Russia and China on Thursday launched joint military exercises involving air, sea and land forces that they say aren't aimed at any third country, instead symbolizing the two nations' warming ties since the end of the Cold War.
The eight days of war games began with the chiefs of the Chinese and Russian general staffs starting strategic consultations at the Vladivostok headquarters of Russia's Pacific Fleet, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported.
The exercises, dubbed 'Peace Mission 2005', include some 10,000 troops who will later stage a mock intervention on China's Shandong peninsula to stabilize an imaginary country rife with ethnic strife.
Analysts say Russia and China are unlikely to team up against a common foe in any real conflict despite their shared concern over US dominance in world affairs. Instead, experts say the maneuvers are more of a sales pitch to the Chinese of Russian-made arms -- including the country's long-range strategic bombers, which can carry nuclear weapons.
Still, both countries will seek to prove their military might during the exercises which are being closely watched across the region.
The US Defense Department said in a report in July that China's military was increasingly seeking modernisation and could become a threat to American 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. Its weaknesses were highlighted again earlier this month when Russia had to call for outside help to rescue seven men stranded in a mini-submarine off its Pacific coast in operations that involved the Vladivostok-based Pacific Fleet.
Russia and China are the dominant countries in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group that includes four former Soviet republics of Central Asia and which this year took on Iran, India and Pakistan as observers.
At a summit in July, the group called on Washington to set a date for the withdrawal of its forces from Central Asia, where they have been deployed since after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks to help support operations in neighboring Afghanistan. Representatives from the organisation's countries have been invited to watch the exercises.
The United States said it has been advised of the exercises by both governments but isn't sending any observers.
Despite Russia and China's shared interest in Central Asia, Beijing's main focus for now lies on Taiwan, which China lays claim 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 Russia's 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 US assistance to Taiwan in the event of a conflict and project Chinese strength across the region.
During the drills, the Tu-95s will conduct demonstration flights in the area while the Tu-22Ms will test-fire missiles at ground targets, the deputy chief of Russia's Land Forces in charge of the exercise, Col. Gen. Vladimir Moltenskoi, said last week.
Gen Yuri Baluyevsky, head of the Russian armed forces general staff, said in a newspaper interview last week that the aircraft were taking part because the exercises are being staged far from Russian bases and would help enforce a simulated aerial blockade. But Russia's Air Force Chief said earlier in 2005 that the bombers would be involved in the exercises to showcase them to Beijing