R. M. V Pavan Raghavendra, Research Intern, ICS
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Russian Federation recently conducted the ‘West/Interaction-2021’ joint military Exercise (hereinafter called Exercise) from 9 to 13 August 2021.
Titled 西部·联合-2021 (xibu/lianhe-2021) in Chinese, and “Запад/Взаимодействие-2021” (Zapad/Vzaimodeystviye-2021) in Russian, the Exercise was unprecedented in terms of scope, level of participation by both sides and its conduct.
The theme of the Exercise was ‘safeguarding regional security and stability’ and it intended to ‘verify and improve joint reconnaissance, early warning, and electronic information attack and joint attack and elimination’. While Chinese media claimed that more than 10,000 troops from the PLA’s Western Theatre Command (WTC) and Russia’s Eastern Military District (EMD) participated in the Exercise, Janes Defence News reported 13,000 troops.
Russian troops operated PLA weapons and equipment during the Exercise, of which more than 80 per cent were modern, including a newly unveiled Type 95 ‘4-25’ integrated gun-missile air-defence system. The PLA’s J-20 fighters and Y-20 transport aircraft, and Russian Su-30 also participated in the Exercise.
It is interesting to consider the selection of troops participating in the Exercise from both sides and the location before looking at the conduct.
The WTC comprises 76 and 77 Group Armies and is responsible for China’s borders with India, South and Central Asia, and ‘counterterrorism’ in Xinjiang and Tibet. Tibet and Xinjiang Military districts (MD) located within WTC have sizeable troops and are directly under the CMC/PLA Ground Forces HQ.
As observed from CCTV 7 coverage, PLA troops* participating in the Exercise were drawn from the 181 Combined Arms Brigade, Artillery Brigade, and Special Operations Brigade of the WTC’s 77 Group Army (GA), 84 Army Aviation Brigade of Xinjiang MD, and the Airborne Corps. The choice of 77 GA over 76 GA is curious as it is based in Sichuan and is oriented to South West along the India-China Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Tibet. The 76 GA is based in Qinghai, Ningxia and Gansu, and is oriented towards the North West, i.e., the Western sector of the LAC in Xinjiang and South and Central Asia.
EMD‘s Area of Responsibility covers Eastern Siberia up to the Pacific Ocean and includes Russia’s land borders with China and Mongolia. Russian troops participating included a motorised rifle unit located in the Trans-Baikal region, operational-tactical aviation units, and a combined army aviation detachment.
One of the two main Combined Arms Tactical Training Bases (CATTBs) in WTC, the Qingtongxia (青铜峡) CATTB, is located at the base of Helan mountain ranges at an altitude of 2000m. The terrain is semi-desert with an arid climate. The base contains an urban warfare training village, electromagnetic environment simulation, monitoring and control systems, and a 1:500 scale model of the Aksai Chin.
Before the actual Exercise, both sides conducted extensive preparations, which included familiarisation and handling of PLA weapons and equipment followed by live firing. The joint tactical training which followed included long-range precision fire by artillery and airdropping of troops and Infantry Combat Vehicles (ICV).
The PLA established a three-tiered joint bilingual (Russian-Chinese) joint command centre to ensure smooth coordination between PLA personnel and their Russian counterparts at all levels. China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) set up a directing department under General Li Zuocheng, member of the CMC and Chief of the Joint Staff Department, while Lieutenant Generals Liu Xiaowu and Mikhail Nosulev, Deputy Theatre Commanders of WTC and EMD respectively, headed the Joint Command and were involved in joint planning.
An extensive communication network involving ten communication methods and multiple networking modes with information terminals was established to ensure real-time information sharing and passing of instructions between the Joint Command and troops.
The main Exercise was conducted in four stages involving joint confrontation, destruction of enemy defences, three-dimensional attack and pursuit and annihilation, involving extensive ground-air coordination.
