General background

Chinese-Russian military cooperation

Strategic convergence

Strategic convergence can be quite easily discovered in the military area within the framework of Sino-Russia relationship. Both Russia and China have been traditionally heavily armed but there has been by and large a balance. China’s nuclear arsenal is far inferior to that of Russia and even more so that of the US but it has been significant enough to decrease the incentive of a nuclear conflict between great powers.

China’s military forces were, after the Cold War, fallen behind both (the US, Russia) regarding the use of modern technology and in conduct and management systems.

As a whole, the modernization process of the Chinese military forces is and will be a massive and long-term national endeavor. In this process, China has very limited range of choices available. As the EU and the US are unlikely to lift their arms embargo on China, Russia seems to stay as China’s only main source of modern arms and military know-how. On the other hand, China is firmly developing its own military-industrial complex aiming to high rate of domestic military production.

Military cooperation between these countries consisted mainly of Russia’s arms sales to China during the first decennium of the post-Cold War era. The whole decennium was characterized by Russia’s general weakness after the Soviet collapse and China’s unsteadiness in the aftermath of Tiananmen and among the Western sanctions and some timidity in the early phase of political and economic opening.

In 1993, the parties signed a five-year defense cooperation agreement, where the main content of cooperation consisted of Russian arms sales and WMD-related technology transfers to China as well as a few small-scale joint maneuvers of Russian and Chinese navies and border troops starting in late 1990s.

The 2001 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation

The 2001 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation formed a watershed in the Sino-Russian military cooperation. The countries have expanded military co-operation dramatically since then in all significant ways of cooperation: joint military drills, contacts between military personnel as well as arms sales and military technology.

In 2001 there was also another prominent event. On June 14, Russia, China and four Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan announced the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The Charter of SCO was signed in June 2002 and entered into force in September 2003. In 2017, both India and Pakistan were granted status as full members. Nowadays there are also four observer states: Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia, as well as six dialogue partners: Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Turkey and Sri Lanka. In 2005 and 2007 the first joint military drills were launched in the context of SCO.

Higher levels of defense cooperation

Since mid-2000s, China and Russia have been moving toward higher levels of defense cooperation. Recent developments in their military relations have important implications for the US security interests and the situation in Asia-Pacific region, in other words important implications for the great power triangle game.

The increased complexity and focus on joint military operations of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Russian Armed Forces provide both sides with valuable experience in pursuing their defense objectives. The exercises are particularly useful for the PLA, which lacks recent combat experience. The expanded geographic scope military exercises along with a new focus on missile defense, reflects increasingly aligned security interests.

In February 2007, President Putin delivered his keynote speech at the Munich Security Conference, challenging the post-Cold War establishment. Putin accused the United States of provoking a new nuclear arms race, expanding NATO in Europe and making the Middle East more unstable. This speech and soon thereafter a new version of National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation to 2020 produced a strengthening base for Sino-Russian military cooperation for coming years.

Russia’s increasing assertiveness and willingness in hard balancing with the US has been striking since the return of Putin to the presidency in 2012.  The essential, even fundamental breakthrough took place about a year later when Putin informed the US President Obama in the sidelines of the UNGA meeting in September 2015 in New York that Russia has decided to start military operation in Syria in order to support Assad’s position in the Syrian civil war. It was clearly a chock to the US leadership. China was mostly standing off at that time in the Middle East and other international conflicts but as seen some years later, China has been active player behind the scenes all the time.

In the second decennium of the 21st century, the pace of military cooperation is nearly “skyrocketing” at all possible levels and sectors.

Especially after 2014 the cooperation process has been accelerating to totally new heights, some examples:

  • in 2016: cyber security, aerospace security and joint missile defense drills
  • in 2017: roadmap to military cooperation for 2017-2020, large exercises of naval, aerospace and missile forces, agreement on the exploration of outer space
  • in 2018: joint database for outer space research, first military think tank forums, extensive strategic dialogues between the Russian Armed Forces and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) reaching an agreement to boost cooperation in the strategic military sphere and culminating event of “Vostok-2018” joint military exercise (largest exercise after WWII with over 300.000 troops, over 30.000 tanks, 1.000 aircrafts and 1.000 naval vessels).
  • in 2019 the military cooperation has been extending with the same pace finding even new segments and spheres.

It seems that Russia began pushing for a boost in military cooperation soon after the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014 and the start of long-running sanction standoff with Washington.

In 2017, Russia initiated the signing of a three-year road map for bilateral military cooperation. For China, the mood for enlarging military cooperation has evolved step by step but has apparently accelerating along with the trade war and other regional confrontations (e.g. Taiwan, South China Sea) with the US during last three years. During 2017-2019, military cooperation between the two countries has reached new high levels.

President Putin’s speech at the recent Valdai forum (October 2019) contained two fundamental points regarding China.

His official confirmation that

  • Russia is helping China to create a ballistic missile early warning system (BMEWS) and
  • his assessment of the state of Russian-Chinese relations: “This is an allied relationship in the full sense of a multifaceted strategic partnership.”

This new level of military cooperation is primarily the full-fledged expansion of cooperation to cover strategic arms.

By confirming the support to China’s BMEWS, the military cooperation of Russia-China moved to the most important and most sensitive component: the control system of strategic nuclear forces. 

Another sign of the new caliber of cooperation is Russia and China’s readiness to jointly use their armed forces to take demonstrative action in various parts of the world.

In 2017, Chinese navy ships carried out joint exercises with their Russian counterparts in the Baltic, sparking ire among a range of NATO countries. In July 2019, the first joint patrol by Russian and Chinese long-range bomber aircraft took place over the Pacific Ocean: an explicit demonstration of the possibilities of joint action in the event of a conflict with the United States. 

Now there is again a new formula of trilateral maneuvers with Iran in the western part of the Indian Ocean, which demonstrates preparation for the joint strengthening of their positions in remote parts of the world.

The reason for Russia’s willingness to support China’s security interests and vice versa may lie in the fact that both countries now view each other as its “strategic rear”. Russian leaders have often stated that the threats to Russia are the US in general and NATO enlargement to the East as well as radical Islamic forces active in Chechnya and among Moscow’s Central Asian allies.

Beijing views the US predominance in the post-Cold War world–from its success in the Gulf War to its support of Taiwan security–as important threats to China.

Russia has stated that “there is only one China” and that Taiwan is China’s “internal affair,” while Beijing has expressed unequivocal support for Russia’s strong-arm tactics in Chechnya.

Bilateral political alignment is suitable for expanding bilateral military cooperation. Common threat posture, shared both by Moscow and Beijing, where the US is a central source of military and other kind of threats seems to push China and Russia ever closer relationship, also in the military sphere.