Why China and Russia are obsessed with vast new war games

As the West fixates on US President Donald Trump, Brexit and other domestic crises, Chinese troops are to join their Russian counterparts for Moscow’s largest military exercises in more than three decades

By Peter Apps  /  Reuters

Wed, Sep 05, 2018 - Page 9

Coming six months after Beijing’s biggest-ever offshore naval drills, the joint war games are another reminder that military posturing is central to the world’s two most powerful authoritarian states. While neither likely desires or expects war with the US or its allies, Beijing and Moscow want to give every impression they are increasingly ready — and are relying on that message to dominate their neighborhoods and intimidate less powerful nearby nations.

The countries also have an unambiguous message for the Pentagon — that if war should come in eastern Europe or the South China Sea, the US would risk serious losses if it tried to intervene.

These landmark military exercises are part of a much wider picture of investment, development and weapons trials — even if the outcome has sometimes been mixed. According to reports, Russian forces are still attempting to recover a nuclear-powered cruise missile that failed on a test flight somewhere in the Arctic last year. Meanwhile, China is reported to have suffered its own significant increase in military aircraft crashes over the last two years, particularly in the South China Sea.

It is a stark sign of how much risk these countries are willing to take on in their quest for military power — arguably significantly more than the US or any of its European and Asian allies.

Russia’s September “Vostok” drills are to involve up to 300,000 troops, just as Moscow deploys its largest naval formation in several years to the Mediterranean.

As well as a naked warning to the US not to intervene with any further Russian action in Syria, they also likely act as domestic political messaging. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s poll numbers have been waning as of late, and military posturing could help his popularity. Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has also increasingly embraced militaristic nationalism as he entrenches his power — but if war should actually come, the countries see themselves in rather different confrontations.

Russia sees future wars most likely taking place on land, a repeat of scaled-up versions of 2008 and post-2014 conflicts with neighbors Georgia and Ukraine, in which victory depends on deploying overwhelming military force within a few miles of Russian territory while keeping the US and other powerful Western states from intervening.

China sees its most likely wars taking place offshore, either over disputed territories in the South China Sea or Taiwan, but as with any territorial ambitions that Moscow might have in Europe, a victory by China would again depend on keeping US and other allied forces back and out of theater as much as possible for the duration of the war.

Much of the new technology that Moscow and Beijing are developing is designed with this goal in mind, particularly China’s missiles and submarines built explicitly for sinking US aircraft carriers.

However, new military purchases and deployments are also part of a much wider diplomatic and propaganda strategy. Russia has lobbied furiously against Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO, while those who watch Moscow’s social media and television feeds closely have said that it has also been attempting to undermine support for the Baltic states, NATO’s most Eastern members.

China has launched a savage diplomatic campaign this year to further isolate Taiwan, encouraging airlines and foreign governments to view it once again as part of China. In these attempts, neither country would have much success, but many believe that they plan to intensify their efforts in the months and years to come.

The US’ response, unsurprisingly, has been to do very much the same. In Europe, that has meant a dramatically stepped-up involvement in NATO exercises, particularly in countries that are most vulnerable to Russia, such as the Baltic states, Norway and Poland. US and allied warships and aircraft have continued to aggressively control disputed areas of the South China Sea, even as Beijing has dramatically increased its military presence in the area.

Clearly, that is something that infuriates Moscow and Beijing.

China has tried to exclude the US from regional military exercises that it wants to organize with other ASEAN members, while Russian media have repeatedly complained that NATO forces in Eastern Europe are themselves provocative and a threat to nearby Russian troops and territory. All this feeds into a rising tide of global distrust.

This year, the US disinvited China from taking part in its Rim of the Pacific naval drills, in part due to espionage fears, but also in protest against China’s growing South China Sea bellicosity.

For all their increasingly allied interest against the US, there are no signs that Russia and China particularly trust each other. Moscow has long feared Beijing might try to grab territory in its sparsely populated center, while Beijing has had its own worries about how Russia might use its military against it.

Indeed, some observers suspect one of the principal reasons that Moscow invited Beijing to take part in next month’s exercises is to keep Beijing from worrying that they might be a precursor to actual military action.

Where the truth lies is inevitably difficult to know, but the more energy and focus the world’s great powers put into extravagant war games, the greater the likelihood that they might find themselves in a real and perhaps uncontrollable conflict.

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist and founder and executive director of the think tank Project for Study of the 21st Century. The opinions expressed are his own.