Vostok 2018 – Russia’s massive military exercise starting next week and including Chinese troops – is designed to enhance its leverage in the Pacific and re-balance forces in the region that have shifted in China’s favor. 

Moscow is also trying to raise its profile in China, head off cuts in Chinese purchases of Russian weapons and weapons technology and strengthen its position in Korea and Japan. 

It is an uphill battle; no pun intended. While Russia could long count on selling China key aerospace equipment, complete fighter planes – including the powerful Su-35 – and jet engines, China is now introducing types of weapons, especially stealth aircraft, that Russia cannot afford to produce or even support technologically.

China ramps up production

Chinese industry is advertising that it has perfected a jet engine, the Xian WS-15, for its Chengdu J-20 Stealth fighter that previously was using a stopgap Russian-made NPO Saturn AL-31F power plant. The WS-15 in pre-production testing in China makes use of single crystal fan blade technology for the hot section of the engine.

Single crystal castings are made from powdered metal alloys that are cast into shapes and treated in special furnaces and form the core technology for high powered turbine engines – the technology is closely guarded as a secret in the United States.

If China does not need Russian engines or aircraft, Moscow loses a key market in a field already troubled by India’s resistance to its next generation Su-57 semi-stealth fighter.

In the face of that, the exercise is intended to show off Russia’s sophisticated approach to modern warfare. Until now, Syria has been the most important demonstration of the efficacy of Russian military power, especially in air and precision warfare.

Russia is currently showing off its ability to conduct surgical-style, precision attacks in Syria’s Idlib province, using “smart” bombs against weapons storage sites and rebel UAV production centers.

To make its point, Russia released video of the bombs hitting their targets that closely resemble the types of videos often released by the US and Israeli militaries doing the same thing.

Building bridges

Beyond selling military technology, Russia also needs to buttress its influence in both North and South Korea where the possibility clearly exists for a unification-oriented rapprochement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in a meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, invited Kim to visit Russia, but so far the sides have not closed on a date or an agenda.

Russian planners, aware of the sensitivity of Korea to China, are probing to see whether Kim may be more open to Russian mediation with the United States than Chinese.

In that case, the US and Japan would have to cooperate with Russia, offsetting China’s influence and burgeoning military capabilities. China’s record on North Korea has been very mixed, and President Trump has complained that China “may be getting in our way” rather than helping move North Korea toward a settlement on its nuclear program. 

The US also claims, perhaps correctly, that China is engaged in under the table trade with North Korea despite sanctions.  

Meetings planned

Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will attend the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, that runs concurrently with the Vostok military exercise.

Abe has a bilateral meeting planned with Russian President Vladimir Putin, even though the Russians and Japanese are at a stalemate in their territorial dispute over the so-called Northern Territories, or Kuril islands.

Abe is also arranging separate meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon and Mongolian President Khaltmaagiin Battulgabut not with North Korea’s Kim.  

There are those who believe Vostok 2018 was designed against China as the operational threat, and that China’s participation was an afterthought. Instead, 3,200 elite Chinese soldiers will deploy to the Tsugol Training range in the Trans-Baikal region of Russia, part of Russia’s Eastern Military District close to the Chinese border.

China has its own interests and has expressed enthusiasm for participating to learn how Russia has modernized its forces and how Russia is dealing with asymmetric warfare challenges.

China has increased its security presence in its own Xinjiang Province as the region’s historic Uyghur population is increasingly restive under pressure from Beijing.

The Muslim Uyghurs are only one problem facing the regime. Dangerous strikes and political threats have occurred in heavily populated urban areas. China is worried that these upheavals around the country could turn nasty and that civil war is a looming possibility. 

Xi consolidating power

The fact the President Xi has consolidated his power by taking out strong rivals also raises the possibility that the current government could still pay a price for its actions. Social conditions in China depend very much on the country’s economic health and on repressive tactics that could always backfire. 

The lessons of Syria are an important learning laboratory for the Chinese as the Russians were able to bail out the Assad regime and its demoralized army at a critical moment and turn defeat into what appears to be victory.

The Russian Vostok Military Exercise appears to be a good investment for the cash-strapped country. Reestablishing influence in the Northern Pacific can bring the Russians serious benefits, provided their neighbors – especially the two Koreas and Japan – decide that balancing China’s influence is important for the future of the region. 

The United States, presently alienated from Russia over issues including election interference, cyber warfare, Ukraine, Crimea and Syria, is watching carefully and will have to find ways to play in the diplomatic processes among its allies and its adversaries.