This Monday, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began joint exercises with the Russian Armed Forces in the northwestern Chinese autonomous region of Ningxia Hui. The exercises, dubbed Zapad/Interaction 2021, focused on testing weapons newly acquired by the PLA, with 81 percent of the weapons being “brand new.” The exercises included over 200 aircraft sorties and the participation of 200 armored vehicles and 100 artillery launch systems. The joint exercises take place as the threat from terrorism and extremism emanating from Central Asia is higher than ever. Though planning for the exercises would have begun before the recent dramatic advances of the Taliban in Central Asia, some analysts noted Zapad/Interaction 2021 included drills for counter-terrorism operations.
Closer Sino-Russian cooperation also comes as the United States petitions allied and partner countries to coordinate responses to Beijing’s actions in the Indo-Pacific. One of the most noted examples of this coordination is the rise of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad,” consisting of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has argued that China regards the Quad as the “one of the most consequential challenges to Chinese ambitions in the years ahead.” In response, China could look to grow its partnership with Russia in the maritime theater in an attempt by Beijing to counteract a future, more closely aligned Quad partnership in the Indo-Pacific. Zhao Huasheng, a Professor of International Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, recently wrote an article arguing for closer Sino-Russian maritime engagement. Zhao’s article expressly pointed to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, which includes Quad cooperation, as a direct motivator for growing Sino-Russian maritime activities in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.Although unauthoritative, it is unlikely that such analysis could have been published without permission from Beijing, given the high sensitivity of the issue. The most recent Zapad/Interaction 2021 joint exercise likely increased the interoperability of the PLA and Russian Armed Forces against extremist threats from Central Asia, and the countries could continue to expand their informal partnership through maritime engagement in a bid to counter the Quad and U.S. influence in the Indo-Pacific.