The “special relationship” between Russia and China was on full display this week, with planes, tanks, troops and warships putting on a show in and around the Sea of Japan.
The Vostock (East) 2022 war-games mark the 77th anniversary of the surrender of Japan in World War II. It’s since evolved into a large-scale demonstration of friendship between Russia, China, and other aligned countries.
But signs of strain have appeared within the highly scripted display.
Russia claims some 50,000 of its troops took part in the overall Vostok operation. That compares to the 300,000 it said engaged in the games in 2018. Western military analysts say that, due to losses in Ukraine, the actual figure this year is much closer to 15,000.
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And Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared extremely uncomfortable when meeting with his military Chief of Staff. Footage of his inspection of the event shows him pointedly ignoring General Valery Gerasimov while happily engaging with his Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Putin attacked what he called a “Western sanctions frenzy” and accused the United States and European Union of bullying nations to “extinguish their sovereignty and to bend them to its will”.
“The West is failing. The future is in Asia,” he declared.
A unified East
Putin met with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) third-highest ranking official at a conference on Russky Island in the Sea of Japan this week.
He said he expected to meet with his “good friend” President Xi Jinping at a Chinese security summit in Uzbekistan later this month.
CCP inner sanctum member Li Zhanshu returned the compliment.
“As of late, under your and President Xi Jinping’s leadership, the comprehensive strategic partnership and interaction between China and Russia have demonstrated a strong upward development trend,” he said. “Our strategic partnership is growing very successfully. Our trade is increasing.”
Chinese media says Beijing sent about 2000 troops, 300 vehicles and 21 aircraft in a display of support for its internationally isolated spiritual partner.
Both Moscow and Beijing promote the international event as proof their autocracies are not isolated on the world stage. Participating military contingents and observers come from the likes of Algeria, India, Laos, Mongolia, Nicaragua and Syria.
“For the first time, we have sent naval ships to the Sea of Japan for co-ordinated drills, which serves to fully train the Chinese military’s ability to jointly conduct military operations with multinational forces,” People’s Liberation Army exercise director Han Lin told state-controlled media.
The new Chinese Type 055 cruiser Nanchang and the Type 054A frigate Yancheng engaged in live-fire air defence and anti-mine drills alongside their Russian counterparts in the Sea of Japan over the past fortnight.
The war-games were entirely legal. They were conducted in Russian and international waters. And the transit of warships through Japan’s narrow Miyako Strait – while highly visible – also conformed to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
But Japan issued a formal protest because parts of the games were held on and around the Russian-occupied Kuril Islands – seized from Japan in the last days of World War II.
Japan wants the islands back. Russia considers them to be war reparations. The dispute has prevented a formal peace treaty marking the end of World War II hostilities between the two countries from ever being signed.
The emperor’s new clothes
Moscow-controlled media said the multinational force warships worked together to destroy a “hostile submarine”.
But the British Ministry of Defence doubts the practical value of the displays.
The fact that Russia has suffered embarrassingly heavy losses in Ukraine suggests such staged events “have failed to sustain the military’s ability to conduct large-scale, complex operations,” a ministry statement reads.
“Such events are heavily scripted, do not encourage initiative, and primarily aim to impress Russian leaders and international audiences,” it said.
The Hong Kong based South China Morning Post reports military analyst Antony Wong Tong agrees military ties between Beijing and Moscow might not be as close as they seem.
“This sort of joint exercise can’t be defined as a practical joint naval operation – the PLA fleet and the Russians are not carrying out any real joint operations,” he said.
“So it’s hard for the two sides to develop tacit understanding … and it suggests the Vostok exercises are still a far cry from the US-led Rim of the Pacific Exercise,” he said.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel