Strategic Trust-Building

Why the West Should Not Underestimate China-Russia Military Ties

While China and Russia are not formal allies, the deepening of military relations between the two countries is real.

Conventional wisdom among Western policy makers and analysts holds that burgeoning China-Russia military ties are a shallow partnership of convenience, primarily fueled by shortsighted U.S. policies, yet bound to be undermined by diverging national interests and ongoing mutual distrust. As U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis noted during a press conference in September of this year: “I see little in the long term that aligns Russia and China.”

There is ample evidence to support the U.S. defense secretary’s assertion. For example, Russia maintains close military ties with India and Vietnam that includes selling advanced military hardware such as long-range air defense systems and attack submarines to New Delhi and Hanoi. At the same time, both countries are locked in territorial disputes with China. Both also see Beijing as their principal long-term military threat.

Additionally, Russia has remained conspicuously neutral in ongoing maritime disputes involving China in the East and South China Seas. In turn, China did not publicly support Russia’s annexation of Ukraine. Furthermore, Russia feels threatened by China’s incursions into Central Asia with its "Belt and Road Initiative," which undermines Russian preeminence in the region including the Russian-led “Eurasian Economic Union.” Furthermore, there is a corresponding fear in Moscow that Beijing could undermine Russia’s traditional role as the region’s main security provider.

Moving to the military dimension of the relationship, at a first glance, it appears to be a continuation of an uneasy bilateral relationship.

Notably, China and Russia are not committed to collective defense. The two nations do not have a formal security pact that commits them to defend one another in the event of a military conflict and bilateral military agreements between China and Russia do not contain a casus foederis clause obligating one side to come to the defense of the other. Indeed, both sides continue to see one another as an improbable, yet nonetheless real military threat. For example, Russia has repeatedly expressed concern over China’s large arsenal of conventional and nuclear-tipped land-based intermediate range cruise and ballistic missiles, while China is eying with suspicion the re-strengthening of the Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet.

However, a closer examination reveals that China and Russia could indeed incrementally forge a stronger military strategic partnership.

The basis for military relations between China and Russia is the 2001 bilateral Treaty of Good- Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation. Article 9 of that treaty notes that “when a situation arises in which one of the contracting parties deems that peace is being threatened and undermined or its security interests are involved or when it is confronted with the threat of aggression, the contracting parties shall immediately hold contacts and consultations in order to eliminate such threats.” This could be construed as an implicit commitment to mutual defense.

In a similar vein, a 2018 joint Sino-Russian statement reads that the two countries will "build up cooperation in all areas, and further build up strategic contacts and coordination between their armed forces, improve the existing mechanisms of military cooperation, expand interaction in the field of practical military and military-technical cooperation and jointly resist challenges to global and regional security.” While it is true that neither of these agreements outlines a de jure or de facto defensive alliance, the language clearly leaves open the possibility for closer military cooperation between the two countries and possibly joint military operations in the future.

For over a decade China and Russia have been conducting bilateral military exercises, the so-called “Peace Mission,” large-scale joint military exercise primarily involving air and ground forces of both countries, and the so-called “Joint Seas” naval exercises. Including smaller exercises such as ballistic missile defense simulation exercises and internal security forces drills, the total number of Sino-Russian military drills held annually has shot up to four or five and increasingly more complex and weighty. In September 2018 3,500 Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel, 900 pieces of heavy weaponry and 30 aircraft from the PLA’s Northern Theater Command marked China’s first participation in Russia’s largest military exercise in almost four decades in Siberia and the country’s Far East.

While in a previous analysis I noted that the Chinese and Russian militaries are not in the process of achieving NATO-like interoperability any time soon, China’s participation in the Vostok (Eastern) 2018 exercise has yielded tangible practical benefits for the PLA beyond political symbolism. For example, the military exercise provided valuable insights for the PLA for deploying brigade-sized forces that integrate air and ground elements, along with special operations forces, abroad. Especially in the area of expeditionary logistics the exercise offered a useful practical experience to the PLA.

Notably, Sino-Russian military exercises for the past decade have been conducted in the Russian language using joint command codes of the Russian command system. This is partially the result of a large number of PLA officers studying at Russian military academic institutions with potentially wide-reaching consequences. “Together with narrowly specialized technical knowledge, the PLA’s officers absorb the knowledge of Russian military traditions, strategies, and tactics, which is likely to exert a significant impact on China’s military build-up and army organization and make the two countries’ overall thinking about modern threats and warfare more compatible,” Alexander Korolev emphasized in an April 2018 journal article in Asian Security.

