As tensions mount on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea’s two major backers—Russia and China—have kicked off a series of joint air defense exercises that could be sending a message to the United States and North Korea.
China’s Ministry of National Defense said the exercises will help China and Russia strengthen cooperation in air and missile defense, reported Xinhua, the Chinese regime’s official mouthpiece.
The anti-missile drill, being held from Dec. 11–16 in Beijing, is based on computer simulations, Wu Qian, the ministry spokesperson, told reporters.
According to Wu, the drill will help the two countries cope with a sudden ballistic or cruise missile attack inside their territories.
But while the spokesperson said the exercises are not aimed at any third party, they do send a message, according to one expert.
Professor Carl Schuster, a retired Navy captain who now lectures at Hawaii Pacific University, says the exercises are part of a new era of military cooperation between the two countries and serve three purposes.
“One is, of course, political posturing. The other is sending a warning: ‘We have forces there, they are operationally ready and they’re getting better.’ And there’s a not-so-subtle hint of ‘you can’t ignore our presence and our interests.’”
“They know that tensions are ratcheting up,” he added. “They want both North Korea and the United States to know that they have an interest in the results and in the situation and that they can’t and should not be ignored.”
The third purpose of the exercises is for Russia and China to assess their range of options, one of which is military intervention, and to assess if they are ready and aware of all that they need to do or identify what they may be lacking if military force is needed.
The exercises also train Russian and Chinese forces to cooperate, said Schuster.
It’s the second such set of exercises. Known as Aerospace Security 2017 Russian-Chinese Anti Ballistic Missile defense computer command post exercise, this year’s exercises will focus largely on repelling missiles and military cooperation, according to the Russian military.
The exercises come during an upswing in relations between the two countries to a temperate middle ground after the love-hate relationship that followed the Soviet Union’s initial founding of the Chinese Communist Party 100 years ago.
Since then, the two countries have been both military allies and enemies, fighting wars alongside and against each other.
Lately, the two countries have been holding more joint military exercises.
Russia’s minister of defense says that developing the strategic partnership with China is “an absolute priority.”
Russian General of the Army Sergei Shoigu made that declaration during talks in Moscow with Colonel General Zhang Youxia, the Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission on Dec. 8.
That priority comes from one of the few things Russia and China are fully aligned on: their mutual objection to U.S. dominance.
“They have a common interest in constraining and reducing U.S. influence,” said Schuster.
America’s leading influence in many international processes and institutions leaves both Russia and China feeling restrained, said Schuster.
One example in China’s case is its territorial claims in the South China Sea, which extend well beyond the territorial limits laid out in established international law.
In Russia’s case, the Putin leadership objects to American and European Union obstruction in its efforts in Ukraine, where Russia has annexed the Crimean Peninsula and is backing anti-government forces in Eastern Ukraine.
But their cooperation is tempered by a history of competition, with North Korea being one example.
The current North Korean regime is a result of Soviet backing. China had backed an alternative North Korean leader during Mao’s time but the relatively impoverished Chinese Communist Party did not have the resources to support their choice, said Schuster.
“Most of their cooperation, it is most tactical. They don’t entirely trust each other,” he said.
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