Many Russia watchers maintain that Moscow and Beijing have not formed and will not form an alliance. But in October 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaimed an alliance, and many observers believe an actual treaty might be signed in 2020.1 In April 2018, Brian Carlson wrote in an article for the Center for Strategic Studies: “The growing strength of the China-Russia relationship has belied the expectations of many allies.”2 Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in 2019 told the Assembly of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (SVOP), “Our partnership with Beijing is not only an example of mutually beneficial and comprehensive relations. A Russian and Chinese partnership also has a sobering effect on those who promote non-legal methods of resolving international problems”—meaning, obviously, the United States.
The Tools of War and Peace
Abundant evidence shows Russian officials—from Putin through Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu—have sought an alliance with China since 2014. A 2018 Russo-Chinese expert dialogue argued that the two countries have attained a level of interaction exceeding a strategic partnership and surpassing an alliance.3 Both sides retain full freedom in relations with third countries “except in circumstances where such relations might violate certain obligations of the existing partnership.” The partnership allegedly has the potential to act “as an independent geopolitical power and deter political adversaries,” and both parties have successfully adapted their cooperation “to resolve any global or regional task” while preserving their swift decision-making, tactical flexibility, and strategic stability.4
Whatever the relationship is called, it aims to permit both sides to maneuver without negating the reality of the partnership. Indeed, even when Russian analysts deny it is an alliance like NATO, they concede that the relationship resembles Tsarist alliances, especially militarily.5 Both countries’ ministries of defense openly espouse mutual support; both sides have developed a longstanding and extensive series of exercises and intermilitary discussions and conferences; 3,600 Chinese students have gone through Russian military academies; and there is a thriving bilateral arms sales relationship. Indeed, for all the focus on Russian arms sales to China, China also sells arms to Russia.6 Some Chinese analysts claim the new Russian hypersonic Tsirkon missile merely replicates China’s DF-17 missile.7
Interdependency has moved beyond arms sales. The two countries began joint weapons development and maintenance in 2011, with China servicing Russian-made helicopters. By 2016, a joint production program for heavy-lift helicopters had begun. Joint production now encompasses not only Amur-class submarines for export, but also research-and-development agreements on jet-engine technology, as well as production of space components, satellite-navigation systems, and even long-haul passenger planes that could eventually morph into heavy military transport aircraft.8
Moscow has begun to sell its first stealth fighter—the fifth-generation, nuclear-capable Su-57—to China.9 This was somewhat surprising, because China had already demonstrated—by buying only 24 Su-35s—it believes its indigenous aviation industry capabilities are approaching Russia’s. (Indeed, Russia succeeded in selling the Su-35 only by including a generous technology transfer.10) Russia had planned mass production and export of the Su-57 to the Middle East and South Asia, but dropped these plans in 2018 after India backed away because of high costs and unresolved technical problems.11
Despite China’s progress, it has encountered severe problems in its program to modernize its tactical aircraft fleet with the fifth-generation Chengdu J-20 and the fourth-generation-plus J-11D fighters.12 China may well continue its long tradition of reverse-engineering Russian planes to pirate the technology.13
Bilateral and joint exercises have grown in scope and sophistication, the most recent ones being the Russian annual exercise Tsentr 2019 and Vostok 2018 (the latter held because of apprehension about a possible U.S. strike on North Korea).14 Likewise, there is good reason to believe the Sino-Russian air- and missile-defense exercises of 2017–18 were conceived and implemented with the idea of joint action to thwart a U.S.-led invasion of North Korea.15 Evidence from Sino-Russian naval exercises in the Sea of Japan in 2017 suggests an intention to prevent U.S. Navy forces from attaining sea control around the Korean Peninsula.16 Contemporaneous joint air- and missile-defense exercises demonstrated a similar intent to prevent U.S. air supremacy.
The air-defense exercises in particular displayed growing defense intimacy. As researcher Vassily Kashin notes, these took the form of a computer simulation in which the partners constructed a joint air- and missile-defense zone using long-range Chinese HQ-9 and Russian S-300/400 series surface-to-air-missile systems.17 Such a joint zone necessarily would have required sharing of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems.
Joint exercises go beyond defending against terror attacks (as earlier exercises in Central Asia or with naval forces in the Baltic and Mediterranean purported to do). Vostok 2018 clearly rehearsed large-scale war plans on a theater or even global scale. There also is evidence of bilateral coordination vis-à-vis Japan: In 2017, Russian planes periodically supported Chinese overflights of the Senkaku Islands; In 2016, Russia’s Pacific Fleet joined with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to sail through the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, provoking a significant Japanese response; In 2014, the partners held a joint naval exercise targeting Japan. Russo-Chinese overflights and probes of Japan’s defenses continue, more recently in January to March and November 2019.18 These actions appear senseless, unless Russia is trying to intimidate Japan into settling territorial disputes.19
Both navies have recently conducted joint exercises with South Africa’s and Iran’s navies, part of Chinese and Russian efforts to form partnerships beyond Asia in the Middle East, Indian Ocean, and Africa.20 These exercises allow Russia to display new weapons and technologies and whet China’s appetite for them. As a result, Russia might sell China nuclear-capable Kalibr cruise missiles for use on Russian-made Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines, even as Russia continues its military buildup in its Far Eastern Military District and elsewhere.21 Russia has hitherto refused to sell highly capable rocket engines to China, perhaps displaying some second thoughts about China’s piracy. Open suspicions of Chinese motives and capabilities in the Far East existed as recently as a decade ago, but they have been driven underground. Russian defense policy firmly supports alliance with China.