China and Russia also continue to deepen cooperation in the military-technical field. Following a fallout over Chinese unlicensed reverse engineering practices in 2006 and 2007, military-technical cooperation has gradually increased over the years with China retaining the status of a “special” or “privileged partner.” The largest bilateral defense programs pertain to air defense systems and aircraft engines, with China no longer seen as merely an export market by Russia, but a genuine defense industry partner. Russian and Chinese officials have repeatedly stressed that military-technical cooperation constitutes the backbone of the China-Russia strategic partnership.

According to an internal Kremlin study cited by Alexander Gabuev in Foreign Affairs, in less than ten years China will have little use for Russian-made military hardware given the country’s massive indigenous R&D investments. It is thus less surprising that Russia has been selling China some of its most advanced military hardware including Sukhoi Su-35S (NATO reporting name: Flanker-E) fighter jets and S-400 Triumf interceptor-based long-range air defense systems (NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler) given that the Chinese market, it is assumed, will soon dry up for Russian imports. At the same time, the study also explains why both countries are moving toward a military technological partnership as equals increasingly focusing on R&D and the joint production of arms.

Joint concerns over U.S. actions and policies—the U.S. National Security Strategy notes that China and Russia are “attempting to erode American security and prosperity” -- are likely to further strengthen Sino-Russian ties. For example, last year’s anti-ballistic missile defense computer-simulated command post exercise, the second ever such exercise by the two countries, was a direct result of Sino-Russian concerns over the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems by the United States on the Korean Peninsula. Both countries have called the deployment “reckless” and likely to destroy “the strategic balance” on the Korean Peninsula and in the region. Apprehensions over U.S. actions could be further cemented by the likely termination of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019.

In the decade ahead, we should not only expect to see an increase in the size and scope of Sino-Russian military exercises, but also anticipate increased cooperation at the military technical level between the two countries. The recent deliveries of Su-35s and S-400 air defense systems alone will necessitate military personnel exchanges and joint trainings, as well as the sharing of operational experiences between the countries’ militaries. Closer Sino-Russian military ties should nonetheless not be confounded with a genuine military alliance. China historically has eschewed any type of formal alliance and will likely continue to do so. At the same time, dismissing burgeoning Sino-Russian military ties due to divergent Chinese and Russian national interests and a lack of NATO-type force interoperability risks glossing over the already deepening level of military cooperation between the two countries. 

The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EastWest Institute

U.S.-China Sanya Initiative Dialogue: Report from the 10th Anniversary Meeting

The EastWest Institute (EWI) convened the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-China Sanya Initiative from October 27 to 29, 2018. The dialogue was made possible through the generous support of the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF) and other private donors and was organized in close partnership with the China Association for International Friendly Contact (CAIFC). Retired American and Chinese senior flag officers and executives of the hosting organizations met in Beijing to discuss critical issues of mutual concern and interest impacting the U.S.-China military-to-military relationship, including North Korea, Taiwan, the South China Sea, emerging technologies, as well as other regional security challenges.

The dialogue afforded timely opportunities for substantive exchanges prior to the November 9th meeting between U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Chinese Minister of Defense Wei Fenghe and State Councilor Yang Jiechi. Planned activities included two days of off-the-record discussions at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing with the participation of observers from both China and the United States, as well as official meetings with Admiral Miao Hua, Director of the Political Department of the Chinese Central Military Commission, and Ambassador Terry Branstad, the U.S. Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China.

Avoiding a New Cold War: The World Needs a Wind of Change

By Ofer Fridman

On the one hand, neither Russia, nor the West, claim that they want a repetition of the Cold War. On the other, in analysing the tone and rhetoric used by both sides, it seems that they are talking themselves into such a scenario, because renaming this confrontation as hybrid war or gibridnaya voyna does not change its nature. Moreover, continued words of hostility have been widely supported by actions: defence budgets have risen in Russia and in NATO, non-NATO member Sweden has returned to conscription, NATO has deployed forces in Eastern Europe on the largest scale since the end of the Cold War, and the Kremlin has renewed flights of its strategic bombers and is announcing a new piece of military hardware almost on monthly basis.

It is important to remember that the Cold War was not only a nuclear stand-off, with its numerous near-misses (from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Able Archer episode) that brought humanity on the brink of mutual destruction, but also a period that was enormously expensive, both financially and politically, and extremely destabilising throughout the world. Since a new Cold War promises to be even less salutary, both sides have to face a difficult choice between a politically challenging but responsible path based on mutual respect and trust, versus an impulsive, reckless and antagonistic approach, which may be politically easier, but in which the whole world loses.