Under cover of the J-20 and other fighter aircraft, H-6 bombers and JH-7As fighter bombers carried out the destruction of enemy defences in depth while artillery systems including multiple rocket systems and 155mm gun howitzers engaged enemy targets firing hundreds of tons of ammunition within forty minutes.
Y-20 and Y-9 aircraft were used to paradrop Airborne troops along with ZBL-03 to carry out long-range deep assaults to seize enemy defences and gaining battlefield initiative, while special forces along with Lynx were inserted using Mi-17 helicopters and escorted by Z-20 Attack Helicopters. The extensive use of drones for reconnaissance and surveillance, swarm attacks on ‘enemy’ positions, sniping of enemy targets and post-strike damage assessment was another unique feature of the exercise, while ground-based multi-layered air defences intercepted and destroyed enemy drones.
The Exercise’s Closing Ceremony was attended by the Defence Ministers of both countries who agreed to ‘enhance strategic communication, deepening cooperation in areas such as counterterrorism and working together to safeguard regional stability’.
The China-Russia Military Partnership: The Past and the Future
The PRC and erstwhile-USSR had a history of military cooperation from the pre-Liberation era till the deterioration of Sino-Soviet relations in the late-1950s. During the PRC’s initial years, much of PLA doctrine, organisation and equipment were borrowed from the Soviet model.
The current round of military cooperation commenced after the Sino-Russian boundary dispute was settled in 2005. Since then, the exercises have varied in scale and level of participation. These include the Peace Mission 2005 exercise and the Vostok-2018, Tsentr-2019, and Kavkaz-2020 drills.
At the military level, the Exercise is unprecedented in four aspects; first, is the level of jointness exhibited by the PLA in combining airborne and heliborne operations with ground operations in what the PLA claimed as a ‘three-dimensional’ operation. PLA sources also claimed that the vertical separation between lowest flying aircraft and the vertex of artillery shell was less than 200 metres, reflecting a high degree of coordination between the air and ground elements; second, there was near equal participation by both sides; third, unlike in the past, where both sides operated as distinct entities under an overall command, Russian troops were integrated into mixed formations; and lastly, PLA participated with its latest equipment including J-20 fighters and Electronic Warfare equipment.
The deployment of J-20 fighters, H-6K bombers, airborne and heliborne exercises and the level of degradation sought to be achieved also suggest that the Exercise was aimed at ‘regional stability’ rather than ‘counterterrorism’. The heightened interoperability between Russian armed forces and the PLA will definitely boost their capability to respond to regional threats.
The Exercise thus provides valuable experience to both sides and a foundational tool to institutionalise the bilateral defence relationship without formally entering into a military alliance.
On the diplomatic level, both Beijing and Moscow have claimed that the joint exercises are not targeted against third parties. The geopolitical signalling and intent behind the joint exercises, however, seems to involve multiple dimensions.
Firstly, the drills are being conducted in the context of increasing Western presence in China’s neighbourhood with the Quad deepening cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea. Relations between Russia and the West have also sunk to a new low after the former’s annexation of Crimea. The deepening of China-Russia military ties indicates a strategic posturing on the part of both sides to contest the West.
Second, the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan has resulted in the Taliban taking control over the country, which threatens regional and domestic stability in neighbouring countries. Thus ‘counterterrorism’ is amongst the main agendas of the Exercise. Russia has decided to provide weapons, equipment, and training to Tajikistan’s armed forces.
Finally, the drills serve to signal India about the level of PLA’s operational preparedness as it comes against the backdrop of the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ladakh. On the Russian side, the Exercise signals Russia’s concern about India’s relations with the US despite India’s reassurance that its relations with the US were not at the expense of its relations with Russia. An interesting aspect was that the Joint India-Russia Exercise INDRA-2021, aimed at planning and conducting counterterrorism drills under UN mandate, was held at Volgograd around the same time. The deepening of the military partnership between Russia and China is thus of concern to India. * Special thanks to KK Venkatraman, Research Fellow at Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi, for drawing attention to this.