Russian-Chinese Military ‘Alliance’ Both More and Less Than It Appears

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 146

(Source: AFP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement earlier this month (October 3) that his country is working with China to build a common missile-defense radar system attracted enormous attention around the world, especially in the United States (, October 15; see EDM, October 10); but his reference in the same speech to the existence of “allied relations” with Beijing passed by largely without much comment. The latter point, however, may prove more important in the long run since, to date, Chinese officials have been careful not to use the word “alliance” to describe ties with Russia and have continued to insist that Beijing rejects the notion of alliances as such. A characteristic example was the noncommittal comments of Major General Kui Yanwei, the Chinese military attaché in Moscow, to TASS military observer Viktor Litovkin, which were published in Novoye Voyennoe Obozreniye two weeks after Putin’s remarks (Novoye Voyennoe Obozreniye, October 18).

The difference between Putin’s statements and those of the Chinese general highlights that the military alliance between the two countries that many in Russia and the West are now talking about is both more and less than it appears. It is more in that it represents a breakthrough in Russian thinking, which has always been cautious about its relations with China and fearful of Beijing’s threats to Russia itself. But it is less in that Beijing does not view these bilateral ties—military or otherwise—in the same way Moscow does. For both countries, their rapprochement is the result of shared anger at the United States, but it is limited by their respective calculations. Russia is anxious to play up the relationship at least in some spheres (air and space). Whereas, China, judging by Kui Yanwei’s remarks, sees it less as the grand relationship many in Moscow want to portray and more as a temporary overlap of interests that works to China’s benefit over anyone else’s, including Russia’s.

In a new commentary, Vasily Kashin, a senior scholar at the Moscow-based Institute for the Far East of the Russian Academy of Sciences and an expert on China for the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, presents a particularly balanced description of what has been taking place in the Russian-Chinese relationship. On the one hand, he says Putin’s remarks represent “a new level of military partnership” between the two countries—“an undeclared alliance.” But on the other hand, he notes that Moscow is not willing to expand this “partnership” in ways that might give Beijing the advantage if relations between the two deteriorate in the future. This fact limits the importance of the arrangement and certainly constrains it from becoming a “full” alliance (, October 18).

Putin’s reference at Valdai to an alliance in military affairs broke with a tradition that had existed in Russian and Chinese relations since their normalization in 1989, Kashin writes. Until quite recently, Russian commentators and officials rejected, as a matter of principle, the idea of military alliances (see EDM, October 15)—suggesting that they were “relics” of the Cold War, supported by Washington but not something either Moscow or Beijing would want to be part of. The Chinese were and still are “particularly strident” on this point, the Russian expert says, given their history with such alliances, “including the alliance with the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics] in the years of the Cold War.” Recently, however, Russian commentators and officials below the highest levels have begun to speak almost nonchalantly of “alliance relations” with China. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peshkov, for example, did so in August 2018, Kashin notes (, October 18).

The last few months have seen such changes on the Russian side but not on the Chinese. Moscow welcomed the June 2019 agreement between Putin and Xi Jinping as the opening of “a new era” in military and other ties between the two countries (, June 5). China was less effusive, but it did not correct Moscow (at least in public). That said, it may have privately suggested that some Russians had gone too far because, days later, at the St. Petersburg International Forum, Putin declared, “[W]e are not in a military alliance with China. We are strategic allies: we do not work against anyone; we work for the good of ourselves and our partners [and] we do not intend to replace or displace anything” (RIA Novosti, June 7).

What has become clear, Kashin argues, is that Russia appears to want an alliance more than China does, but it wants to limit the extent of its development to cooperation in the air, space and at sea, directed against the US, a country both sides have troubled relations with. Yet ,at the same time, Moscow does not wish to do anything that would give China an advantage against Russia should their bilateral relationship sour. Moscow, so far, has been less willing to provide China with any assistance in modernizing the latter’s land forces—precisely the arm that could be directed against Russia at some point in the future. That said, Russia has notably allowed Chinese participation in some war games, perhaps because in those, Moscow can learn every bit as much as Beijing (, October 18).

As the Russian analyst observes, “Russia does not lose anything from the point of view of security” by cooperating with China on non-land-based forces. Rather, it “strengthens ties with a key partner and receives significant economic benefits” (, October 18). Chinese calculations are similar. China’s defense attaché to Moscow, General Yanwei, in his recent interview, does not discuss broad military integration with Russia but rather specifies how the kind of cooperation that now exists can help promote his country’s political goals and help its military develop for China’s own purposes.

In short, the supposed alliance between the two countries is more than it appears because it represents a new way of talking about their ties; but it is also less because it is far more limited than many observers think and, perhaps most importantly, is viewed differently in the two capitals.