MOSCOW -- China and Russia are holding their first joint military exercises since the coronavirus pandemic began -- competitive drills experts say will help both sides fill capability gaps while also preparing their forces for a day when they might fight alongside one another.
A contingent of about 260 Chinese troops is participating in this year's International Army Games, an annual tournament organized by the Russian Defense Ministry. Launched in 2015, the games are nicknamed the "War Olympics" for their fusion of traditional military drills with sports-like competitions.
The Chinese People's Liberation Army forces will take part in a range of contests over the course of two weeks. The games include a tank biathlon, armored vehicle trials, a military intelligence competition, a marine platoon landing event and an airborne troops competition.
"At such a critical moment in fighting COVID-19, the Chinese military's participation in Russia's International Army Games aims to further strengthen the strategic cooperation between the Chinese and Russian militaries and deepen their practical cooperation in military training," Senior Col. Ren Guoqiang, a spokesman for China's Ministry of National Defense, told reporters ahead of opening day on Sunday.
The exercises run through Sept. 5, with 160 teams from 30 countries expected to take part. This comes as the U.S. leads selected allies in maritime drills near Hawaii. The bulk of the army games will take place in Russia, though some were scheduled to be held in other countries such as Belarus, which has been gripped by weeks of protests against President Alexander Lukashenko.
The games are just one aspect of increased Chinese-Russian joint military training over the past decade, amid both countries' mounting tensions with Washington. The neighbors have conducted multiple joint naval drills every year since 2012, including in geopolitical hot spots such as the South China Sea and the Baltic Sea. In the final days of last year, China and Russia held their first joint naval exercise with Iran in the Gulf of Oman.
That followed their first joint strategic bomber patrol in July 2019 over the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, which elicited protests from both Seoul and Tokyo.
China has also become a frequent participant in Russia's annual strategic exercises. In September 2018, Beijing dispatched 3,200 soldiers and 900 tanks to join 300,000 Russian troops and 36,000 tanks in eastern Siberia for Vostok-2018, Russia's largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War. China joined another large-scale Russian exercise the following year.
Viktor Murakhovsky, editor-in-chief of the influential Russian defense journal Arsenal of the Fatherland, told the Nikkei Asian Review that these drills offered China -- whose troops have not seen combat in over four decades -- an opportunity to learn from Russia's recent military operations.
"If you look at the period following the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, Russia's armed forces have continuously accumulated combat experience from conflicts within Russia and those in neighboring territories, beginning in Tajikistan and ending in Syria," Murakhovsky said. "All the while, they have done so using the latest weapons and command and control systems. For China, Russia's experience of deploying weapons on the battlefield and organizing combat operations is undoubtedly quite valuable."
During Vostok-2018, Chinese forces participated in drills modeled after Russia's experience in Syria. Some of the Chinese participants later admitted that these exercises were more complex and intensive than the ones they usually conducted back home.
"One of my soldiers told me that he fired so many shells in these drills that it is almost equivalent to his total over the past five years," Capt. Zhang Lei, whose armored vehicle battalion took part in Vostok-2018, told Chinese state-run broadcaster CGTN.
At the same time, Murakhovsky emphasized that Russia benefited by learning "many interesting and valuable things from how the Chinese army operates and what technology it uses." He said China's military technology has surpassed Russia's in several areas, such as long-range unmanned aerial vehicles and certain types of warships.
"Russia is interested in studying China's experience in these areas," Murakhovsky said.
China has certainly emerged as a force to be reckoned with at the army games. It is a perennial top contender, frequently winning first or second place in numerous competitions. It also hosted some of the events in 2017 and 2019, and was set to do so again this year before COVID-19 upended those plans.
Experts note that these and other exercises are not just about exchanging expertise: They allow the Chinese and Russian armed services to grow accustomed to working together on the battlefield.
Vasily Kashin, a senior fellow at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, explained that while Moscow and Beijing were not ready to accept the constraints of a formal military alliance, both sides wanted to be prepared for the possibility that they may someday join forces.
"There are no plans for us to conclude a military alliance, but that doesn't mean we can't conduct joint military operations under certain circumstances," he said. "For example, in the case of a local conflict in a place like Central Asia that threatens the interests of both Russia and China, or if a terrorist group seizes control in a country where there are Russian and Chinese citizens that need to be evacuated."
Kashin hinted that bigger missions are not out of the question.
"In principle, there is also preparation for larger joint military operations, but for now there is no political decision," he said. "Yet, it's clear that the Russian and Chinese leaderships want to have the option of moving rapidly in that direction if they decide to do so."