Why the West Should Not Underestimate China-Russia Military Ties

Blog | January 30, 2019

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