Military Set for First War Games With China

VLADIVOSTOK -- Navy ships and long-range bombers headed to a Chinese peninsula on Wednesday for the first-ever joint military exercises between Russia and China, staging a mock intervention to stabilize an imaginary country riven by ethnic strife.

Moscow and Beijing insist the exercises starting Thursday -- which will include some 10,000 troops from land, sea and air forces -- are not aimed at any third country. And analysts agree Russia and China are unlikely to team up against a common foe. They say the maneuvers are more of an exhibition of Russian arms in the hope of luring Chinese buyers. Still, both countries will be looking to prove their military might during the eight days of war games dubbed "Peace Mission 2005" on the Shandong Peninsula.

The U.S. Defense Department said in a report last month that China's military was increasingly seeking to modernize and could become a threat to U.S. and other forces in the Asia-Pacific region as it looked to spread its influence.

The Russian military is also eager to show it can still flex its muscle despite much-publicized woes.

The exercises come amid warming ties between the countries, driven by mutual concerns about the United States' dominance in world affairs as well as a shared interest in combating extremism in Central Asia.

The two are the dominant countries in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a grouping that includes four former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Representatives from the organization's countries have been invited to watch the exercises.

The United States said it had been apprised of the exercises by both governments but was not sending any observers. "We expect that whatever activities take place would be ones that would further what we believe is everybody's shared goal of stability and peace in the region," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Monday. "We would hope that anything that they do is not something that would be disruptive to the current atmosphere in the region."

Despite Russia and China's shared interest in Central Asia, Beijing's main focus for now lies on Taiwan, which China lays claims to and has threatened to invade if the island declares formal independence. Earlier, Russian news reports said Beijing had pushed to have the exercises staged closer to Taiwan, making it appear to be a possible rehearsal for an invasion.

Analysts have noted the involvement of Tu-95 strategic bombers and Tu-22M long-range bombers in the exercises -- warplanes that can carry conventional or nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and are not usually part of peacekeeping operations. The aircraft are expected to top China's shopping list both to deter U.S. assistance to Taiwan in the event of a conflict and project Chinese strength.

Beyond the sales pitch, it seems highly unlikely Russia would ever join China in a fight over Taiwan, said Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific editor of military journal Jane's Defense Weekly.

However, the exercises demonstrate a shift in the Chinese military's policy, Karniol said. "They've come to increasingly accept multilateral solutions and accepted the understanding that there are things to learn from exercising with other countries," he said.