When it comes to military-to-military relations between China and Russia, Western observers by and large remain skeptical over the depth and durability of said ties. Their arguments are threefold: lingering enmity stemming from the Cold War[i], Russia’s inherent apprehension over China’s rise and its long-term designs on Central Asia and the Russian Far East[ii], and in turn Beijing’s view of Russia as a declining and opportunistic partner.[iii]
It is unsurprising then that the prospect of a “Sino-Russian axis” is usually dismissed as largely a Russian diplomatic feint designed to attenuate Western pressure against Moscow due to its involvement in Ukraine and Syria. While the above arguments have some merit, they should not blind analysts from seeing clear signs of a deepening relationship between Russia and China. Moreover, history and basic international relations logic tells us that states can overcome substantial mutual distrust if there is a shared threat or if simply the gains from cooperating outweigh the risks. Bitter rivals can reconcile seemingly overnight. One has to look no further than pre-WWI Europe, where the United Kingdom and the Russian Empire set aside decades of great power rivalry to ally against a rising Germany.
Western analysis of the broader relationship between the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai continues to largely rely on Russian sources, which also skews how ties are perceived by outside watchers. This was particularly egregious in the US coverage of the recent visit of the Chinese Minister of Defense Wei Fenghe (魏凤和) to Moscow. Dozens of major US publications, citing Russian sources, claimed that Wei told his Russian audience, “We’ve come to support you [against the United States],” essentially stating that there is an explicit alliance between the two countries against the United States. Although a full transcript of the conference speech has not been made public, Xinhua’s commentary on the visit makes no mention of such a bold and uncharacteristically provocative comment, casting real doubt that Wei said it at all. The readout instead states that Wei characterized Sino-Russian relations being “as stable as Taishan Mountains,” an affirmative but nevertheless fairly common Chinese idiomatic expression. By not checking Chinese sources, US media unwittingly parroted Russian media talking points on the visit.
Upon first glance, Russia’s interests in pursuing closer military ties with China are more manifest than vice-versa. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, involvement in the war in Eastern Ukraine, and intervention in Syria have left Russia more isolated than at any point since the end of the Cold War. China’s diplomatic support at the UN (China was just one of two countries that voted for Russia’s latest UNSC resolution on the chemical attack in Doma, Syria) coupled with increasing military-to-military exchanges and joint exercises allows the Kremlin to advance a narrative that there is at least some international support for Russia’s efforts to challenge the west.
Concurrently, Russia’s ambitious military reform and modernization effort has highlighted deficiencies in the Russian military-industrial complex and the need for cooperation. Russia’s shipbuilders are struggling to meet the demands of the Russian Navy, and there is some talk of entire ships being built in China. Although unimaginable today, in 2010 Russia purchased two French Mistral class amphibious assault ships from a NATO country to meet the needs of the Russian navy. The ships were not delivered due to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent sanctions, but the case points to Russia’s dependence on foreign procurement. Sanctions have also prevented Russia from purchasing German designed-engines for warships. Even though Russian military enterprises are loath to concede lucrative government contracts to foreign firms, China will be supplying engines (incidentally a Chinese licensed copy of the German original) for Russia’s newest surface vessels. Going forward, as China develops next generation AI/high-tech weaponry, it is possible that Russia will be purchasing entire weapons system from Beijing as well.
For China, military cooperation with Russia provides numerous tangible benefits that outweigh secondary strategic concerns. For one, technological transfer and direct purchases of Russian hardware are crucial if China is to succeed in modernizing its armed forces. Despite impressive gains over the last decade, the PLA’s armament remains uneven, with cutting edge systems being deployed alongside weapons that are over half a century old and are impossible to integrate into a modern, high-tech communications and command systems. In particular, Russia’s sale of Su-35 fighters and the S-400 Surface-to-Air system will reduce the vulnerability of the PLA to US air superiority in a potential conflict.
Beyond arms sales and technological transfer, China’s military planners believe there is a lot that can be learned from Russia’s recent military experiences both in terms of reform and combat. China’s leading military journals, such as China Military Science (中国军事科学) have extensively covered Russia’s military modernization and missile defense research.[iv] Indeed, Russia’s influence on the PLA’s reorganization efforts has been palpable. In addition, Moscow’s campaign in Syria has attracted particular attention since one of the PLA’s most glaring weaknesses is the lack of combat experience.
Wang Jichang (王继昌), a senior Russia researcher at the PLA Academy of Military Science, has praised Russia’s performance in Syria, providing a detailed after-action report.[v] According to Wang, Russia has demonstrated an ability in Syria to wage “an American style” precision bombing campaign, and while the US prioritizes eliminating terrorist leaders, Russia has adopted the better tactic of going after organizational nodes and nexuses, rendering it impossible for the groups to maintain their cohesion. Wang also discussed “hybrid” and informational warfare and how Russia was able to counteract “fake news” and information campaigns intended to undermine Russia’s mission in Syria. One can be sure that the PLA has taken a close look at Russia’s successful ability to integrate social media, state media, and other outlets to rapidly disseminate a cacophony of competing narratives and conspiracy theories designed to sow doubt and confusion among the public and undermine the messaging of Russia’s opponents.
Potential Stumbling Blocks
As mentioned earlier, Sino-Russian relations are by no means free of contradictions. Russia’s leading independent military newspaper, Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, has published several pieces pouring cold water on Sino-Russian military cooperation. Alexander Shlyundov (Александр Шлындов), a professor at the Russian Military Academy of Sciences and an expert on China, has warned about the long-term risks posed by the PLA’s modernization drive. According to Shlyundov, China has either already or will soon catch up with Russia in terms of military capabilities, especially in crucial areas like jet fighters, anti-aircraft and missile defense, and even ICBMs. China has been greatly aided by reverse engineering existing Russian systems, and the author believes that China will soon copy the recently delivered S-400 system as well. China’s investment in modern high-speed rail networks also give China a major logistical advantage in any potential conflict. Other authors have pointed out that China is already a major competitor for Russia in the lucrative international arms market.
