MOSCOW (Dispatches) -- Russia and China are holding a large-scale joint military exercise in north-central China involving more than 10,000 troops, Russia’s defense ministry said on Tuesday.
The Sibu/Cooperation-2021 drills in China’s Ningxia region are being watched for signs that China and Russia are expanding military cooperation as they spar with the West.
Russia’s Kommersant newspaper said the drills taking place until Friday marked the first time Russian soldiers would use Chinese weapons. Russia and China have conducted drills since 2005.
Moscow sent Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter aircraft, motorized rifle units and air defense systems to the exercise that was focused on counter-terrorism, the defense ministry said in a statement.
The drills come as the Taliban have gained ground in Afghanistan where security has deteriorated as the United States withdraws its troops after two decades of war, creating a security headache for Moscow.
Separately, Russia on Tuesday completed joint drills in Tajikistan with Uzbek and Tajik forces near the Afghan border. Moscow also said it was bulking up its military base in Tajikistan with assault rifles and other weapons.
Moscow pivoted to China in 2014 as its political ties with the West sank to post Cold-War lows over the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. China is Russia’s biggest trade partner.
Following the current weeklong exercises, the Russian military and China’s People’s Liberation Army will also train together in September in drills organized under the banner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a Eurasian security bloc helmed by Beijing and Moscow.
The SCO -- which in addition to China and Russia consists of India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- has become a vehicle for Beijing’s growing security ties across Eurasia, which are poised to grow against the backdrop of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Russia has traditionally seen the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as its own sphere of influence, but Beijing’s rise as the dominant economic force has changed the dynamics in the region.
In recent years, China and Russia have looked to balance their interests in Central Asia between “Russian military muscle and China’s wallet,” Anton Barbashin, editorial director at the online journal Riddle Russia, told RFE/RL.