Russia and China will hold their first ever joint military exercises this week as the once wary neighbors demonstrate their willingness to cooperate in the face of the U.S. military presence in Central Asia.
The two countries will also do a little business on the side as Russia shops its hardware, including nuclear-capable strategic bombers, to its military-industrial complex's best customer, Russian and Chinese defense analysts said.
The simulated land, sea and air operations are scheduled for Thursday in the Russian Far East, near the city of Vladivostok, before moving on to the Chinese coastal province of Shandong and the Yellow Sea. The two countries have held exercises before with other Central Asian republics, but this week's maneuvers are the first bilateral exercises, defense analysts said.
"The Chinese want to use Russia in a complicated game with the U.S. and Taiwan," said Alexander Golts, a military analyst and journalist in Moscow. "China is expanding its military presence in the region. For Russia, this is mostly about selling weapons."
Billed Peace Mission 2005, the exercise involves about 10,000 troops simulating a mission to aid a third state where law and order has broken down because of terrorist violence.
"The joint exercises will help strengthen the capability of the two armed forces in jointly striking international terrorism, extremism and separatism," China's official New China News Agency said.
The use of that last word, separatism, has unsettled some in Taiwan, who fear that China would try to draw on Russia's support in the event of a confrontation with the island.
Russia, however has resisted being drawn into any standoff with Taiwan -- even a simulated one. According to Russian reports, the Defense Ministry here rejected Chinese proposals to hold the exercises closer to Taiwan.
"China tries to put the Taiwan question into every issue, but for Russia that was never the purpose of the exercises," said Dmitry Kormilitsyn, an analyst at Chinacom, a Moscow think tank that studies China and Russian-Chinese relations. "In Central Asia, on the other hand, Russian and Chinese interests are very close: maintaining the status quo and pushing back against the very active U.S. presence."
The two countries have invited observers from the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which together with Russia and China form the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
That group recently called on the United States to set a timetable to withdraw its forces from bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which are used to support military operations in Afghanistan. The Uzbek authorities later gave U.S. forces 180 days to pull out, after the United States criticized the Uzbek government for suppressing demonstrators in the city of Andijan in May, leaving hundreds dead, according to human rights groups.
"The reason that China can have a joint military exercise with Russia is that mutual understanding between the two countries has reached a certain level, and this gives out a signal to neighboring countries," Ni Lexiong, a military expert who teaches at Shanghai Normal University, said in an interview with the China Times newspaper. "I believe the implied message of Peace Mission 2005 is very obvious: We are facing the same threat."
The week will begin with a news conference and a planning exercise in Vladivostok. Russian airborne troops and marines will then seize a beachhead on China's Shandong peninsula in advance of an inland offensive coordinated with the Chinese military, Vladimir Moltenskoi, a Russian army deputy commander, said in an interview with Russian television.
Toward the end of the exercise, the Russians will deploy strategic, long-range bombers, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, which will fire cruise missiles at targets on the surface of the sea.
"You wonder, if this is a peacekeeping operation, what the strategic bombers are doing there," said Golts, the military analyst.
Moltenskoi said the strategic aircraft, as part of the simulation, would "prevent the vessels of any other countries from approaching the area of the peacekeeping operation."
But Zhao Zongjiu, who teaches at the People's Liberation Army's Nanjing Politics Institute, said in a published comment: "My own understanding is that Russia wants to achieve more military trade with China by engaging in the joint military exercises, in addition to its purpose of promoting military cooperation with China."
In particular, Russia is trying to interest the Chinese in nuclear submarines and strategic bombers, which, Golts said, could be deployed against the U.S. fleet in the Pacific. Golts said Russia was eager to lock in new contracts quickly, to hedge against the European Union lifting an arms embargo it imposed on China after the 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square.
The U.S. Defense Department has warned the European Union that lifting the embargo would bring "serious and numerous" consequences.
Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, deputy director for operations for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon recently that the U.S. Pacific Command planned to monitor the exercises.
"Clearly, there's interest in anything that affects security in the Pacific region," he said.
Correspondent Edward Cody in Beijing contributed to this report.