MOSCOW – Russia and China on Wednesday opened week-long joint war games designed to counter a hypothetical threat from Islamist extremists or ethnic separatists that both countries insist look increasingly realistic.
The coordinated land and air force exercises, dubbed "Peace Mission 2009," is not the first time the two Eurasian giants have flexed their collective military muscles, but experts say both are driven by a growing sense of urgency stemming from what they see as a deteriorating security picture in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, as well as the eruption of ethnic riots in China's Xinjiang Province earlier this month, which killed almost 200 people according to official figures.
"Terrorist groups are using various measures, and they make use of Islamic slogans to carry out terrorist attacks," Nikolai Makarov, chief of the Russian Armed Forces' General Staff told the official RIA-Novosti agency.
"The latest incident [in Xinjiang] shows that more and more separatist, extremist, and terrorist forces are emerging," he added.
The war games will, for the first time, range across both Russian and Chinese territory near the far-eastern region of Khabarovsk, and involve about 3,000 troops, plus 40 fighter planes and helicopter gunships.
Russian and China have been gradually strengthening their cooperation through joint leadership of the six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which has evolved from a regional trade association into an increasingly assertive political alliance since its formation in 2001. Members include Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan; India, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Iran attend SCO summits as observers.
Some critics warn that the group is taking on an increasingly anti-American complexion, as when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended the SCO's June summit in Yekaterinburg just days after his disputed election victory.
Experts say Moscow and Beijing are concerned about deepening instability in former Soviet Central Asia, where weak local governments face a growing threat from drug smugglers and Islamist extremists emanating from neighboring Afghanistan.
"Unfortunately, our American colleagues and NATO are losing the war in Afghanistan to the Taliban, and there is a danger of spreading extremism into the wider region of Central Asia," says Lt. Gen. Genady Yevstafiyev, senior vice president of the PIR Center, an independent Moscow-based security think tank.
"These [Russia-China] military exercises are a defensive operation, which are especially important for China this year. But they also serve as a warning to extremists, and thus may be helpful to the US and NATO in their efforts" against the Taliban in Afghanistan, he adds.
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said Tuesday that he may approve a new Russian military base in southern Kyrgyzstan to train regional forces to fight the rising tide of narcotics smuggling and terrorism.
In recent weeks, local security forces in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have reported gun battles with Taliban-linked insurgents who they say are infiltrating the countries from Afghanistan.
"The situation in this region is a really serious threat to both Russia and China, as well as countries of central Asia," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the official Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "It's no coincidence that there's a decision to create an antiterrorist center in Kyrgyzstan. It's motivated by real danger."
Though Russian-Chinese cooperation is on the rise, some experts say neither country is interested in moving toward a full strategic anti-Western alliance.
"China is our potential enemy, and these exercises are mostly playing into China's hands," says Alexander Khramchikhin, an expert with the independent Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow.
"Of course Russia wants to play the China card in its relations with the US, and China is playing the Russian card against America," he says. "But the fact remains that, for both of them, relations with Washington remain far more important than anything going on between themselves."