Last week, Russian and Chinese forces completed a new round of military exercises meant to increase interoperability between the two countries’ armies in a potential war. The “Zapad/Interaction 2021” exercises were meant to help Russia and China work against a common enemy—the United States—but both sides understand that the worst enemy each country could have is actually one another.
The five-day exercises, held in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous region of China, stressed “joint planning and field operations,” pairing Russian and Chinese groups together in mixed units. The exercises, according to China’s Ministry of Defense, were conducted with the goal of “jointly safeguarding regional security and stability” in mind.
Zapad/Interaction 2021, according to the Chinese government, involved 10,000 personnel, 200 aircraft sorties, 200 armored vehicles, and 100 artillery pieces. Almost all of the hardware was new, with 81.6 percent of the equipment of a new type since China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began modernizing in the 2000s. The PLA is also working on a new networking system it calls “one network and four chains” that will connect aircraft, artillery, and armored vehicles on the battlefield.
Activities during the exercises included fast-roping from helicopters, parachute drops by airborne troops, drone strikes, and precision air strikes by J-16 fighters. It’s also the first time a multinational exercise included the new J-20 “Mighty Dragon” stealth fighter.
Russian troops and equipment, according to the Moscow Times, included Su-30SM fighter jets and mechanized infantry troops. Russian troops also used Chinese equipment during at least one stage of the exercise, and fell under Chinese command during another.
Lt. Gen. Liu Xiaowu, deputy commander of the People’s Liberation Army Western Theater Command, led the Chinese side. The deputy commander of the Russian Eastern Military District commanded the Russian side. So, generals of roughly equal stature commanded both units.
The exercise was apparently part of the biennial Zapad (“West”) exercises, which take place in European Russia. Similar Vostok (“East”) exercises take place in Russia’s eastern Siberia region. Larger Zapad exercises are scheduled for September and will involve Russian and Belarusian units. Chinese military units will travel west to participate.
Russia and China are both opposed to a U.S.-based international order, and although the two sides frequently stage military exercises together, a full-blown alliance seems unlikely—at least for now. The two countries have territorial disputes that divide them, but for now it looks like they’re choosing to focus on what unites them, each understanding that having the United States as an enemy is one thing, but having one another as enemies would be much, much worse.
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