If Sino-Russian exercises remains relatively unsophisticated, they have nevertheless increased in complexity over time. Even if the exercises are more politically than operationally significant and represent a form of psychological warfare against the United States and its allies, there are grounds for serious and growing concern.22 An announcement ahead of joint naval drills in April and May 2019—involving both countries’ submarines and surface ships as well as Chinese aircraft—indicated that the exercises would “[perform] joint maneuvering episodes, organize communications, [and] practice rocket and artillery firing to engage sea and air targets.”23
Russian scholar Alexander Korolev was raising the alarm about such exercises in 2016. He wrote:
China-Russia military relations have been moving into the initial stages of deep institutionalization. . . . The current state of military interoperability and episodic joint command may not guarantee the consolidation . . . or the emergence of joint defense policies. However, [they show] that the bilateral military interactions are highly functional and that there is a strong basis for a further enhancement that can be utilized in a time of need.24
Missile-defense exercises in Moscow in 2016 and 2017 involved “defending territory against accidental and provocative ballistic and cruise missile strikes” and increasing interoperability. Analyst Ethan Meick says the exercises generated “a new level of trust” that includes sharing information in sensitive areas such as missile-launch warning systems and ballistic-missile defense.25 Naval drills are similarly significant, not only for their large scale, but also for their quality, which now seems as structured as U.S. Navy exercises with partners in Asia and the Pacific. These exercises have helped bolster Sino-Russian strategic ties while reinforcing deterrence against perceived adversaries. By conducting the interactions in spaces previously dominated by the United States and its allies, Russia and China have sought to defy the U.S.-led maritime order.
The maritime exercises have provided a framework by which Russia and China can develop individual and collective defensive capabilities. Intensive combat-oriented operations signal a shift in Asia’s strategic balance. While the United States remains the dominant power in the Pacific region, growing Chinese and Russian nautical interaction heralds the beginning of a multipolar or even bipolar Asian maritime order.26
An Alliance by Any Other Name
Whatever name is given to the Sino-Russian relationship, it conforms in many respects to formal definitions of alliance, and it threatens U.S. and allied interests. Russian arms sales have consistently targeted capabilities that allow China to threaten much of Asia and the Pacific. China’s naval strategy is moving from a sea-denial strategy aimed at the United States and Japan to a strategy of projecting power beyond the second island chain and into the Sea of Japan.27 But both concepts entail denying access to the Yellow and East China Seas to foreign militaries. Russia’s continuing military transfers to China provide major upgrades to China’s capability for realizing this strategy. Paul Schwartz’s Russia’s Contribution to China’s Surface Warfare Capabilities makes the point that Moscow’s naval transfers to China are much more useful in a maritime conflict with the West than a future land campaign against Russia.
In fact, cooperation is increasing because of Russian economic distress, and Moscow appears to hope China’s naval buildup might intensify the growing Sino-American competition in the western Pacific, leaving the two strategically focused more on each other and away from Russia.28 In the naval sphere alone, Russia’s help has been critical in improving Chinese ship design; cruise, ballistic antiship, and antiair missiles; and detection, tracking, and long-range strike against moving surface and air targets at sea; as well as facilitating a naval air-defense umbrella to prevent the U.S. and Japanese fleets from operating in the Western Pacific.29
Russia is reportedly developing a naval version of the 150-mile-plus-range S-400 air-defense system that will be sold to China and double the PLAN’s effective defensive range.30 This will cover the Senkaku Islands and increase the pressure on U.S. and Japanese air capabilities, given hardened Chinese air defenses and soft U.S. air bases. Joint development projects and the sale of the Su-57 clearly show that major arms sales are continuing, and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov says bilateral cooperation on nuclear weapon strategies will continue to grow.31 And the two states are even reported to be working together on “an alternate internet” that would operate independent of U.S.-controlled servers.32
It would be a mistake to complacently assume that—even if there is an alliance—there is little to fear. Russian arms sales have already helped China attempt to make Taiwan a no-go zone, and Russian scholar Artyom Lukin argues there is little doubt that if China tried to seize Taiwan by force, Russia would extend it diplomatic or possibly even military support. And if China were to recognize Crimea as part of Russia, Moscow would be even more ready to support China on Taiwan.33 In other words, the Sino-Russian alliance could easily become a wartime one.
Complacency, then, is not only misconceived, but also dangerous.
1. Angela Stent, “Valdai 2019: The Dawn of the East and the World Political Order,” Russia Matters, Harvard Kennedy School, 11 October 2019.
