Security and strategy

Security and strategy-based cooperation

The most sensitive part in bilateral relations of any countries is the exchange of military information, which is not possible without very confidential bilateral relations.

The continuous development of China-Russia military relations is a natural result of the deeper political and economic relations. The debate on Sino-Russian military cooperation and relationship seems to be heating up but Western analysts have not believed or realized that a “real” close military cooperation could be any viable option between China and Russia.

The first such writings emerged in the Western media just a couple years ago like the articles of professor Lyle J. Coldstein (the US Naval War College) in the National Interest (2017-2019). The “nightmare” scenario for America is the possibility that China and Russia could somehow become engaged in simultaneous armed conflict against the United States. The real evidence is generally available that Moscow and Beijing are growing closer year by year.

Since early 1990s, both countries have rejected the very idea of alliance as only increasing tensions in various parts of the world.

They have carefully avoided using the word “ally” in regard to each other until relatively recently, when Russia began using it quite casually. By cooperating closely with China in the military sphere, Russia loses nothing in terms of security, while making the position for the US more dangerous, strengthening its relationship with a key partner and gaining an economic advantage.

China continues to avoid the term at an official level, preferring official wording about an “all-encompassing partnership and strategic interaction,” and insisting that relations with Russia are “the best they have ever been.”

Chinese viewpoint

Turbulent years of 2007-2008 caused China to rethink the world and their own classical principles of success (gradualism, harmonizing with trends, eschewing open conflicts). China realized being capable to create something new and magnificent in the world, even in the economic sphere. The century of humiliation has gone forever.

The greatness of China has arrived. In the spirit of Chinese greatness, an interesting book was published in 2010, by

Liu Mingfu, colonel and professor: China Dream; Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era.

Liu defines a national grand goal: to become number one in the world, restoring China to a modern version of its historic glory.

China’s rise will usher in a golden age of Asian prosperity in which Chinese products, culture and values set the standard for the world. This will require displacing the US. The world will be harmonious because China’s leadership will be wiser than America’s and because China will eschew hegemony and limit its role to acting as primus inter pares of the nations.

Liu rejects the concept of peaceful rise arguing that China cannot rely solely on its traditional virtues of harmony to secure the new international order. Due to the competitive and amoral nature of great power politics, China’s rise can be safeguarded only if China nurtures a “martial spirit” and amasses military force sufficient to defeat its adversaries.

Liu Mingfu stated that… no matter how much China commits itself to a peaceful rise, conflict is inherent in US-China relations. The relationship between China and the US will be “marathon contest” and “duel of century”. Moreover, the competition is essentially zero-sum game; the only alternative to total success of one side is humiliating failure of other side.

Professor Zhang Wenme, a “real Chinese strategist

Professor Zhang Wenmu, a scholar at Beihang University’s Center for Strategic Studies, is a major fixture of the Chinese foreign policy debate. He has a reputation as a real Chinese strategist“. Zhang has unquestionably left a mark on Chinese strategy in the new century. He was one of China’s first genuine “navalists,” calling for Beijing to build an aircraft carrier well before other scholars were willing to get behind the new approach.

Zhang’s essay appeared in a late 2014 issue of the Chinese academic journal International Politics. Its title was “The Meaning of the Ukraine Events for the World and also their Warning to China.”  According to Zhang, Russia has won a major victory against the West and Putin is a master strategist. Zhang states that Moscow triumphed because for Russia, the Crimea is a matter of life and death, while for Europe it is simply one of many important issues. Now that Putin has halted NATO’s eastern march, Zhang writes “… Westerners begin to cast their gaze upon China. They will certainly demand an answer from China: where is China’s bottom line?  

Zhang continues “The biggest error in the US foreign policy in the new century has been to push China in the direction of Russia.” In that light, he makes the interesting observation that “if there had not been stability on the Chinese-Russian border, Russia’s seizure of Crimea during 2014 would been impossible to imagine.” Zhang views the Ukraine crisis as a moment of clarity in world politics.

