The Vostok-2018: Significance of the Russia-China Military Exercises

Regional Cooperation By Indrani Talukdar*

Regional Cooperation

US, NATO, Japan, Korean Peninsula and the nations of South China Sea closely monitored Vostok-2018. Russia and China stated that the exercise was neither targeted at any third party nor related to any regional situation; however, it highlights the combat preparedness of the two militaries. It sends signals of deterrence to the West and its allies in the region.

Russia held its largest military drill, Vostok-2018i during 11-17 September. It took place in Russia's Trans-Baikal region covering its far east side and Sea of Japan as well as the Bering and Okhotsk seas in Asia-Pacific, a region where Moscow and China are trying to strengthen their influence.

China and Mongolia were two other countries to participate in the exercise. The two countries were involved in the exercise since they share crucial borders with Russia. However, the true reasons go beyond simplistic geographical understanding.

The Vostok-2018 exercise was termed as the biggestii since the collapse of the Soviet Union, involving large number of contingent and equipment. In the exercise, S-300 and S-400 were also operationalised in addition to 300,000 troops, a combined fleet of more than 1,000 planes, helicopters and drones, 80 combat and logistic ships, and 36,000 tanks, armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles.

China presented a contingent of 3,200 personnel along with over 1,000 pieces of weaponry and 30 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. This was the first time that China had sent a large troop to attend a military exercise conducted by a foreign nation. According to media sources, a small contingent was sent from Mongolia and the exact size of the contingent hard to determine.

Russia understands Mongolia’s importance vis-à-vis its position in the Asia-Pacific; it is Russia’s gateway to the East Asia. Mongolia is also an important economic and energy partneriii. Due to its strategic location, the West — including the NATO, has been trying to foster strong relationships with Mongolia. With NATO’s interests at stake, Mongolia’s significance for Russia increases from a security perspective as well.

US, NATO, Japan, Korean Peninsula and the nations of South China Sea closely monitored Vostok-2018. Russia and China stated that the exercise was neither targeted at any third party nor related to any regional situation; however, it highlights the combat preparedness of the two militaries. It sends signals of deterrence to the West and its allies in the region. The focus of the exercise was on classical warfare instead of the usual anti-terrorism drills.

Although military exercises are conceived and planned in advance, the coincidental overlapping of the Vostok-2018 and NATO’s Rapid Trident 2018 conducted in Ukraine cannot be missed. The Rapid Trident took place during 3-15 September. The main goal of the exercise was to practice countering armed aggression in conditions of the hybrid wariv — the West suspects Russia of hybrid warfare.

In the Rapid Trident 2018 exercise, fourteen countries from the West, including Turkey participated. It took place in the western part of Ukraine, far from the Russian border. The Kremlin did not react to the exercise; however, given the degradation of the relations between Russia and the Westv, it is doesn’t seem likely of Russia to approve the exercise. Russia has never been comfortable with military training/exercises conducted by the West near its borders or in the countries of its influence.

In 2015, when the US military was training Ukrainian troops, the Kremlin stated that it could destabilise eastern Ukrainevi by provoking further edginess between the two adversaries. Hence, a sense of insecurity in the aftermath of the two combat exercises is evident.

The Rapid Trident 2018 signals combative preparedness and Ukraine’s alliance with the NATO, sending a defensive vibe to Russia. Likewise, the Vostok-2018 counter threats the West and its allies in the region. The NATO’s increasing engagement in Asia-Pacific; namely with Mongolia, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, forms a kind of mini-NATO, which a reasonable threat to Russia and China.

Moreover, the deployment of the US’ ballistic missiles defence systems, including Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), in the Asia-Pacific poses a challenge to Russia and China’s interests in the region.

One particular US ally in the region with whom both Russia and China have their differences is Japan. On 28 August, in its annual defence white paper, Tokyo noted that it feels tensed owing to the tangible and acute security environment around it. China’s rapid military modernisation near the Diaoyudao Islands and in the South China Sea is fast becoming a security concern for Tokyo.

Meanwhile, Russia and Japan continue to have their conflict over the Kuril Island. Though resolution talks are in progress between the leaders of the two nations, the results seem far-fetched given the strategic stakes and uncompromising attitude of both the conflicting parties. Hence, despite its economic cooperation with both the countries, this aspect of territorial insecurity posed by growing Russia-China relations cannot be ignored by Japan.

The West, like Japan, has been apprehensive of the growing Russia-China partnership and their rising military might. The partnership has grown stronger, especially after the West-led 2014 sanctions on Moscow. The influence of Russia-China relations could be seen on the various verticals with their common stance on the international challenges such as the Syrian crisis. Both the countries aspire to dismantle the US hegemony.

The assimilation of their militaries for the Vostok-2018 exercises is no surprise since the two countries have often come together for many bilateral and multilateral drills, the latest being the "Peace Mission" for Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), conducted right before the Vostok exercise. However, given the transitional atmosphere of the world order, growing relationship between Russia and China, including military exercises as well as operations in South China Sea sends signals of their common perspective on world politics.

While Russia and China talk about no bloc-approach, the escalating events and counter reactions to security concerns makes the comparison to the Cold War era unavoidable.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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