China recently announced plans to contribute to Russian support of the Assad regime in Syria, just one of many ways in which Chinese-Russian security ties have strengthened over the past five years (MOFA, May 14). Since the early 2010s, the two countries have been brought together by common threat perceptions and similar outlooks on the international security environment. Both claim to share a similar political ideology that centers on state sovereignty and non-interference, and each fears encirclement by the United States. These shared threat perceptions have led to an increased number of combined military exercises, more advanced military-technical cooperation, frequent high-level military-to-military contact, and unified stances on regional security issues across Asia.
Despite the fact that neither country has publicly broached a formal security alliance, the United States should remain wary of this partnership. Historically, the two countries tend to lean on each other for security/economic assistance in the face of US pressure. To prevent shifts in the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific, therefore, the United States should manage its relationships with the two countries in a more coordinated, comprehensive fashion, and avoid providing incentives for the two to deepen cooperation.
History of Chinese-Russian Security Relations
Russia and the USSR normalized ties in 1989, bringing to a close nearly three decades of estrangement. Since then, the Chinese-Russian relationship has been the strongest when the United States targets one or the other with economic sanctions, and weakest when one country announces new military initiatives or surpasses the other in a new way. This fits with the overall character of the relationship, which has generally been one of convenience, rather than one based on shared ideology.
After the normalization of relations in 1989, the two countries began negotiating force reductions along their shared border, eventually establishing a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination” (全面战略协作伙伴关系) as a first step towards addressing historical grievances and securing their continental flanks (Xinhua, July 26 2017). Arms sales were another component of the renewed relationship: between the late 1980s and early 2000s, China lacked its own arm design capability and was largely cut off from Western arms sales after the tragedy at Tiananmen Square. Russia, on the other hand, had lost much of its export market for weaponry following the breakdown of the Soviet Union.
As such, in the early 2000s the two countries began conducting high-level dialogues on security and military affairs, and Russian arm sales to China grew. Between 1999 and 2006, China was Russia’s largest client for arms, accounting for between 30 and 60% of total Russian exports of major weapons (SIPRI, July 5 2017). Sales foundered in the late 2000s due to Russian concerns about China’s military modernization. Moscow also feared that Russian technology had been reverse engineered. But eventually the two countries re-established their arms sales and military technology cooperation after US and European sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea in 2014 (USNI, March 20 2017). The $7 billion sale of four advanced S-400 SAM systems in 2015 was, by itself, worth more than the entire total of Russian arms sales to China during the five years prior (SIPRI
Since then, Chinese-Russian security and defense ties have continued to improve, largely in response to the US’s strengthening of NATO, and of its security alliances in the Indo-Pacific (CPIFA, 2017). From the west, the United States expanded NATO’s missile defense shield and condemned Russian aggression against the Baltic States. In the east, the United States deemed China a “strategic competitor” and moved to strengthen military interoperability with Asian allies, and its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
Today, US tariffs on Chinese goods, and ongoing sanctions on Russian businesses also make clear that the United States aims to compete with Russia and China across all domains of power, not just militarily. In response, China and Russia have made it a point to increase security and defense ties, and to present a joint political front focused on cooperation and shared interests. In other words, as will be discussed further, the modern relationship between the two countries is deeply rooted in a shared threat perception of US encirclement from both the east and the west; thus the aim of strengthened defense and security ties is to signal that they will counter-balance the United States in Asia and beyond.
An Alliance, Or a Partnership of Convenience?
More strategic and sophisticated joint military exercises, including large exercises in sensitive areas such as the Baltic and South China Seas, have given rise to academic discussions of a more formal security alliance between the two countries (China Brief, September 20 2017). Yet increased cooperation has come in tandem with actions on the part of the US, suggesting that the relationship may be more of a partnership of convenience rather than a strategic plan. However, this does not preclude the possibility of a more formal alliance, and there are a number of ways increased Chinese-Russian cooperation on defense issues could still threaten US security interests, even if the cooperation is not institutionalized.
First, moving away from arms sales and agreements to maintain continental peace, Russia and China are now engaged in military exercises focused on combined operations and missile defense, both of which suggest a strategic shift to power projection and area denial (CPIFA, 2017). These capabilities could allow Russia and China to directly counter US operability in the region and expand their security interests beyond the borders of their respective homelands.
