- - Thursday, August 21, 2014

After the World Cup, sports fever is continuing to sweep across China.

A Russian sport called the Tank Biathlon has gripped the nation’s military buffs and has been intensely reported and discussed in the media, including on hundreds of China’s Internet-based military forums.

And the focus of national attention on the Tank Biathlon, which is unknown to most Westerners, is China’s humiliatingly unsatisfying performance.

China’s nearly three decades of military modernization have produced a nation of military enthusiasts whose devotion to global warfare and hardware is unparalleled in its intensity.

Sponsored by Russia, the Tank Biathlon 2014 World Championship took place in the Alabino proving ground outside of Moscow from Aug. 4 to Aug. 16.

Twelve nations — Angola, Armenia, Belarus, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Russia, Serbia and Venezuela — sent four tank crews to participate. Several NATO countries, including the U.S., Italy and Germany, had agreed to participate but withdrew in protest of Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea.

The NATO countries’ boycott heightened the delicate rivalry between Russia and China for the attention of potential tank buyers and for preeminence in armored and mechanized land warfare.

And China seemed determined to win, which is perhaps why months before the event, China’s state-run media began to hype the Tank Biathlon with unusual fanfare.

The Russian-Chinese rivalry became more obvious over the tanks to be used. Russia provided more than 60 of its popular T-72B Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) for every team, but China rejected the offer and was the only participant to supply four of its own tanks — the T-96A MBT.

Beijing’s move turned the event into a competition between Russia’s T-72B and China’s T-96A tanks, both the main choice of armored vehicles for their respective armies.

The comparison was not exactly fair because China’s T-96A is a bigger, newer, third-generation machine with a more powerful engine (1,000 horsepower versus the opponent’s 780 horsepower) and more fire control and electronic upgrades. Russia’s T-72B is more than 5 tons lighter and a second-generation tank. The only obvious comparable parts are the tanks’ main cannons, which are the same Russian-designed 2A46m 125-millimeter guns.

Confident that its elite crews from the Nanjing Military Region would prevail, the People’s Liberation Army and the nation were shocked that the first day of the Tank Biathlon ended in disaster for China: It placed eighth — barely ahead of Mongolia, Kuwait and Venezuela — after a grueling race to overcome hills and minefields.

China’s commentators immediately began to spin the disaster on national TV, blaming Russia’s scoring system as unfair to the Chinese team, whose poor mechanical mobility was said to be disproportionately penalized but whose marksmanship was not rewarded enough.

During the second and third phases of the competition, the Chinese team staged a comeback, advancing to fourth place for the second phase and third for the third phase.

Disaster struck again in the final phase. While passing the central review stand, the Chinese lead tank’s caterpillar track fell off, and the vehicle stalled in front of the crowd, allowing a Russian T-72B to overtake and beat it to the finish line. A reserve Chinese T-96A had to be used to finish the race.

In the end, China took third place, while Russia and Armenia took first and second places, respectively.

Chinese military figures were furious.

Military commentator Song Zhongping accused Moscow of cheating and hinted that the Russian team’s 780 horsepower engine was replaced with a 1,130 horsepower model.

Wang Hongguang, formerly deputy commander of the Nanjing Military Region and a veteran tank commander, dismissed the event as having nothing to do with real battlefield relevance.

Ma Dingsheng, a prominent military commentator, fumed on China’s Phoenix TV: “Russia is isolated now due to its deeds in Ukraine. What Russia should have done right now is to befriend and be nice to China. But instead, to sell a few more of its tanks for a few stinking rubles, Russia is playing hardball with us [Chinese] which shows some Russian military leaders are truly small-minded.”

Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com and @Yu_Miles.

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