Most analyses of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership focus either on Russian arms sales to China or on the joint military exercises conducted by Moscow and Beijing under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which limits the scope of the analytical framework to a consideration of Central Asian scenarios. Given the recent outbreak of ethno-sectarian violence in Xinjiang in early July, such a scenario may seem appropriate, but according to the Shenyang Military Area and head of the Center for Commanding and Decision-making for "Peace Mission 2009," Senior Colonel Zhang Xudong, his military command was ordered to prepare for this exercise in February, but "Due to the late decision to hold the drill, we only had three months to prepare for it" (China Daily, July 27). This was at the height of regional tensions over Pyongyang's brinkmanship. Experts debate the strategic implications of this military partnership, which arguably go beyond just Russian arms sales to China, and appears to be clearly tied to an anti-American military scenario, and probably connected to Taiwan or to ousting the United States from Central Asian bases, or to a common opposition to U.S. missile defenses. A less discussed but increasingly plausible scenario includes the possibility of joint military action in response to a regime crisis in the Democratic Republic of North Korea (DPRK). An examination of their most recent military exercise, “Peace Mission-2009," suggests as much, and furthermore is not the first such exercise allegedly conducted under SCO auspices to raise that possibility.
In 2005, the “Peace Mission” exercises featured large-scale combat operations by both forces. Specifically these exercises involved:
A substantial naval contingent from the Russian Pacific Fleet, including a large BDK-11 assault ship; an anti-submarine vessel, the Marshal Shaposhnikov; the destroyer Burny; and diesel submarines. The naval squadron joined with the Chinese forces to simulate a major amphibious landing on a beachhead in the Jiaodong [Shangdong] peninsula. Russian bombers (TU-95S Bear strategic bombers and TU-22M3 Backfire long-range bombers) also staged an air landing near Qingdao City, including air cover by SU-27SM fighters armed with AS-15, 3,00 kilometer cruise missiles against naval targets.
As experts noted, this exercise sent Japan (and by implication the United States) a message regarding Russia and China’s capability to defend their interests in the Korean peninsula against both allies and second, in China’s case its capability to defend itself against Japan in any territorial disputes . While such operations have been conducted against so-called "separatists" in the past, it is likely that the exercises were intended for other audiences as well.
Indeed, both sides had previously considered military intervention in North Korea both individually and jointly. “In conversations with JIR (Jane’s Intelligence Review) in 2003, Russian officials were candid about the scope of a “Ceausescu scenario” if conditions worsened in North Korea and Kim Jong Il lost control over some of the security forces” . Russian officials also showed concern about a North Korean collapse by holding maneuvers with Japan and South Korea on a refugee scenario as far back as 2003 , but they also made veiled statements in 2004 indicating their concern for the future of the DPRK’s regime . Similarly, some Western experts claim that China made contingency plans for a possible invasion of North Korea in 2003, when it was alerted by rumors about a U.S. strike against the DPRK’s nuclear facilities, with the aim of installing a pro-Chinese regime that would forsake nuclearization, but he reported that China’s military chiefs said this was not feasible .
A noted Japanese military correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun, Shunji Taoka, recently suggested that the recent joint Sino-Russian exercises of 2009 in China’s Jillin province may be intended to intimidate the DPRK. The five-day joint military exercise, dubbed “Peace Mission 2009,” took place from July 22 in the Russian Far East and the Shenyang Military Area Command in northeast China, and were intended “to verify operation plans and capabilities to respond to unexpected incidents under the unstable environment of countries and regions.” The exercise involved paratroops, tanks, self-propelled guns, armored personnel carriers, helicopter gunships, fighter planes, and jet transports, which led Taoka to conclude that the scope of the operations extended beyond an anti-terrorist measure, which are the SCO’s remit. Taoka further asserts that there may be a joint plan of action for “unexpected incidents” in North Korea and that these exercises verify that claim .
Indeed, the supposed terrorists that were targeted in the operation possessed combat aircrafts—a very uncommon asset for any terrorist force—and a major electro-magnetic operation took place, signaling a very intricate, large-scale, and even atypical counter-terrorist operation . These large-scale conventional exercises involving combined arms operations against terrorists in an urban setting, while deploying missiles, air assaults, aerial bombings, air defense forces and ground attack all point to the fact that these operations could easily be duplicated to scenarios extending beyond Central Asia . Not surprisingly, a number of commentators on international affairs have argued that the SCO either should or could take the lead in dealing with the North Korean issue . Finally, at the latest SCO summit the six members agreed that Pyongyang’s threats were unacceptable . Certainly venturing into the Korean issue would mark a major step forward for the SCO and by extension China and Russia in terms of their influence in Asia.
The Russo-Chinese interest in linking their relationship to developments in and around North Korea did not end here. The 2009 exercises had overt signs of attempts on both sides to connect those large-scale operations that both sides rehearsed to North Korean scenarios. In kicking off the exercises, Russian General Nikolai Makarov and Chinese General Chen Bigde, the two Chiefs of Staff of their respective armed forces, appeared together to address the press about the aim of the exercise. The Chinese were characteristically vague, but Makarov went further and said that “Russia and China should develop military cooperation in the wake of North Korean missile threats that prompted intensified military preparations in Japan and South Korea.” That cooperation was necessary in addition to the “complicated’ situations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia as rationales for this cooperation . Makarov went further and highlighted the need for interoperability in command and control of future common groups of Russian and Chinese troops. While Chen Bigde denied that these exercises are targeted at a third party, Colonel Li Jiang, Deputy Chief of the Foreign Affairs Office of China’s Ministry of Defense stated:
“The world order must be multipolar, which would rule out the possibility of any diktat of any country with regards to other members of the international community.” Consequently, it is not ruled out that, as was the case during the Mirnaya Missiya-2005 training exercises, a situation in which the armed forces of the two countries receive the order: “Not to allow the navies of third countries to have access to the place of conducting a peacekeeping operation” will be a scenario of the current peacekeeping exercises .
Since there are no navies or third party naval operations possible in Central Asia, the operation can only be applied to a Taiwan or Korea scenario. Further, since it is quite unlikely that Russia would send forces to a PLA operation in Taiwan—and it is currently inconceivable that a “peacekeeping” operation is needed in Taiwan—this most likely applies to Korea and fears of a succession contingency involving violence in North Korea, or a United States and allied operation against it. Since the United States has admitted that it has contingency plans for any crisis that may develop in the wake of a succession to Kim Jong Il (and presumably other threatening events), it is not surprising that both Moscow and Beijing have such plans of their own . Yet, what is noteworthy is the fact that they have been rehearsing quite extensively what appears to be a plan for a joint operation there. In view of this growing body of evidence, U.S. policymakers need to rethink the potential contingencies and purposes to which a Sino-Russian military partnership may be applied. Furthermore, determine whose interests would most be served by a military intervention in Korea? Only after having answered that question could we then ask ourselves—given the answer to the first question—using Bismarck’s analogy of alliance, who then is the rider and who is the horse in this partnership, Russia or China?