The Chinese Government has been running war drills on its far north-eastern border, raising expert concerns the superpower could be considering a push into Russian territory with Moscow focused on its invasion of Ukraine.
The Klaxon has obtained images and details of China’s airforce and army conducting secretive exercises in the Russian border areas along the Ussuri River, near Russia’s sparsely populated Khabarovsk and Ussuriysk regions, in February and March this year.
They involve Chinese Airforce fighter jets and bombers running drills, including live-fire attacks, out of its north-eastern Harbin Air Base, and China’s 78th Group Army running tank and armoured vehicle tactical drills.
They activities are considered unusual because the only border China shares in the region is with Russia.
China publicly backed Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine.
“Beijing secretly began its airforce and armoured unit drills from February, near Russian borders, in the name of routine exercises,” said one senior intelligence source.
“China shares its entire north-eastern border with Russia, yet it still feels the need to conduct such drills, specially where its fighter jets and bombers practice taking out ground targets which can only be in Russian territory.”
Chinese Air Force Xian H-6 bombers at Harbin Air Base in the first week of March. Source: Supplied
In the first week of February China Air Force fighter jets were observed operating out of Harbin conducting “low-altitude tactical navigation drills” and practicing “live-fire attacks on ground targets”, top-level international intelligence sources told The Klaxon.
In the first week of March, also out of Harbin, a fleet of China’s Xian H-6 bombers was conducting “low-to-medium-altitude flight manoeuvre training” in the region.
In the last week of March, armoured detachments of China’s 78th Group Army ran tank and armoured vehicle tactical drills in the same China-Russia border region, known as the “North Eastern Snowfields”.
It had also run a similar exercise in mid-January, before the airforce exercises.
The 78th Group Army, formed in 2017, is part of the People’s Liberation Army’s Northern Theatre Command.
Putin met with Xi Jinping on February 4 and both countries announced a “no limits” partnership, with China backing Russia’s stand-off in Ukraine and Russia backing China on Taiwan.
By then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, despite repeated denials from Moscow, was widely anticipated.
Moscow had undertaken a large-scale military build-up on the Russian-Ukrainian border starting in March last year.
China’s Far East, bordering Russia along the Ussuri RIver. Source: Google Maps
Ongoing denials from Moscow, and a second major build-up starting before Christmas, led to US intelligence publicly warning an invasion was both likely and imminent.
On February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Beijing called for “Ukrainian surrender”.
Within days it became apparent Ukraine would not fall quickly - some had anticipated it would fall within 24 hours - and China shifted to a neutral public position.
Dec-Feb: Major build-up of Russian military on Russia-Ukraine border
Mid-Jan: China’s 78th Group Army runs tactical drills in “North Eastern Snowfields”
Feb 4: Xi Jinping meets Putin, promises support for Ukraine invasion
Feb 1-7: Chinese jets conduct “low-altitude drills” and “live fire attacks” from Harbin Air Base
Feb 24: Russia invades Ukraine
Mar 1-7: Fleet of Xian H-6 bombers out of Harbin practice “low-to-medium-altitude manoeuvre training”
Mar 25-31: China’s 78th Group army runs repeat of January tank and armoured vehicle drills
Intelligence sources said China’s military activities along the Ussuri River had gone unnoticed with the global spotlight focused on Russia’s Ukraine invasion and on China’s movements in the Taiwan Strait.
““The activities have unnoticed given Russia’s Ukraine invasion and on China’s movements in the Taiwan Strait””
China and Russia have a history of tension in the region.
In March 1969, China surprised Moscow by ambushing the remote Damansky Island in a bloody attack which saw 31 Soviet border guards killed and brought the two powers to the brink of all-out war.
The tiny island, known as Damansky in Russian and Zhenbao Dao in Chinese, sits in the middle of the Ussuri River, which itself marks the China-Russia border in the Far East.
The deadly ambush remains a sore point with many Russians.
Damansky Island on the China-Russia border. The site of a bloody 1969 ambush.
Any move by China into Russian territory would send shockwaves around the world.
China has publicly expressed support for Russia, but experts note Beijing has territorial disputes with almost all of its neighbours, making an advance on Russia far from out of question.
“China appears to be way too prepared for the ongoing war situation,” said one security expert.
“The far eastern territory of Russia including the areas of Khabarovsk and Ussuriysk are already remote and Russians have hardly enough military presence to secure these areas, especially if China attempts to venture out”.
An armoured detachment of the 78th Group Army conducting the mid-January drill. Source: Supplied
Russia and China have a complex history.
Relations between the two nations improved after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of the Russian Federation.
China was a major customer of Russian military equipment for many years.
A recent Financial Times investigation showed that exchanged had reversed and Russia was now increasingly reliant on China-manufactured weapons and other military equipment.
On February 4, in the lead-up to the China-held Winter Olympics, Beijing and Moscow released a 5,400 word document as part of the so-called “no limits” partnership.
Russia backed China on Taiwan and China backed Russia over its then “stand-off” in Ukraine.
Both China and Russia voiced opposition to the newly-formed AUKUS, an alliance between Australia, the UK and US, claiming it increased the danger of an “arms race”.
An armoured detachment of the 78th Group Army conducting drill in late-March. Source: Supplied
“Friendships between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation,” Beijing and Moscow said in a joint statement.
Moscow continued to deny it was planning to invade Ukraine.
At that time, three weeks before Russia did invade Ukraine, Scott Kennedy, China expert at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and international Studies, told that despite the claims, the China-Russia alliance would have limits.
“China is willing to stand with Russia through thin but not thick,” he said.
“If a war breaks out over Ukraine or Taiwan, we can expect this partnership to fracture.”
In mid-march US President Joe Biden held a virtual meeting with Xi Jinping.
The Whitehouse said that during the nearly two-hour exchange, Biden discussed “implications and consequences” for Chinese “material support” for Russia in its Ukrainian invasion, The Washington Post reported.
“The Russia-China alignment, in short, reflects the fact that both are led by two deeply anti-American dictators who see their own will as crucial to assuring the United States’ long-term decline (and that of its allies in Europe and Asia) from which they expect to benefit,” wrote the newspaper’s Editorial Board.DONATE
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Editor, Anthony Klan
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