Pakistan, Iran, Myanmar, Belarus and Armenia are also taking part in the Kavkaz-2020 strategic military drills to be held in Russia’s Astrakhan region later this month

China is sending troops from a unit involved in border clashes with India for a multilateral military exercise in Russia later this month, from which New Delhi had withdrawn.

Pakistan, Iran, Myanmar, Belarus and Armenia are among countries taking part in the Kavkaz-2020 (or Caucasus 2020) strategic military drills to be held in Russia’s Astrakhan region on September 21-26, China’s defence ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

The western theatre command (WAC), the unit of People’s Liberation Army involved in the ongoing border friction with India, will be sending troops for the drills, which the ministry said “are not aimed at any third party and are not related to the regional situation,” possibly referring to the China-India tensions.

Late last month, India opted out of Kavkaz-2020 due to Covid-19 and consequent difficulties.

“There is a decision not to take part in contact exercises in view of the Covid-19 pandemic in order to ensure the safety of our troops,” officials had told Hindustan Times in New Delhi.

The expected presence in the exercise of troops from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, states that aren’t recognised by India, in Kavkaz-2020 was also a factor in the decision, one of the officials who wished to remain anonymous had told HT.

With China announcing it’s sending WAC soldiers to the drill, New Delhi has possibly avoided an awkward situation by already pulling out.

“The Chinese forces will mainly consist of troops from the PLA Western Theatre Command, which will carry wheeled equipment and light arms and arrive in Russia via China’s latest transport aircraft,” the defence ministry statement added.

They will join exercises including mobilised defensive elimination, joint live-fire strike, multidimensional assault elimination and battlefield situation control.

The exercises have special meaning for China-Russia ties “at this important moment when the whole world is fighting the pandemic,” the ministry said.

Chinese state media questioned India’s withdrawal and speculated about the real reason for doing so.

One state media foreign analyst said the pandemic cannot be the real reason.

“That theory, however, ignores the fact that India was able to move many times that number of troops around the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China all throughout the summer, so it’s unrealistic to imagine that it can’t fly a few hundred out to Russia for friendly drills,” Andrew Korybko, a Moscow-based American political analyst wrote for the CGTN, China’s official English news channel.

For Beijing and Russia, which have a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, the upcoming drills will be another opportunity to strengthen ties.

The two powers have cooperated closely on military matters and diplomacy, largely to counter US influence. China has frequently joined Russia’s large-scale drills, the Tsentr-2019 and Vostok-2018.

In July 2019, their troops conducted the first joint strategic patrol in northeast Asia, with the Chinese side dispatching two H-6K bombers and the Russian side dispatching two Tu-95 bombers.

“In November and December 2019, the two countries also conducted naval drills in South Africa and the Gulf of Oman with South Africa and Iran respectively. In June, PLA honour guards participated in Russia’s Victory Day military parade in Moscow’s Red Square,” Chinese state media reported.