Chinese and Russian troops have engaged in joint exercises in northwestern China in a sign of growing military ties between Moscow and Beijing amid shared concerns over the instability in Afghanistan.
The military exercises involving ground troops and combat aircraft are to continue through Friday in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
The region is located in northwestern China east of Xinjiang, where China has detained more than 1 million Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minorities in what it calls a campaign against terrorism and extremism. Critics say the detentions violate the human rights of a minority group.
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Xinjiang shares a narrow frontier with Afghanistan, and Beijing is concerned about violence spilling over its border if the Taliban take control in Afghanistan following the pullout of U.S. troops.
While stopping short of creating a formal alliance, Russia and China have increasingly coordinated their military and foreign policies to oppose what they describe as the perceived U.S. global domination.
The official Xinhua News Agency said the exercises began Monday and were presided over by Li Zuocheng, a member of the ruling Communist Party’s Central Military Commission.
The exercise aims to “deepen the joint anti-terrorism operations between the Chinese and Russian militaries and demonstrate the firm determination and strength of the two countries to jointly safeguard international and regional security and stability,” Xinhua said, citing Chinese and Russian officials.
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“It reflects the new height of the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era and of the strategic mutual trust, pragmatic exchanges and coordination between the two countries,” Xinhua said.
The Russian military sent several Su-30SM fighters and a motorized infantry unit to take part in the drills.
“The objectives of the combat training event are to strengthen the development of Russian-Chinese relations, comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction, build up the level of military cooperation and friendship between the armed forces of the two countries, demonstrate the determination and ability of Russia and China to fight terrorism, and jointly protect peace and stability in the region,” the Russian Defense Ministry said.
Russia has backed China in its claims in the South China Sea, over which Beijing clashed with common rival the U.S. on Monday at a high-level U.N. Security Council meeting on maritime security.
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China, Taiwan and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping claims in the disputed waters and have been locked in an increasingly tense territorial standoffs for decades. China has built seven disputed reefs into missile-protected island bases in recent years, ratcheting up tensions with rival claimants, along with the United States and its allies.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded to China’s increasingly assertive claims to the strategic waterway by warning that any conflict there or in any ocean “would have serious global consequences for security and for commerce.”
The area has seen “dangerous encounters between vessels at sea and provocative actions to advance unlawful maritime claims” that seek to “intimidate and bully other states lawfully accessing their maritime resources,” Blinken said.
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China’s deputy ambassador, Dai Bing, responded by accusing the U.S. of becoming “the biggest threat to peace and stability in the South China Sea” and calling its “hype” in the Security Council “entirely politically motivated.”
China has refused to recognize an international arbitration ruling in 2016 that invalided most of its claims in the South China Sea.