According to an SIPRI report on Chinese and Russian arms sales, China is beginning to crowd out Russia from important traditional markets such as Algeria. Russian authors have also written about the former denying Russia access to the growing Indonesian arms market. At the same time, Beijing has made its first sale in the former Soviet Union, providing anti-aircraft systems to Turkmenistan. Perhaps the most salient concern for Moscow is China’s long track record of reverse engineering various Russian weapons systems that were sold without a production license.
Nor is the broader geostrategic framework of Sino-Russian tries entirely to Moscow’s liking. To date, China has shown no interest in forging an explicit alliance. Feng Zhongping, deputy director of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), and a leading Chinese expert on Europe, has characterized the relations between China and Russia as adhering to: “no alliance, no confrontation, not directed at a third party (不结盟，不对抗，不针对第三国).”[vi] In other words, Beijing welcomes cooperation, especially on economic matters, but the strategic partnership stops short of an outright military alliance.
An alliance has concrete obligations, and would potentially risk China getting embroiled in a US-Russia confrontation. In addition, an explicit alliance would also trigger a strong immediate response from Washington, compounding the strains in the Sino-US bilateral relationship. Beijing clearly sees that as a lose-lose proposition, especially when the ambiguity of a “strategic partnership” suits China’s needs. Moscow, however, is left wondering if anything beyond supportive rhetoric could be counted on from Beijing.
Nevertheless, the above-mentioned sore points pale in comparison to the chasm between Russia and the US and NATO allies. In the eyes of the Kremlin, China simply does not pose the kind of immediate threat to Russia that the US does. On the contrary, the Kremlin is likely to only double down on efforts to strengthen military ties with China. Furthermore, with an across-the-board confrontation with the west, continued concerns about radical extremism, a stagnating economy and a neo-feudal domestic political structure that hinges upon the direct involvement of Vladimir Putin in just about any matter, the Kremlin is in no position to think strategically beyond the next 5-6 years.
China’s Long-Term Vision
Russian meddling in the 2016 US Presidential election and an overall downward trajectory in the US-Russian relationship virtually preclude any sort of US-Russia reset in the near term. Beijing can breathe a sigh of relief that Trump’s campaign promise to improve US-Russia relations is unlikely to materialize. Nor is it likely that Russia and Japan will be able to resolve their territorial dispute over the Kurill Islands and upgrade their bilateral relationship in a meaningful way. This bodes well for China, which is seeing itself increasingly surrounded by the US and its allies. Beijing has reacted very negatively to both the new Indo-Pacific paradigm and the revived quadrilateral between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. Although both currently exist only in the form of rhetoric, China in due time may decide to formally upgrade Sino-Russian military cooperation to an overt alliance as a response. On its part, Russia has already come out vociferously against both the Quad and the Indo-Pacific concept, further complicating its longstanding relationship with New Delhi.
In addition to fearing a US-Russian rapprochement, China is wary of Russian ties with India and Vietnam. Both relationships were forged during the Cold War, and are some of Moscow’s most successful. For years India enjoyed priority status over China for the most modern weapons systems available for export while also running several joint development programs. Now China is receiving the vaunted S-400 system ahead of India and there is increasingly close cooperation on key jet fighter technology such as engines, radar, and stealth. Beijing’s relations with Hanoi are not as strained as those with New Delhi, but Chinese press has nevertheless highlighted the sale of the modern Bastion coastal defense system to Vietnam, which allows the latter to retaliate against PLN ships based as far as Hainan.
Geography and history has made both China and Russia unique neighbors. Russia is historically a European power, but it occupies a broad swathe of the Eurasian landmass. China is culturally a Northeast Asian state but its borders stretch out to Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, and with its island-build up, into the heart of Southeast Asia. As long as Russia sees the US as its chief rival and is focused primarily on Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and China looks towards the Asia-Pacific, it is quite likely that Beijing and Moscow will be able to manage their contradictions and maintain a fairly robust military partnership. Even without an explicit alliance, this makes both states more formidable competitors.
[i] After a decade of close cooperation and alliance in the 1950s, the relationship between the Soviet Union and the PRC quickly deteriorated to a point where a series of border skirmishes brought both sides to the precipice of nuclear war in 1969.
[ii] Populist fears among Russians of growing Chinese cross-border economic influence and demographic threat appear to be oblivious to the fact that China’s Northeast is economically depressed and is witnessing internal labor migration to other Chinese provinces.
[iii] Should be noted that in addition to Russia’s imperial legacy in China, Maoist apologists and various hardliners blame the Soviet Union for the hardship and isolation endured by China during the pre-Reform and Opening period.
[iv] Gui Xiao (桂晓), “Composition and Future Development of Russia's Missile Defense System” (俄罗斯反导系统的构成与未来发展趋势), Zhongguo Junshi Kexue, 2016.
[v] Wang Jichang (王继昌), “Main Experience of Russia’s Military Operations in Syria” (俄罗斯在叙利亚军事行动的主要经验), Zhongguo Junshi Kexue, 2016.
[vi] Feng Zhongping (冯仲平), “The Heavy Burden of China’s Foreign Policy in the New Era” (新时期中国外交任重道远/Xinshiqi zhongguo waijiao renzhongdaoyuan), CICIR Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, August 2017.