In an effort to avoid the repetition of a new Cold War scenario, Western leadership would probably have to make very difficult political decisions, but since the West (in its political, rather geographical sense) represents the most stable, experienced, economically powerful and politically progressive community on this planet, it seems that it is about time that it start behaving like one. The West should accept the fact that Russia is a major power that is going to remain ambitious, alive and kicking, with President Putin or without, protecting its interests and unwilling to dance to a Western tune. Therefore, there is little help in assessing that Moscow is “politically isolated, economically sanctioned and with few options to improve its lot” or how vulnerable “an over-geared, under-invested, over-securitised and under-legitimate Russia may be.” First, it does not represent the trend. Second, and more importantly, it misleads and creates an unhelpful delusion regarding the current state of Russian affairs.

A case in point is Ukraine. While the West is obviously right to claim that Ukrainian sovereignty and democracy is not a place for Russia’s meddling, it should not forget the other side of the coin – Ukraine is not the place for the Western interference either. In other words, as a direct continuation of the previous understanding that Russia is going to remain a major power in its neighbourhood, the West should accept its role. As John J. Mearsheimer, put it: “Washington may not like Moscow’s position, but it should understand the logic behind it. This is Geopolitics 101: great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory.”

Similarly, since the Kremlin believes that its foreign policy “reflects the unique century-old role of Russia as a balancing factor in international affairs and the development of the world civilisation,” it seems about time that Moscow starts to balance its relations with the West, rather than impair them.

On the one hand, it seems that in its game against the West, Russia enjoys an advantage – it is more prepared and knows the West’s weaknesses much better than the West knows Russia’s. Since the end of the Cold War, the number of Russian people living, studying, teaching, working or even just visiting the West is incomparably higher than the number of the Westerners, who have been doing the same in Russia. Today’s Russia (with its political leadership, academic and business communities and even average citizens) understands the West, its strengths and weaknesses, much better than the West understands Russia

On the other, the fact that the Russians have travelled, studied and lived in the West is also a weakness. It does not necessarily mean that the Russians think that the West is better; rather it means that they recognize it is different, and during tough times anything different looks appealing. The Kremlin should remember that Russian exposure to and engagement with the West may also have a very quick and powerful adverse effect if the Russian people should become unhappy with their leadership.  After all, these were not external adversaries, but the Russian people themselves who brought Russian the state down twice during the 20th century – in 1917 and again in 1991.

Since the end of the Cold War, the West has made many mistakes – some were recognised quickly, for others it took years to understand, for some the West was punished, for others it punishes itself. Without any doubt the West also has made many mistakes in its approach to Russia, however, the Kremlin should remember that punishing the West “for assuming Russia’s a weak power, a declining power” is not the goal, but merely a way to point towards the West’s mistakes (and it seems that the lesson has already been learnt).  

Re-establishing lost trust will not be an easy task, neither for Russia, nor for the West. Undoubtedly, it will be a long and painful process, however, the alternative could be even worse. Both sides have to understand that the world needs a wind of change, different to the sentiment expressed in the lyrics of the famous song of the Scorpions depicting the ruins of the Soviet Union. “Let your balalaika sing what my guitar wants to say” fostered a misapplied euphoria in the West and even less helpful taste of humiliation in Russia. The world needs a wind of change based on mutual respect and understanding, the ability to take responsibility for previous mistakes and a readiness to compromise. Only such a scenario will eliminate the need for future rock bands to play similar songs in the decades ahead. Otherwise, regardless the instruments that would set a future tune, whether these will be guitars or balalaikas, we all lose.

Ofer Fridman (PhD) Lecturer in War Studies, Department of War Studies, King's College London, Director of Operations, King's Centre for Strategic Communications (KCSC). 

The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EastWest Institute

Afghan Narcotrafficking: A Joint Policy Assessment

EWI Releases Final Joint U.S-Russia Report on Afghan Narcotrafficking

The EastWest Institute (EWI) has released Afghan Narcotrafficking: A Joint Policy Assessment, the sixth and final report from the institute’s Joint U.S.-Russia Working Group on Afghan Narcotrafficking, which provides a comprehensive and updated assessment of the Afghan drug trade and the role that both the United States and Russia might be able to play in countering this shared threat.

The Joint Policy Assessment represents a consensus assessment by both U.S. and Russian technical and policy experts and is intended to serve as a toolkit based on which relevant stakeholders can formulate policy solutions on cooperative bilateral and multilateral measures to reduce the threat of Afghan narcotrafficking. These key stakeholders include policy officials and interlocutors in the United States, Russia, Afghanistan and its neighboring countries, as well as regional and global organizations.

