Members of a Chinese military honor guard march during a welcome ceremony at the Ministry of Defense in Beijing, China
The 2015 International Army Game held in Russia this summer ended in mid-August, with Russia coming out on top in all except two of the thirteen different competitions. These competitions, ranging from the most focused tank biathlon to air defense to aviation darts, were set up to comprehensively examine an army’s combat capabilities. In total, thirteen countries participated in the game, but Russia was the only one that entered all thirteen competitions. China was the second largest competitor, participating in all but one event. While it might not be surprising that Russia dominated the game held on its home turf, many Chinese reports expressed discontent at the game and accused Russia of manipulating the rules to deliberately suppress the outstanding performance of the Chinese delegation in order to maintain its own military reputation. It is certainly worthwhile to look at the Sino-Russian military relationship through the discrepancies between the two countries’ reports on the game.
From the Chinese perspective, their delegation should have won multiple championships because China was the only country to send to the game its own equipment, much of which is significantly more advanced than that of its Russian counterpart. According to a Chinese report, the Chinese Type 96A1 main battle tank possesses a far superior fire control system than the Russian T-72B3 and has undergone an upgrade on its mobility system after it delivered a subpar performance in the speed contest during last year’s tank biathlon competition. The Chinese ZBD05 amphibious infantry combat vehicle, when compared with the Russian BTR-80, is much more suitable to navigation in water: it can travel as fast as 25 km/h, compared with the BTR-80’s top speed of 10 km/h. For the “Masters of Artillery Fire” contest, China sent the Type 05 120mm self-propelled motor, whereas all other participants used the truck-attached mortar, which is inferior in accuracy, mobility, and fire control.
Yet China’s new and more powerful equipment hardly yielded any real advantage in the contest. In the tank biathlon, all participants were required to use high-explosive shells instead of armor-piercing shells, which was only used by the Chinese team last year. This requirement greatly reduced the accuracy of the Chinese tank, preventing it from demonstrating its superior fire-control mechanism. During the “Caspian Derby” contest, the referee reduced the component of the contest that is held on water by a large degree, thereby neutralizing ZBD05’s advantage. In the “Suvorov Onslaught” program, the Chinese media reported that the Type 86 infantry combat vehicle only took 25 seconds to load its ammunition, a whole two minutes earlier than the others. However, the arbitrators canceled the scoring of the loading period because the Chinese speed was “unfair to other participants.” Similarly, the Chinese complained that the Russians provided inaccurate geographical information and allowed very limited time to get used to the test ground before the start of the game.
Despite Chinese complaints, Russian analysts consider their country’s victory well-deserved and not surprising at all. In an article from Russia’s Independent Military Review, translated on a Chinese website, Russian soldiers demonstrated exceptional proficiency in the tank biathlon, “Masters of Air Defense,” “Airborne Platoon,” “Aviation Darts,” and “Open Water.” In fact, according to this article, the Russian soldiers were so competent that the Chinese were “seeking the second place from the beginning,” which stands in stark contrast to Chinese reports claiming that the Chinese were aiming to come in first in most of the contests (especially in the tank biathlon).
This divergence between the Russian and Chinese reports suggests that there is a fairly fierce competition between the Russian and Chinese armies, both of which believe that they are the best in the world. Due to China’s impressive military modernization, the Chinese army is putting quality over quantity and is trying to expand its share of the global arms export market. Russia, of course, is not delighted to witness its former protégé become a peer competitor in the army equipment market, especially when it is experiencing a severe financial crisis. In fact, the Russian and Chinese media have quarreled over whether the Chinese Type 99A main battle tank is a match against the newest Russian T-14 Armata. Hence, it is logical to reason that Russia’s dominance at this year’s army game will preserve the status and reputation of its army and arms industry over that of a rising China.
In the short term, the Sino-Russian army competition is unlikely to create any obstacles in bilateral relations. It is reasonable to assume that in the near future, Russia will continue to hold a considerable lead over China in arms exports — particularly since China still relies heavily on Russia for jet engines and naval technology, so it would not be in China’s interest to directly challenge Russia’s army reputation. Nonetheless, the discrepancy between the two countries’ reports suggests a conflict of opinion on the popular level. For once, Chinese and Russian nationalism, historically directed against the West, seem to be working against one another.
Zihao Liu is a senior at Cornell University, majoring in History through the College Scholar Program.
Image Attribution: “Chinese honor guard in column 070322-F-0193C-014” by Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen (USAF), licensed under Public Domain