Vostok 2018: Analyzing the Strength of Russia-China ties

Spearhead Analysis – 24.09.2018

By Fatima Ayub
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

It is oft claimed that a week is a long time in politics.

September 2018 brought on the advent of a historic week for Sino-Russian relations and rapidly catalyzed the progress of the intensifying relationship between Moscow and Beijing that has inevitably put Washington on the back-foot.

As Russia launched its largest war games since the Cold War, the Vostok-2018, the war games involving more than 300,000 troops from over sixty-eight countries, Beijing’s historic participation marked the first time in which China’s People’s Liberation Army held its largest joint exercise with Russia.

The start of Vostok-2018 coincided with a meeting between Russia’s President Vladimir Putin who met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. The meeting was the leaders’ third such public embrace between the two states amidst the escalating US-China trade war and increasingly bellicose US-led sanctions against Russia over the conflict in Ukraine.

Tensions also have been building between the US and China, with the Trump administration’s trade conflict with Beijing intensifying and Washington’s public labelling of China as a “strategic competitor” in President Trump’s latest key national security strategy mere days after images from the massive military maneuvers in Vostok 2018 were aired.

Donald Trump’s statements this past month were telling – while Iran and North Korea are still seen as persistent threats, Trump sees China and Russia as far more pressing concerns as he described the latter countries as “competition” during the unveiling of his national security strategy in a speech in Washington.

To political pundits, Vostok 2018 has played a decisive role in intensifying tensions between the West and Russia, eerily reminiscent of the days of Cold War hostilities. 

The drills have been condemned by NATO as a rehearsal for a “large-scale conflict” but statistically, this isn’t the first show of Russian military might. Last year’s Zapad 2017 exercise was cause of greater concern and recognition to the West of the challenge that Russia continues to pose to European security, with issues such as the state’s seizure of Crimea and offensive action against Ukraine.

However, according to security experts, while Zapad 2017 played an emphatic role in building up Russia’s image as a dominant power with expanding military might, this year’s Vostok was more than just an exercise founded on military logistics.

 It was a deafening show of Russia’s strategic mobility and alliances and a testament to the shifting tectonic plates of global power dynamics at a time when American power is perceptibly in retreat. Predictably, talk of the Sino-Russian diplomatic embrace at Vostok overshadowed all images of military exercises for international press.

The question begs to be asked; how deep does the bond between Moscow and Beijing run?

For one, analysts find that the Vostok games was an opportunity well utilized by the Russians to push the notion that not only China and Russia have grown into their relationship of strategic alliances but that their shared interests will work towards ensuring that US hegemony in global politics and its institutions no longer runs the show.

There is truth in the fact that the Sino-Russian relationship is mutually beneficial; China’s rapid economic and military growth evident in its One Belt One Road initiative in South Asia and Africa and its increasing interest in brokering diplomatic peace in longstanding global conflicts such as Afghanistan has meant that Russia sees in Beijing a strong ally. China meanwhile has looked to Russia as a strategic partner to both send a message to the US of its global relevance and offset the pressure from the US in its belligerent trade sanctions against Beijing and its increasing solidarity with Japan over the territorial row over the East China Sea and surrounding Senkaku Islands.

Diplomatically, there have been public embraces of each side from both premiers; President Putin’s visit to Beijing in June earlier this year formalized the strategic partnership and the ensuing statement from the Chinese premier Xi Jin Ping calling the meeting a ‘complete success’ marked the start of a new chapter in the history of both countries.

Amongst cooperation and coordination between armed forces which later materialized in Vostok, there is definitive talk of large scale military-technical contracts.

Warm political statements by top Chinese and Russian leaders have complemented these military actions. In June, Chinese President Xi Jinping awarded China’s first “friendship medal” to Russian President Vladimir Putin, describing the Russian leader as “my best, most intimate friend.” During a visit to Moscow in April, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe said he wanted to “let the Americans know about the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia.”

Vostok has undoubtedly played its part in showing off Russia’s ‘combat-proven’ military hardware, which could help it secure further additional defence contracts with Beijing.

Economically, bilateral ties between the two states, especially at a time when the US has imposed sanctions against both Beijing and Moscow, has signaled a great victory against Trump’s objectives. There is talk of bilateral trade worth $100bn this year between the two states with both sides ambitiously aiming to double that figure by the end of 2020. The mammoth $400bn gas deal struck between the two sides in 2014, underwritten by a $55bn investment from Russian gas giant Gazprom has meant that economic ties pertaining to energy are likely to continue to deepen in the future.

