China-Russia: The Entente Cordiale of the 21st Century?

Blog | October 07, 2019

China and Russia have been enjoying burgeoning military-ties in recent years, which could culminate in a new military alliance.

In September 2019, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Western Command sent 1,600 troops, aircraft, tanks and other hardware to participate in this year’s strategic exercise of the Russian Armed Forces. Dubbed Center-2019 (Tsentr-2019), the exercise took place from September 16-21 in Russia’s Central Military District and in neighboring Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia.

The large PLA contingent was yet another indicator of the growing military ties between Beijing and Moscow and highlighted a warming trend in the military-to-military relations between the countries. The Russian military’s strategic exercise the year prior, Eastern-2018 (Vostok-2018), was not only the largest Russian military exercise in almost four decades, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), but also included the largest PLA contingent participating in Russian-led military drills to date: more than 3,500 PLA personnel, 900 pieces of heavy weaponry and 30 fixed-wing aircraft from the PLA’s Northern Theater Command took part in the exercise, which simulated inter-state warfare.

The most notable feature of this year’s Center-19, next to the participation of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member states—India, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—has also been the emphasis on high intensity combat and inter-state conflict. Although the Russian Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, stressed that the exercise was principally focused on “counter terrorist” operations, the drill included repelling enemy air strikes and counter-attacks against a conventionally-armed state to the southwest of Russia. In other words, China and Russia are practicing to jointly defeat a nation-state enemy, if only at a minuscule scale.

It is another sign that the two countries may slowly be moving toward a de-facto Entente Cordiale, the 1904 Anglo-French agreement that paved the way for France and Great Britain to become allies against Germany and Central Powers during the First World War. Just like France and Great Britain over a century ago, China and Russia are not treaty allies nor do they have any explicit defense commitments to come to the aid of one another if attacked. Nonetheless, pressured to cooperate by a perceived to be increasingly hostile United States, they, like France and the United Kingdom at the turn of the 19th/20th century, are slowly ending their mutual antagonism, despite divergent and conflicting interests, in order to jointly confront a common competitor.

The U.S. National Security Strategy notes the two countries “challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and to repress their societies and expand their influence.” A January 2019 unclassified assessment by the U.S. intelligence community stated that “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s.” 

Notably, bilateral trade between the two countries for the first time surpassed $100 billion in 2017 and is rising. Russia also became China’s biggest supplier of crude oil in 2016 and, beginning in 2019, Moscow has agreed to sell Beijing 1.3 trillion feet of cubic gas annually for three decades.

However, it is also in the economic sphere that cracks in the idea of ever-closer Sino-Russian ties appear foremost. China’s economy is nearly eight times as large as Russia’s and has a much faster growth rate. With its Belt and Road initiative, China has also been aggressively expanding into Central Asia and undermining Moscow’s “Eurasian Economic Union.” More critically, China appears increasingly intent on populating Russia's Far East with Chinese migrants, which has raised deep-seated Russian fears of outright Chinese annexation of parts of the country. This economic imbalance, which translates into a growing gap in power capabilities, is bound to create tensions between the two countries, unless Moscow is willing to play the junior partner.

Closer relations in the military realm is nonetheless real. Two documents have laid the foundation for closer military cooperation and possible military assistance in times of war. First, Article 9 of the 2001 bilateral Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation states 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.” Second, a 2018 joint Sino-Russian declaration notes that China and Russia 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.” Similar language can be found in other documents and underlines the potential for mutual military assistance under certain circumstances.

In 2017, both countries adopted a three-year road map that set the legal framework for military cooperation supplementing a 1993 agreement concluded by the Chinese and Russian defense ministries  to foster closer cooperation between the armed forces of both countries, especially in the field of military technology. China and Russia are also in the process of negotiating an updated military cooperation agreement. In September, the two sides once more committed to boost military ties during a visit of Zhang Youxia, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, to Moscow. The Russian MoD, also announced on September 20 that Russia and China have developed a new plan for cooperation between their respective militaries for 2020 and 2021, “which will be approved in the near future.”

Indeed, China’s new national defense white paper states that “the military relationship between China and Russia continues to develop at a high level, enriching the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era and playing a significant role in maintaining global strategic stability.” The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and the Russian Air Force conducted their first ever joint long-range aerial patrol in the East China Sea and Sea of Japan in July 2019 “to strengthen global strategic stability.” The importance of the joint mission cannot be understated. For the first time, Chinese and Russian nuclear-capable bombers flew in close proximity to the airspace of U.S. allies in East Asia. This sortie was meant to send a clear message to the United States that the commitment of both countries to what Beijing has referred to as a “strategic partnership” might also extend into the strategic nuclear realm.

Of course, these recent joint actions can, and should be viewed with some perspective, as there are limitations to the level of cooperation the two nations are willing to engage in. China historically has eschewed standing alliances. Indeed, both countries time and again have publicly stressed that they are not allies but partners. For example, earlier this year a Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesperson reiterated that China seeks “partnerships, not alliances.”

Beijing and Moscow’s (in)actions in Asia, have also shown the limits of their partnership. Russia’s close ties to Vietnam and India, as well as China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea for which it received little diplomatic support from Russia, have exposed that neither country sees much benefit from supporting the other at the expense of national interests. Despite burgeoning ties, both countries up to a point also continue to see one another as a military threat. For example, Russia’s decision to abandon the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was partially influenced by China’s growing ground-based medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missile arsenal. 

Nonetheless, this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia is helping China build a ballistic missile early warning system. Moscow had previously refused to cooperate with Beijing in this area.

And here is the main lesson from the Entente Cordiale: France and Great Britain had just as many divergent interests as China and Russia. Paris and London saw one another as principal rivals for centuries and fought numerous wars against each other. In 1898, they came close to blows one more time over territorial disputes in East Africa (the so-called “Fashoda Incident”). Nonetheless, jointly threatened by German power, they put aside what commentators at the time thought unbridgeable disagreements together fought a bloody world war against Germany and its allies. Stated differently: A common enemy, despite lacking a joint vision, a strategic plan and joint national interests, may suffice to forge a de-facto alliance. 

Franz-Stefan Gady is a Senior Fellow with the EastWest Institute. He tweets @hoanssolo.

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