China's Role in Russia's Largest War Games Shows Beijing-Moscow Ties Are Strengthening, Experts Say

Russia will hold joint military exercises with China on Tuesday in what is considered the largest military exercises the country has held since Ronald Reagan's presidency at the height of the Cold War, officials said Monday.

Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu boasted that around 300,000 troops would participate in the war games, along with around 36,000 tanks and 1,000 aircraft. The military exercises take place each year, but some analysts claimed that Russia was making a concerted effort to show off its military prowess because the country's relationship with the West is deteriorating.

In fact, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest allies, told Russian media last month that the exercises were necessary to deter an aggressive international community that was unfriendly toward Russia. Still, some analysts said the military exercises are more of an indication of Russia's growing relationship with China than they are of Russia's military might.

"Some Western observers have treated this as a challenge to the West, and even a possible prelude to some kind of Russian military attack. Don't believe the hype. Russia holds large military exercises at this time every year. The ones in the Asian part of Russia are generally the biggest, and the numbers are likely inflated anyway. More significant is Chinese participation in these exercises for the first time. This is partly symbolic, but it also does reflect deepening relations between the two countries," Brian Taylor, an expert on U.S.-Russian political relations at Syracuse University and author of the new book The Code of Putinism, told Newsweek.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (center) reviews a military honor guard with Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) during a welcoming ceremony outside Beijing's Great Hall of the People on June 8. Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

"Both Russia and China are unhappy with what they view as an unjust international order dominated by the United States. The two countries have expanded their economic and political cooperation over the last decade, and Chinese participation in Russia's military exercises suggests that greater security collaboration is also being explored. This relationship remains far from a formal alliance, given that the two countries sometimes have conflicting interests, but the growing partnership is noteworthy," Taylor continued.

In late August, Russian media reported that Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the Armed Forces, met with his Chinese counterpart in Moscow to discuss the expansion of the military ties between the two countries. Joint military exercises and intelligence sharing were both on the table, Gerasimov told reporters after the meeting.

A 2018 article in the peer-reviewed journal Asian Security claimed that only minimal steps were needed for the two countries to formalize a military alliance, but it's unclear when or if those steps will be taken.

"The analysis demonstrates that China-Russia military relations have been strengthening steadily since the collapse of the USSR and, by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, had passed the stage of 'moderate institutionalization' and begun to enter the stage of 'deep institutionalization,'" the paper read.

"This situation has created a strong basis for more advanced forms of military cooperation and is best described as 'on the verge of an alliance'—a condition in which technically most of the necessary alliance aspects have been established, and only minor steps are necessary for a true military alliance to materialize. The occurrence of such steps, however, remains an open question," it continued.