The Chinese military has a big and glaring weakness, and it’s turning to Russia to fix it during massive war games

The Russian and Chinese armed forces are putting their military might on display on land, in the air, and at sea in a massive exercise in Russia’s far east, where China is learning lessons from Russia’s warfighting experience in Syria and other global hotspots.

Chinese troops, as well as helicopters and tanks, are participating in Vostok 2018, reportedly the largest drills in the history of the Russian army, and while the Chinese and Russian militaries have held drills together in the past, this year’s exercise is different.

“In the past decade, China-Russia military drills mainly focused on anti-terrorism and other non-traditional threats,” Major Li Jinpeng, the battalion commander for a Chinese artillery battalion, told Chinese state-run broadcaster CGTN, noting that these exercises appear focused on classical battle campaigns.

A military researcher told Chinese media that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army could learn from Russia how to “fight in cities, in deserts, and in mountains.”

In the age of renewed great power competition, China is pushing to build a modern fighting force that can win on the battlefield, whether that be the defense of the mainland, a fight over Taiwan, or an armed conflict in disputed waters. During the drills, Russia shared its wartime experiences with China, which has not fought in a conflict in decades.

“The Russian military is interested in seeing and assessing China’s progress in the military field,” Mikhail Barabanov, editor-in-chief of the Moscow Defence Brief, told the Financial Times recently, “I believe that for China the opportunity to get acquainted with the Russian armed forces is much more interesting since the Russian army has in recent years a great deal of combat experience in Ukraine, Syria, etc while China’s armed forces are completely deprived of modern combat experience and have not fought since 1979.”

A recent article in the Global Times explained that one of the reasons for the ongoing exercises is to learn from the Russian military. “The Russian forces that performed operations in Syria are among the participants of the military exercise. Undoubtedly, joining in such a military exercise with them is helpful for the PLA to become familiar with actual combat,” the article said. This particular point was driven home by Chinese state media as well.

“Almost all the Russian helicopter pilots in this drill have participated in the Syria conflict, so they have very rich real combat experience,” Senior Colonel Li Xincheng, a commander and veteran Chinese helicopter pilot, told CGTN, adding, “Their equipment has been tested in the real battlefield, which we can learn from.”

He added that the Chinese and Russian troops practiced complex strikes not commonly seen in Chinese military exercises. “Unlike the many drills before, this time from the top to the bottom, we have fighter-bombers, helicopters and tanks firing shells at the same time in a three-dimensional attacking system,” Li explained.

Russian state media confirmed by way of a commander that “generalized Syrian experience was used in the drills – from limited objective attacks by landing forces down to firing and reconnaissance rules.” Newsweek, citing the South China Morning Post, reported that Russia is compiling a textbook focused on its Syrian war experience and plans to share it with China.

China’s military is undergoing an extensive military modernization program designed to build a lethal force that is able to fight and win wars by the middle of this century. This effort has involved leadership changes, new recruitment standards, and enhanced training with an emphasis on actual live-fire combat exercises for war rather than the rough equivalent of a military parade, even though that still occurs.

“One of my soldiers told me that he fired so many shells in these drills that it is almost equivalent to his total over the past five years,” Captain Zhang Lei, whose armored vehicle battalion participated in the Vostok exercises, told Chinese state media in a commentary on the expenditure of ammunition during the drills.

Both Moscow and Beijing have stressed that the exercises are not aimed at any third party, but both countries have bonded over their mutual interest in challenging US hegemony. The Pentagon said Monday that while the US respects Russia and China’s right to hold military drills, just as the US does with its allies and international partners, the US will be watching closely.