Diplomatic relations between Russia and China have gone a step further. Last June, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping held a meeting that was the culmination of good relations between the two countries. The two leaders concluded their meeting by describing diplomatic relations as "a model and example of cooperation".
Putin added that the bilateral relationship "has accumulated the positive experience of centuries of development of relations between our states, fully reflecting the deep historical traditions of good neighbourliness and friendship between the Russian and Chinese peoples". He added that they had succeeded in "taking Russian-Chinese relations to an unprecedented level and turning them into a model of inter-state cooperation in the 21st century".
This interstate cooperation between the two states now goes beyond economic and political collaboration, as Russia and China have begun to carry out joint military exercises. Both the Chinese and Russian defence ministries have announced that these operations, dubbed by both countries as "Joint Western Exercises 2021", are taking place in the Ningxia region of western China and involve more than 10,000 soldiers. The operations are said to involve exercises related to "early warning" reconnaissance, electronic warfare and joint strikes.
These operations take place in an international context shaken by the rapid Taliban expansion in Afghanistan. In recent days, the Taliban, faced with the withdrawal of US and international troops, have taken over six provincial capitals in the country. Added to this is the latest attack by the group on the northern city of Faizabad in Badakshan in the north of the country, in a "large-scale" attack that has seen an offensive in "at least six directions". In this regard, Afghan security forces have already appealed for help and said they "urgently need air support".
In the face of Taliban expansion, China hosted a high-level Taliban delegation last July in a meeting that reinforced ties with the insurgents and, on Beijing's part, granted them international legitimacy. For its part, Russia is avoiding repeating its history, as the former Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan was highly unpopular and resulted in heavy losses, with more than 15,000 Soviet soldiers losing their lives in the conflict. Thus, although the Kremlin has promised to "do everything possible to avoid further escalation of the conflict", it has decided to take a different path and is holding talks with the Taliban in negotiations that Moscow hopes will provide guarantees that Taliban activities will be limited to Afghan territory and, in part, raise Russia's profile as a mediator and negotiator. On 8 July, Taliban representatives met with Russia's special envoy for Afghanistan in Moscow.
The military exercises are now evidence of the development of joint Chinese-Russian operational capabilities. Framed in the context of Afghanistan, it is clear that the US no longer has power in the country. Its imminent withdrawal in what is already known as "America's longest war" is evidence that the US role in Afghanistan is nearing its end. For its part, Russia is taking advantage of this situation to keep the Taliban in check. In this vein, the insurgent group had previously promised during talks in Tehran that they would "not allow their territory to be used for attacks against Russia".
On the other hand, Russia's strategy could be focused on trying to make amends for its past in Afghanistan. Although Russia has offered the use of its military base in Tajikistan, the country has drawn a clear line on the border with Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the limit of what Russia is willing to engage in militarily. Thus, Russia's main interest in Afghanistan is now how instability in the country could affect Central Asian countries.
In fact, Russia has ended joint exercises on the border with Afghanistan in an operation that, according to Central Military District commander Alexander Lapin, used for the first time "a combined group of forces, with extensive use of aviation, reconnaissance, fire and landing operations, based on experience gained in Syria". The exercises involved 2,500 soldiers from Tajikistan, Russia and Uzbekistan. Tajik Defence Minister Sherali Mirzov said that such anti-terrorist exercises were conducted for the first time "in the history of military cooperation between the three countries".
The Russian defence minister also warned that Daesh is strengthening its presence in Afghanistan by sending fighters from other countries and said that "the mission of the United States and NATO in Afghanistan has failed".
On the other hand, China has maintained an intermittent presence in Afghanistan. After 9/11, China disengaged from military intervention in the country, invested little money in counter-terrorism and never became part of the International Security Force (ISF), which was set up to crack down on terrorism. However, the US withdrawal is an opportunity for China to strengthen its influence in the country, and it has made this clear. For the Asian country, Afghanistan's strategic position, economic interests in mineral, oil and gas reserves, and its silent desire for expansionist ambitions in the area, seeking to subtract influence from India or Pakistan, have meant that China now sees the turmoil in the country as an opportunity to gain a foothold.
However, the military cooperation that is brewing between Russia and China is surprising because, according to Roderick Lee, director of research at the US Air Force Air University's Institute for Chinese Space Studies, "this is the first time the Chinese are engaging and allowing the Russians to participate in one of their own exercises.
Mikhail Barabanov, director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said that these exercises are "undoubtedly a step towards deepening military interaction and cooperation" with China.
Although China and Russia insist that their relationship is not a formal defence alliance, analysts believe that "the militaries of the two countries could give each other access to each other's electronic communications systems and build joint command structures". Moreover, Russian and Chinese contingents have stated that the aim of these operations is to "demonstrate Moscow's and Beijing's determination to combat terrorism and jointly protect peace and stability in the region".
In the military sphere, Russia and China began joint exercises in 2005, but only to participate in the annual 'Peace Missions' exercises, under the supervision of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Since 2012, Moscow and Beijing have conducted regular joint naval exercises. In addition, since 2018 the Chinese military has participated in three of Russia's annual strategic exercises. However, China is not interested in attracting NATO's attention, so analysts believe that "the Chinese military is not likely to participate in massive exercises in western Russia this year".
Whether it is to curb terrorist insurgency in the region, self-interest or expansionist desires, the reality is that joint operations between the two Asian giants change the political and military landscape in the region and give both countries a great deal of military power. This hegemony could be transformed into a transcendent Chinese-Russian influence in the region, which, taking advantage of the convulsive situation in certain countries such as Afghanistan, could gain a foothold in the region and swallow up the foreign policy role of powers such as the United States, even the European Union, which is gradually being relegated to the background in the face of growing Asian influence.