically, it’s quite possible to imagine it,” Putin said, adding “time will show how it will develop… we won’t exclude it.”

The Russian military and China’s People’s Liberation Army have also announced that in September they will conduct joint exercises organized under the pact of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a Eurasian political, economic, and security alliance created by the governments of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.