2. Brian Carlson, “Room for Maneuver: China and Russia Strengthen Their Relations,” Center for Strategic Studies, 13 April 2018.
3. Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Fudan University, Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, “Russian-Chinese Dialogue: The 2018 Model” (Moscow: RIAC, 2018), 20.
4. RIAC, “Russia- Chinese Dialogue,” 21.
5. Dmitri Trenin, “European Security Is Becoming Euro-Asian,” Carnegie Moscow Center, 18 December 2019.
6. “China Bids to Sell More Arms to Key Supplier Russia,” Asia Times Online, 26 August 2018.
7. “Media: Russian Hypersonic Missile Is Just a Smaller Replica of Chinese Dongfeng 17,” uawire.org, 1 December 2019.
8. Elina Sinkkonen, China-Russia Security Cooperation: Signaling within Limits, Finnish Institute of International Relations, Briefing Paper No. 231 (2018), 6.
9. Franz-Stefan Gady, “Russia to Offer China Su-57 Fifth-Generation Stealth Fighter,” The Diplomat, 2 April 2019.
10. Alexander Alt, “Does Russian Military Aviation Have Anything Left to Offer China?” The Diplomat, 5 April 2019.
11. Alt, “Does Russian Military Aviation Have Anything Left?”; Gady, “Russia to Offer China Su-57.”
12. Alt, “Does Russian Military Aviation Have Anything Left?”
13. Jamie Seidel, “Russian Su-57 Fighter Sale to China May Give Beijing a Stealth Edge,” news.com.au, 2 April 2019.
14. Brian G. Carlson, “Vostok-2018: Another Sign of Strengthening Russia-China Ties,” SWP Comment no. 47, SWP Berlin, November 2018.
15. Matthew Little, “Russia and China Send Message to US, North Korea with Military Drills,” The Epoch Times, 15 December 2017.
16. Little, “Russia and China Send Message.”
17. Vassily Kashin, The Current State of Russian-Chinese Defense Cooperation, Center for Naval Analyses (Arlington, VA: CNA, 2018), 20.
18. Ryan Pickrell, “China ‘Prepares for Battles’ against U.S., Japanese Missiles in Tense East China Sea,” Business Insider, 13 August 2018; Franz-Stefan Gady, “Japan Scrambles Fighter Jets to Intercept Russian Military Reconnaissance Plane,” The Diplomat, 29 March 2019; Franz-Stefan Gady, “Japan, South Korea Scramble Fighter Jets Against 2 Russian Strategic Bombers,” The Diplomat, 27 November 2019.
19. Katsujni Nakazawa, “Takeaways from a Nighttime Naval Chase in the East China Sea,” Nikkei Asian Review, 23 June 2016.
20. “Joint Naval Military Exercise Code-Named Mosi In South Africa,” navyrecognition.com, 30 November 2019; “Iran, Russia, China to Hold Naval Drill on Dec. 27,” Tasnim News, 3 December 2019.
21. Richard Weitz, “Russia’s Pacific Power Pivot,” Second Line of Defense, 10 June 2016.
22. James D. J. Brown, “China-Russia Naval Cooperation in East Asia: Implications for Japan,” National Bureau of Asian Research, Maritime Awareness Project, 26 March 2019, 2.
23. Tom O’Connor “Russia and China to Get New Ships, Train Together to Challenge U.S. Power at Sea,” Newsweek, 27 March 2019.
24. Alexander Korolev, “On the Verge of an Alliance: Contemporary China-Russia Military Cooperation,” Asian Security (2018), 18–19.
25. Ethan Meick, “China-Russia Military-to-Military Relations: Moving toward a Higher Level of Cooperation,” Research Report for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 20 March 2017, 9.
26. Alibit Singh, “The Emerging China-Russia Maritime Nexus in the Eurasian Commons,” The Diplomat, 17 September 2015.
27. “China in Talks for More Russian Arms as Tensions with Japan Rise,” Watch China Times, 23 January 2014.
28. Paul Schwartz, Russia’s Contribution to China’s Surface Warfare Capabilities (Washington, DC: CSIS, 2015), 12.
29. Schwartz, Russia’s Contribution; Mikhail Barabanov, “China’s Military Modernization: The Russian Factor,” Moscow Defense Brief 18 no. 4, 2009.
30. Franz-Stefan Gady, “China to Receive Russia’s S-400 Missile Defense Systems in 12–18 Months,” The Diplomat, 17 November 2015.
31. Tom O’Connor, “Russia and China Will Join Forces on Nuclear Weapons Strategy as U.S. Threatens to Leave INF Deal,” Newsweek, 30 January 2019.
32. “Russia, China Reportedly Working On ‘Alternative Internet,’” Kommersant via BBC Monitoring, 2 July 2018.
33. Artyom Lukin, “Russia’s Game on the Korean Peninsula: Accepting China’s Rise to Regional Hegemony,” National Bureau of Asian Research, in The China-Russia Entente and the Korean Peninsula (Washington, DC: NBR, 2019), 28–29.