Early last week, Russia concluded Vostok-2018, its largest military exercise since the fall of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t just their size, however, that made the recent war games so groundbreaking. For the first time in history, 3,200 Chinese troops trained alongside some 300,000 Russians in eastern Siberia. Previously, the Kremlin had issued invitations to take part in such exercises only to formal military allies such as Belarus. Yet when asked at a press conference if the exercise made him worry about a possible Russian-Chinese military alliance, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis was dismissive. “I see little in the long term that aligns Russia and China,” he said.
Mattis’ view echoes the Western conventional wisdom, which holds that mistrust between Russia and China is too deep to form meaningful strategic bonds. Yet this view is dangerously wrong. The deepening of military ties between these two former rivals is real, and a stronger strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow could, given time, upend a half century of U.S. military planning and strategy.
BUILDING THE BOND
Vostok-2018 was the culmination of a shift in Russian strategic thinking about China that gained momentum after 2014. Even before that, however, Moscow saw clear reasons for deeper engagement with Beijing. For one, both Russia and China care a great deal about preserving peace and tranquility along their shared 2,600-mile border. After a bloody two-day clash in 1969, both countries poured enormous resources into a costly military buildup along the border. In the 1980s, they moved to demilitarize border regions and ultimately settled a long-standing territorial dispute in 2004.
At present, both countries see their major security challenges elsewhere, and their shared desire to avoid creating yet another adverse relationship has been a stabilizing factor for relations. The Kremlin has its hands full with the wars in Syria and Ukraine, the impact of a growing NATO presence along its western border, and the ongoing U.S. defense buildup. For its part, China’s leadership faces growing tensions with Washington over security
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