But while there are a growing number of strategic convergences for Russia and China, political observes cite caution about conflating these alignments with the notion that two are on the verge of any ‘traditional’ alliance in the real sense of the word.

Alliances arise from states’ attempts to maintain a balance of power with each other. In reality, the strategic mistrust between the two sides remains a potent divider in the long-term, despite the current warmth.

First, in geo-economic terms, Moscow remains quietly wary of Beijing’s intentions in Central Asia with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Previous iterations of Vostok rehearsed the defence of Russia’s far east against a foreign invasion’ or various ‘terrorist groups’ at its eastern borders. Without overtly naming China a military and economic threat, previous military shows such as Zapad ’17 are historically remembered as a pre-emptive exercise to protect from a militarily-assertive PLA.

This year, the scenario was adapted to turn military drills – which in the past had the flavour of an anti-Chinese agenda – into a strategic exercise with China. Including China’s People’s Liberation Army helped to not only downplay that element further but also emphasize that the drills are no longer directed against Beijing.

Officially too, Russia is supportive of BRI as an engine to help develop infrastructure and enhance supply chain connectivity through the region.

Behind this endorsement, however, are lingering concerns that China may be looking to unseat or at the least, undermine Russian dominance in the region. Likewise, Russia still has potent reasons to remain concerned about the surge of Chinese investment in its Far East, which although carries economic benefits but also potentially disadvantages Russian domestic businesses, and its increased interest in the Arctic region.

Secondly, Putin’s play for global dominance has meant that Russia in contrast with Trump’s narrow-tunnel and protectionist vision for the United States has invested in its relationships in diverse neighborhoods. This has meant that Moscow has increasingly allied with states like Saudi Arabia, South Korea – and Japan, the latter having longstanding strained ties with China.

A recent Chatham House report on this unusual growing alliance under the stewardship of Putin and Japan’s premier Shinzo Abe predicted that an interesting development to watch in the coming months is the impact of hedging on the Sino-Russian relationship.  Although, the two sides remain locked in a decades-old territorial row over the Southern Kuril islands (referred to as the Northern Territories in Japan) and remain far apart on any deal over the isles, this appears to have not muted the relationship’s momentum as both Tokyo and Moscow appear to realise the benefits of improved relations as a hedge against great power influence – China in Japan’s case and the US in the Russian case.

Thus the report analyzed that Russia’s desire to improve relations with Japan – despite its reticence to make concessions on the Kurils – is another indication that “Moscow prefers to balance and hedge in the Far East rather than syncing fully with any singular power like Beijing.”

Third and most pertinently, it is worth noting that while Moscow and Beijing certainly enjoy a ‘special’, albeit pragmatic, bilateral relationship, a formal alliance in terms of furthering each other’s foreign policy objectives and goals, is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Despite the very real limitations of the relationship, strong incentives and a lack of alternatives have provided for a sturdy foundation for a continued strategic partnership going forward.

Vostok itself however, should not be simply as a bilateral exercise between Moscow and Beijing– although a symbolic token of the warming of the relations between the two, the drills involved troops from all over the world including Mongolia and Vietnam. It is notable a weapons deal between Russia and Vietnam (a longstanding rival to Beijing) totaling $1 billion was inked days before Vostok 2018’s commencement.

Conclusion

It is common sense to assume that Donald Trump is in fact the major patron of the Russian-Chinese embrace.

Tensions with Russia have been at an all-time high. Moscow’s interference in in the US election process and also lingering disputes over Russian activity in Syria and Ukraine have meant that that US foreign policy dictats now require that overt displays of Russian power such as the Vostok 2018 be seen as a challenge.

 And while a strong united front against the West is a mutually beneficial strategy, it is equally hard to dismiss the chasms of suspicion that continue to exist between Russia and China – while Russia will continue to be wary of growing Chinese influence in its “backyard” — i.e. Central Asia and the Middle East — Beijing is likely to remain dissatisfied with continued Russian arms sales to China’s rivals such as India and Vietnam.

Thus, media exaggeration of Vostok 2018 as the start of a new Sino-Russian military alliance suits the interest of Beijing and Moscow perfectly in projecting a strong and unified image despite the existence of mutual suspicion.

What the Vostok 2018 has most potently achieved is that the signal intended for the US and the West is quite clear: in times of tension between Russia and the West, Moscow is not militarily isolated and can count on China as an ally. Meanwhile militarily, it is hard to foresee NATO and US outperforming military drills bigger and better than this year’s Vostok display.

In the future, US approach – bilaterally to Moscow and Beijing – as well as its presence in the Asia-Pacific, will be a key benchmark in the evolution of potentially strengthening Russia-China ties.

www.spearheadresearch.org