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International Relations

Russia and China forge new bonds in largest war game in decades

Estranged allies draw closer again under pressure from the US

Chinese troops march on Sept. 13 during joint military exercises with Russia in Eastern Siberia.   © AP

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia -- Russia's weeklong military exercises, the largest since the Cold War, feature an unlikely pairing with Chinese forces demonstrating the stronger ties between two powerful nations subject to U.S. pressure.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sept. 13 conducted an inspection of the Vostok 2018 war games being held in the Siberian territory of Trans-Baikal. There he told the troops "you have demonstrated your military skill, and showed that you can effectively resist potential military threats."

Putin then addressed the maiden participation of China's People's Liberation Army. "We will never forget that during the Second World War our countries were allies and fought the aggressor together," said the Russian president. "Today we share an important task of ensuring stability and security across the Eurasian space."

The maneuvers, which kicked off on Sept. 11, coincided with the start of the Eastern Economic Forum, which took place three days through Sept. 13 in the far-eastern Russian city of Vladivostok. Putin has met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the event. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu revealed he and his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Wei Fenghe, agreed to conduct joint military drills on a periodic basis.

The Vostok war games are held once every four years, and this year's exercises involve 297,000 Russian troops, or about 40% of the country's military personnel, according to the Russian defense ministry. In addition, 1,000 aircraft will be deployed, along with 36,000 military vehicles and 80 warships. China sent 3,200 ground and air troops. Mongolia also took part in the largest war games on Russian soil since 1981.

Vostok simulates the combined forces thwarting an enemy attack, though Russia and China say the games do not target any specific nation. But the two countries clearly have the U.S. in mind.

China is engaged in an escalating trade war with America, and the Chinese navy was disinvited from this summer's Rimpac maritime drills led by the U.S., as a consequence for creating military outposts in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Russia remains under the weight of U.S. economic sanctions, and the normalization of relations appears elusive.

"The military cooperation between Russia and China has moved into a new dimension," said Vassily Kashin, a senior fellow at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Kashin sees Moscow, anticipating worsening relations with Washington, looking to demonstrate its military links with China through Vostok.

The question remains how far Russia will take this military cooperation. The two countries share a border over a distance of thousands of miles, and there is a certain level of tension between the two sides. The Russian economy lags far behind that of China, so Moscow is apparently leaning on its superior military might to join hands with Beijing -- not as a junior partner, but as equals.

During the Eastern Economic Forum, Putin and Xi played up their coziness for the cameras by donning aprons and cooking Russian pancakes. But Xi didn't join Putin on the inspection tour of the joint drills. The Chinese president is likely looking to avoid too much provocation in a tacit bid to improve relations with the U.S.

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