For example, the confirmed delivery earlier this year of Russian S-400 missile systems to China have several potential benefits for the latter: improving the PRC’s ability to defend its major cities against emerging missile threats from US security partners such as Japan, assisting the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in achieving air superiority over Taiwan, and in enforcing potential air defense identification zones over the East and South China Seas (Press TV, April 4). This coincides with China’s growing efforts to project power beyond the first island chain, establish control over sea and air lanes in its adjacent waters, and pressure Taiwan, all of which must confront the US presence in East Asia and US support of Taiwan’s defense forces. The S-400’s long range missiles will allow China to counter US E-3 Sentry Airborne early warning and control systems (AWACS) stationed in Japan, undercutting the United States’ ability to step in quickly to protect its Asian allies against PLA attack.
Meanwhile, in 2016 China and Russia conducted their first joint computer-simulated missile defense exercise: “Aerospace Security” (Russian MOD, April 29 2016). While both countries claimed the exercise was “not pointed against third parties,” it occurred against the backdrop of United States and NATO negotiations to place defensive missile bases in Romania and Poland, as well as US-ROK discussions of a potential deployment of the terminal high altitude area defense (THAAD) system in South Korea.
The shift towards more missile defense exercises runs the risk that the two countries may eventually shift focus to missile offense, particularly as both become more advanced in their own missile systems’ quality, quantity, and mobility (CSIS, February 7; CSIS, May 25). This would fundamentally shift the nature of the Chinese-Russian security relationship from one that is mostly reactionary to one that is actively undermining the United States’ and its allies’ missile defense systems and the US’ ability to operate and uphold its security commitments in the region.
Flourishing high-level military contacts also reinforce the notion that Chinese-Russian ties are strengthening in light of perceived US encirclement. At the Moscow International Security Conference this year, PLA General and PRC Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe ( 魏凤和) explicitly said that his visit was intended to “show the world… a firm determination of [Chinese] armed forces to strengthen strategic cooperation” with Russia, and to work with Russia in their “common struggle” against a US-led and -dominated international world order (TASS, April 3). Russian Defense Minister General Sergei Shoigu reaffirmed that Russian-Chinese relations today have reached a “new, unprecedented” level (Russian MOD, April 3).
While neither government has publicly broached a formalized security alliance, Chinese and Russian scholars have written on the strategic benefits of an alliance (CFAU, 2018). Moreover, across major security issues in Asia and the Middle East, both Russia and China have made a point to establish their mutual view. A 2016 joint declaration on the “promotion and principles of international law” and a 2018 joint statement on the joint comprehensive plan of action are just two examples of instances where China and Russia have come together to solidify their shared perspectives on ongoing international security issues (Russian MOD, June 25; Russian MOD, May 5).
Given the two countries’ high volume of arms trade, increased frequency and sophistication in military cooperation, and demonstrated intention to cooperate on common international security issue, warming Russian-PRC ties should not be dismissed as political theater. Instead, the United States should recognize that this relationship is one that will continue to strengthen, and which has the potential to develop into a security alliance aimed at counter-balancing US influence in the region and beyond.
Implications for US Policy
That said, the Sino-Russian relationship at present is largely one of mutual convenience, and is susceptible to US influence. In cases where the United States isolates one country, the two countries have increased their shared cooperation; recent PRC support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria is but one example. A formalized security alliance is far from fruition, and there are opportunities for the United States to delay or counter the development of one. The United States should thus not only engage with each country on its own, but also consider policies that could undermine the relationship as a whole.
Historic mistrust plays continues to drive a wedge between the two countries, and the two countries still lack the operational capability to conduct complex integrated military operations or streamline intelligence sharing on mutual threats such as early-warning missile tracking. For example, China’s military modernization presents a unique complication to Russia, which drives Russia to seek defense cooperation with countries that Beijing considers potential threats, such as Vietnam and India (USCC, March 20). Moreover, China’s continued reverse-engineering of Russian arms mean that the two countries will face obstacles if it wishes to engage in a security alliance with interservice operability (SIPRI, 2017).
The United States should focus not only on countering Russian and Chinese power projection individually, but also Chinese-Russian security and defense ties as a whole, particularly as the two begin to cooperate against US interests. This could includes publicly investigating Chinese intellectual property theft cases, particularly of those technologies reverse-engineered from Russian transfers, and information campaigns aimed at highlighting the military capability discrepancy between the two. Public prodding of the insecurities already prevalent in Chinese-Russian relations could exacerbate internal strife about the partnership and shift some resources to managing the fallout. Such proactive policy by the US will be especially important as Russia and the PRC deepen US-influenced military cooperation.
Annie Kowalewski received her MA from Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies. She focuses on PLA modernization, Chinese military strategy, and US defense policy in East Asia.