Russian viewpoint

As stated before, President Putin’s “prophetic” speech at the Munich Security Conference 2007 formed the first turning point in great power relations since the Cold War. It was the beginning of intensifying great power competition and by the same a new base stone of Sino-Russian military cooperation.

As if a prelude to coming Valdai Club speech by Putin in October 2015, Russia organized a reunification (annexation) of Crimea in 2014 and launched Russian military operations in Syria in September 2015. In the Valdai speech, Putin accused the US of endangering global security by imposing a “unilateral diktat” on the rest of the world and shifted blame for the Ukraine crisis onto the West.  In a 40-minute diatribe against the West underlined the depth of the rift between Moscow and the West.

On March 1, 2018, President Putin, delivered his “historical” state of the nation address to the Russian Federal Assembly. While the first half of his speech dealt with Russian domestic issues, it was the second half of the presentation that drew attention worldwide. Putin outlined developments in Russian strategic military capability disclosing some state-of-the-art new weapons. According to Putin: “the new weapons collectively signal the obsolescence of America’s strategic nuclear deterrence, both in terms of its present capabilities and anything over the next decade to come.“

The general Western judgment was that Putin’s new “wonder weapons” are just pipe dreams. But quite soon, when the US Senate organized the hearings of Commanders of Services, the attitudes changed significantly.

American viewpoint

The US Commanders had to acknowledge in the hearings May 2018, that the US Military at the moment has no means to intercept those new hypersonic weapons. President Trump provided $ 50 billion more money to Pentagon for development work rapidly in June 2018. After this episode, large number of US military reports, studies, intelligence reports, even think tank reports began to pay serious attention to these weapons.

Air Force General John Hyten, commander of US Strategic Command, made a speech at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama in August 2018. He stated that “You can’t call them [Russia and China] our friends if they’re building weapons that can destroy the United States of America, and, therefore, we have to develop the capability to respond”.  Hyten went on to reassure his audience that the Pentagon has close to a dozen programs aimed at developing and defending against hypersonic weapons. He also expressed regret that the US had not started working on such weapon systems “five years ago or ten years ago, because then we wouldn’t be worried.” 

By this statement, general Hyten admitted that the US is 4-6 years behind Russia and China in developing hypersonic technology. Similar American statements have been made many times during last two years. In early January 2020, general Hyten again confirmed his worry about the present underperformance of the US hypersonic program at CSIS meeting in Washington.

In 2018, the group of US generals and admirals concluded thatChina and Russia are outmaneuvering the US, using aggressive actions that fall short of war”:

  • from Little Green Men in Crimea to fortified artificial islands in the South China Sea,
  • from online meddling with US elections to global information operations and to industrial-scale cyber espionage,
  • America’s adversaries have found ways to achieve their objectives and undermine the West without triggering a US military response,
  • operating in what’s come to be called the grey zone.

To counter them, the US needs new ways to use its military without shooting, concludes the newly released report. The US military will need new legal authorities and new concepts of operation for all domains — land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace.

In January 2019, the Center for the National Interest (a Washington think tank) held a discussion titled “China and Russia: New Best Friends?” It was organized by professor Graham Allison as well as the Center’s President and CEO, Dimitri K. Simes. The participants recalled the late Zbigniew Brzezinski’s warning that “the most dangerous scenario for the US would be a grand coalition of China and Russia”.

Sino-Russian joint official statements

In July 2005, Presidents Hu and Putin released a Sino-Russian Joint Statement on New World Order in the Twenty-first Century.

China and Russia have often jointly criticized against US missile shield deployment to Japan and South Korea in years 2016-2018. The message has been that “these countries undermine their own security by endorsing the US missile defense system’s deployment to their territory”, while Russia and China have to take retaliatory measures. Based on this joint threat, China and Russia have been accelerating their joint military drills holding their first extensive joint naval drills in the South China Sea in 2016. Since both sides are facing with a more complex international security environment, closer mutual cooperation has been widely considered a necessity.