“The scale and intensity of the Afghan narcotrafficking threat has increased in past years, and despite differences in the national priorities and interests of the United States and Russia, this remains an issue of mutual strategic concern for the two countries and the region as a whole,” notes Ambassador Cameron Munter, CEO & President of the EastWest Institute. “It is critical for both countries to manage and mitigate the Afghan narcotrafficking threat and foster cooperation on this issue—even in this prohibitive climate for improved U.S.-Russia relations.”

The final installment under EWI’s Afghan Narcotrafficking series, the Joint Policy Assessment follows five successful consensus-based reports: Afghan Narcotrafficking: A Joint Threat Assessment (2013); Afghan Narcotrafficking: Post-2014 Scenarios (2015); Afghan Narcotrafficking: The State of Afghanistan's Borders (2015); Afghan Narcotrafficking: Finding an Alternative to Alternative Development (2016); and Afghan Narcotrafficking: Illicit Financial Flows (2017).

Established in 2011, the Working Group has also garnered positive feedback and support from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the United States Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), the United States Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation and the Federal Drug Control Service of the Russian Federation (FSKN), in addition to various multilateral organizations/agencies such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Fully committed to the critical importance of Afghanistan, and the urgent need for continued U.S.-Russia cooperation, the EastWest Institute will establish a new Joint Working Group to assess the threat of terrorism in the war-torn country. Over the course of two years, the Working Group plans to convene in Moscow, Washington, D.C., Brussels and Astana and produce a joint threat assessment, which will be disseminated to key policy officials and interlocutors.

Please click here for the full report.

Click here for the executive summary.

EWI Webinar on International Organizations and Conflict Resolution in the Time of COVID-19

On December 7, the EastWest Institute (EWI) conducted a webinar on "International Organizations and Conflict Resolution in the Time of COVID-19." The webinar featured distinguished speakers Hon. Izumi Nakamitsu, under-secretary-general and high representative for Disarmament Affairs at the United Nations, and Ambassador Tuula Yrjölä, officer-in-charge/deputy head of the Secretariat and director of the Conflict Prevention Centre. 

The webinar was moderated by Bruce McConnell, EWI president and CEO Discussants included Dr. Mark Meirowitz, professor of humanities at SUNY Maritime College in New York and EWI senior fellow, and Nvard Chalikyan, consultant for EWI’s Russia and the United States program.

The panelists discussed how COVID-19 impacts  the operations of conflict resolution organizations, particularly in their ability to execute their missions within the constraints of a digital work environment. 

Hon. Izumi Nakamitsu said that COVID-19 is having a devastating effect on all aspects of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, especially on security and development, as it has accelerated many existing security threats. As states have increased their military spending, with emerging weapon technologies coming into play, this has added to the intensity of armed conflicts. Pandemic-related processes have also exacerbated the existing strain on the global disarmament and arms control regime. All these are challenges that the UN and other international organizations are struggling to deal with. 

Looking ahead, Nakamitsu said that the coming decade will be crucial to the international community, noting  that to achieve better outcomes, there must be renewed ambition, leadership and collective efforts that people at the centre of global responses. "Such times of pressing emergency and widespread turmoil represent a crucial opportunity to propose bolder approaches to conflict prevention," she noted. 

Nakamitsu also stressed the importance of concerted multilateral efforts in mobilizing government and private sector actors around development and implementation of norms of behavior, citing the example of EWI’s Global Cooperation in Cyberspace program. 

Ambassador Tuula Yrjölä said that COVID-19 has had an unprecedented effect on multilateralism and conflict resolution efforts in general, and in particular, on the security operations of the OSCE in the regions they cover—Ukraine, Transnistria, Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh. 

While the OSCE has adapted its work to the current circumstances by moving its main activities online, many functions of the organization have been hampered. At the same time, the pandemic has accelerated the need to find technological tools to support conflict resolution mechanisms. Despite the UN call for a global ceasefire, the pandemic has given rise to political and military threat perceptions in the OSCE and to the revival of frozen conflicts, exemplified in the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

"The impact [of the pandemic] could exacerbate further by an economic crisis that can affect all states in the region as well as globally," concluded Yrjölä, stressing the need for more resources to be allocated to conflict resolution organizations. 

Discussant Nvard Chalikyan presented recent research by the EastWest Institute on the impact COVID-19 has had on global security and the work of Track 2 organizations. The pandemic has resulted in the emergence of new conflicts and the resergence of old security threats, including a rise in terrorism and radicalization, escalation of the nuclear  arms race, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and a lack of implementation of arms control regimes, among others. This has generated a greater need for the work of international organizations involved in Track 2 conflict resolution. "Speaking in economic terms, the demand for conflict resolution is higher than the supply, so we need to think of ways to increase the supply," she noted. 

