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Vostok 2018: Inside Russia and China’s tricky relationship

Image credit: Sam LaGrone

On 17 September, Russia wrapped up its largest military exercise since the height of the Cold War. The exercise, known as Vostok 2018, featured approximately 297,000 personnel, 36,000 pieces of ground force equipment, 1,000 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, and 80 ships and support vessels being deployed in central and eastern Russia. For the first time, Chinese military forces were invited to participate in the demonstration. This highlights several important aspects of the relationship between Russia and China.

Vostok is merely the latest instance in a long history of military cooperation between the two countries. Russia and China have been holding joint military training exercises every year since 2005, and commenced joint naval exercises in 2012. Over the past two years, both countries have launched joint naval drills in the South China Sea and the Baltic Sea.

Amiable statements by both leaders have accompanied this military cooperation. In June, Chinese President Xi Jinping awarded Russian President Vladimir Putin with China’s first ‘friendship medal’, calling him a “good and old friend of the Chinese people”. After a meeting with his Russian counterpart in Moscow earlier in April, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe stated that he wished to “let the Americans know about the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia”.

Additionally, Russia’s stagnant economy has underpinned close strategic cooperation with China. Given the loss of Western markets as a result of sanctions from the US and Europe, Russia has grown more dependent on Chinese markets for growth. Xi told Russian media that Sino-Russian relations are “at their best time in history”, along with the announcement of a US $10 billion fund for cross-border infrastructure projects.

While there may very well be a degree of genuineness in Xi and Putin’s friendship, there are glaring chasms of distrust and competition between the two states. Resentment by Russia has grown as Central Asia experiences a major rebalancing of power; China is emerging as one of the most influential players in Russia’s “backyard” and traditional sphere of influence. While Chinese investment has benefited the Russian economy, it has escalated fears of China’s growing presence in the Russian Far East. Chinese migrants are perceived by locals as an expression of China’s ‘de facto territorial expansion'.

Likewise, China is displeased with continued Russian arms sales to their geopolitical rivals such as India and Vietnam. Indeed, just days before Vostok, a weapons deal worth over $1 billion was signed between Russia and Vietnam. Further, many Chinese still begrudge Russia’s control over territory such as the port of Vladivostok, which was seized through unequal treaties in the 19th century.

Despite these problems, political necessity and mutual interests are nonetheless bringing Russia and China closer together. Both capitals face a complex security environment shaped by domestic unrest, slowing economic growth and transnational threats stemming from deteriorating relations with the West.

The US has authorised additional sanctions in retaliation for Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 US elections and its ongoing activity in Ukraine and Syria. Already-strained relations with the European Union have also deteriorated, with more than 18 Russian diplomats being expelled from member states in response to the Skripal poisoning. Similarly, the intensifying trade war under US President Donald Trump has strained China-US relations, and the latest National Defence Authorisation Act prohibits Chinese participation in US-led military exercises, tightens controls on technology and targets Chinese political interference in other states.

Given that neither country has an alternative partner available that comes close to their level of influence and reach, both will likely continue to view cooperation as imperative, albeit their differences. The brilliance of Vostok is that it allowed the world to see that Russia no longer considers China as an adversary but as a potential military ally; a strategy that is guaranteed to turn heads in the international community.

Deaundre Espejo is studying a Bachelor of Laws and Arts at the University of Sydney.

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