Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 56

Russian Chief of General Staff Yuri Baluyevsky was dispatched to Beijing March 17-20 in order to finalize plans for unprecedented joint war games this fall. However, the upcoming drill wields a double-edged sword.

Official pronouncements have sounded decidedly optimistic. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Baluyevsky reportedly agreed that China-Russia relations are “at the best stage ever.” Baluyevsky, on his first foreign trip since he took up the post in July 2004, called the exercise “a new way of cooperation,” unimaginable just a few years ago (Xinhua, March 18).

The joint exercise was first mentioned in a memorandum of understanding between the Vice-Chair of China’s Central Military Commission, Guo Boxiong, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in July 2004. Beijing and Moscow first publicly revealed plans of joint military exercises in December 2004, when Ivanov visited China.

The war games are expected to involve Russia’s Il-76 transport planes with paratroopers, Tu-95MS bombers firing cruise missiles at targets in the sea, and Su-27SM fighter jets simulating coverage of ground forces, according to Russian media reports. Russian and Chinese military leaders are expected to attend this exercise.

Baluyevsky arrived in Beijing amid tensions over the new Chinese “Anti-Secession” Law. Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan briefed Baluyevsky on the issue and hailed Russia’s support of the one-China principle. At a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Liang Guanglie, Baluyevsky said that Russia is against any form of “Taiwan independence” and would back the one-China policy (Xinhua, March 18).

However, Baluyevsky’s strong reaction to press reports suggested that the planned joint war games remain vulnerable to media manipulation. Baluyevsky dismissed as “pure fiction” Russian media reports that the exercises were a rehearsal for an invasion of Taiwan. “This exercise is definitely not directed against any third party,” he emphasized (RIA-Novosti, March 17).

But the Russian newspaper Kommersant alleged on March 17 that a major row erupted between China and Russia over the location for the joint exercises. The daily claimed that Russia had been pushing for Xinjiang, due to its proximity to Central Asia. This location would allow Russia to highlight the importance of its air force base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan. Beijing flatly rejected the proposal and instead suggested Zhejiang, a coastal province near Taiwan as “Beijing was trying to use Russia as an additional lever of pressure on the disobedient island,” the newspaper said. Exercises in this area, Kommersant speculated, “would look too provocative and trigger a strong reaction” not only in Taiwan, but also in the United States and Japan. Due to the Russia’s insistence, the exercise was shifted some 500 miles north to Shandong Peninsula.

Even Russia’s official media agreed there was no smoke without fire. Taiwan is concerned by the upcoming maneuvers, viewing them as a threat to its security, Russia’s state-run news agency conceded. Regardless of the location, if the war games include naval forces, they still could be seen as practice for an invasion of Taiwan, hence causing concerns in Japan and the United States (RIA-Novosti, March 21).

Subsequently, Taiwanese media suggested that Russia should be better off with a Taiwan separate from China, as would any country with an interest in the freedom of shipping routes in the western Pacific. Moscow should not endanger ties with Japan and the United States, as a joint statement by the two countries on February 19 described the Taiwan Strait as an area of mutual strategic concern (Taipei Times, March 19).

In the meantime, Russia is understood to have a commercial agenda for the war games. Moscow has an interest in selling weapons to China, for which the exercises are to become a showcase. “I believe that during the exercise we shall witness the use of some weapons that we think will inspire the due interest of our Chinese comrades,” Baluyevsky said (RIA-Novosti, March 17). “We have offers for our Chinese comrades,” he added (Itar-Tass, March 17).

Last January, Moscow hinted that it could to sell advanced strategic weapons to China, including strategic Tu-22M3 (Backfire) bombers. “If they [the Chinese] have enough money, they should buy some” of Russia’s latest warplanes, said General Vladimir Mikhailov, Russian Air Force commander.

Yet regardless of potential commercial interests, the planned joint war games seemingly led Russia into a trap. The drill is likely to spark concerns in Washington and Tokyo, while refusal to hold the exercises could have negative repercussions for ties with Beijing.

In the meantime, the joint war games with China somewhat overshadowed the second leg of Baluyevsky’s Asian tour, who travels to Seoul March 20-22. When in Beijing, Baluyevsky said he had not discussed the situation in the Korean peninsula, adding, “Both Russia and China strictly adhere to the position that there should be no nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula” (RIA-Novosti, March 17). When in Seoul, Baluyevsky reportedly advocated a negotiated settlement to the problems of Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.