Chalikyan also reflected on the case of the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh—when Azerbaijan, supported by Turkey, seized a majority  of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic by force, breaching international law. Despite  well-documented attacks on the civilian population and the use of prohibited weapons,  there was no interference by the international community. The case raises questions about the capacity of international conflict resolution organizations to prevent or stop wars, especially during a pandemic. 

Dr. Mark Meirowitz spoke about the lessons learned from the pandemic. He noted that the world is in conflict because of the competition between the great powers, which continue to play a crucial role in various conflicts without interference or accountability from multilateral organizations, such as the UN.

He also raised whether after the pandemic, the world of international relations will go back to “business as usual” or will be obliged to come up with new processes. "Maybe the UN system is not amenable to the world as we see it today; maybe there needs to be a reset of the UN and how it functions," he noted.

Meirowitz believes that the Biden administration will be helpful in overcoming the crisis of multilateralism, as it will be less critical of the UN and international organizations. While during the pandemic the states have been looking inward, he thinks the world will be needing more multilateral engagement and Track 2 activities.

During the Q&A session, several webinar participants asked why the COVID-19 pandemic has had a more dividing effect, rather than bringing the international community together. Other participants posed the question as to whether Track 2 diplomacy would ever be conducted as it was before the COVID pandemic. 

Commenting on this, Ambassador Yrjölä said that it is largely up to the participating states to recognize the value of multilateralism and get out of this crisis. She also thinks that international organizations working on conflict resolution will most likely have more blended work formats going forward. Nakamitsu said that the pandemic has exacerbated these problems and challenges, and it has created a greater need for the revival of multilateralism.

Click here to watch the full webinar on YouTube.

International Organizations and Conflict Resolution in the Time of COVID-19


The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have accelerated a number of negative trends in international politics, including great power rivalry, inter-state territorial disputes, proliferation of various weapons as well as fueling of regional and international conflicts. All these challenges, which demand cooperative solutions, have made the work of conflict resolution organizations even more timely. At the same time, however, the ability of international organizations to function in this environment has been constrained as summits, negotiations and fact-finding missions have gone digital or have been curbed.

How will the present crisis affect the future of multilateral efforts in conflict resolution and arms control? How can international institutions and their civil society partners carry forward their vital work amidst a global health emergency?

Join us on December 7, from 9:00-10:00am EST (3:00–4:00pm CET), for an engaging discussion of the challenges posed to conflict prevention by an environment where digital communications have replaced face-to-face interactions.

The webinar will discuss the impact of the pandemic on international organizations dealing with conflict prevention or resolution (particularly the UN and OSCE). It will elaborate on how the pandemic has challenged the institutional capacity of these organizations and affected their ability to carry out their missions, especially disarmament and arms control. It will also discuss the need to reevaluate conflict prevention and conflict resolution efforts to adjust them to the new reality.   

EWI Convenes First Meeting of Track 2 U.S.-Russia Military-to-Military Dialogue

The EastWest Institute (EWI) launched the U.S.-Russia Military-to-Military Dialogue on Monday, October 5, convening retired American and Russian senior military officers for its first ever meeting, which was held virtually.

The meeting kicks off a year-long, Track 2 dialogue series, aimed at exploring avenues for military-to-military cooperation between the United States and Russia on urgent security and strategic issues.

American participants included General (ret.) George W. Casey, General (ret.) Curtis M. Scaparrotti and Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry. Russian participants included Lieutenant General (ret.) Evgeny P. Buzhinsky, Colonel General (ret.) Viktor Yesin and Major General (ret.) Pavel Zolotarev.

As U.S.-Russia relations continue to deteriorate, the meeting afforded participants a timely opportunity to exchange perspectives on the major geopolitical obstacles hampering bilateral military-to-military cooperation, as well as assess issues of mutual concern and interest, including arms control, nuclear non-proliferation and emerging technologies.

Participants agreed that the current state of U.S.-Russia relations is characterized by tension, competition and higher levels of unpredictability and mistrust; however, as compared to the Cold War period, communication and interaction between both militaries is at an all-time low. Discussions underscored that this vacuum in communication poses significant risks, and there remains a greater need for dialogue between Russia and the United States in order to avoid miscalculation and misunderstanding, which can escalate into conflict. 

Co-moderated by Bruce McConnell, EWI president, and Vladimir Ivanov, director of EWI’s Russia program, the meeting also allowed participants to share their respective experiences working with American and Russian colleagues throughout their distinguished careers.

Future meetings of the U.S.-Russia Military-to-Military Dialogue will be organized for later this year and next year.

The dialogue was made possible by the generous support of Carnegie Corporation of New York.


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