In June 2017 the Chinese Defense Ministry confirmed that China and Russia have signed a roadmap on military cooperation for 2017-2020. The roadmap makes top-level design and general plan for the military cooperation and it shows the high-level mutual trust and strategic cooperation between China and Russia.

In December 2017, China and Russia officially criticized the United States for its new national security strategy that labels both countries as “revisionist competitors” challenging American power, influence and interests.

In April 2018 Beijing sent a delegation to Russia to show Washington the unity of Russian and Chinese military forces and “support” Russia at the 7th Moscow Conference on International Security. The Chinese minister said that one of the main goals of the visit was to send a message to Western powers:

“The Chinese side came to let the Americans know about the close ties between the Russian and Chinese armed forces,” Wei said.

Prior to the visit, the Chinese state-run Global Times newspaper published an article titled “Western pressure brings China and Russia closer.” The report quotes analysts, who believe that the current international environment – including Western anti-Russia hysteria and the looming US-China trade war – will only strengthen the Sino-Russian alliance.

In May 2018 Participants of the 20th strategic dialogue between the Russian Armed Forces and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) reached agreement to boost cooperation in the military sphere. The sides reached broad consensus and confirmed their intention to increase the level of cooperation and undertake constructive steps for further renewal of strategic cooperation between the armed forces.

During last four years, the US pressure on China and Russia in the security sphere is manifesting in several, interrelated areas:

  • the arms control of nuclear weapons (INF Treaty suspended by the US);
  • the latest official American defense reports (2018-2019) name Russia and China as full-fledged sources of a missile threat to the US, not hesitating to use AI-capability aggressively in offensive nuclear weapons
  • disputes in the Asia-Pacific area (the naval rivalry between China’ Navy and the US Pacific Fleet), where the US aims to contain China geopolitically and consolidate relevant multilateral mechanisms like the Quad (the US, Australia, Japan and India).
  • the hot issues of South China Sea and Taiwan Strait will obviously become hotter rather than be easing
  • the states buying Russian major military equipment (like China,Turkey and India) become the targets of the direct US sanctions

Russia and China try jointly to counteract the American strategy aiming at resolving them through multilateral institutions (BRICS, RIC, SCO etc.) as well as by closer cooperation in international security organizations (primarily the UN Security Council).

The new agreement of military cooperation in 2019, which finally superseded the long-obsolete 1993 document, will turn many of the events that already take place into formalized and ongoing areas of cooperation. The new agreement includes more sensitive elements, like Russia helping China develop its own Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) and integrating these Russian and Chinese systems with mutual automatic data exchange. The military cooperation is not limited only to certain geographic areas but the coverage is worldwide.

Nature of China-Russia relationship

Behind the accelerated rapprochement of two states in the military sphere, can be found some long-term factors. US–China relations are rolling down to the same “destination” where US–Russia relations have been since 2012–2014. The causes of the conflict between the US and China go deeper than the US-Russia discord and therefore no hope for a resolution in the near future is in sight.

Under these conditions, an inevitable question emerges about the nature of relations between Russia and China: Is a military and political union (an alliance) between the two countries possible? The sides have repeatedly denied any intention to create such a formal alliance. By rejecting the idea of military and political alliances in principle, both Moscow and Beijing justify their opposition to the expansion of the US system in strategically important regions.

An interesting aspect of the Sino-Russian relationship is how these partners learn from one another in various domains, including in the crucial area of strategy. Chinese strategists have looked carefully at the war in Ukraine and the related Crimea annexation but perhaps geopolitically the most actual case is now Chinese assessments of Russia’s military intervention in Syria, where China has found a lot of useful learning both politically and militarily.

Moscow and Beijing are moving up in bilateral cooperation regarding strategic security issues, “The policy of further strengthening bilateral relations fully meets the interests of Russian and Chinese development,” Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said on 4th December 2019. “Major goals on further boosting Russian-Chinese strategic partnership are clear to us. We plan to continue trust-based and comprehensive dialogue on a whole range of security issues,” Patrushev said. The cooperation between Russia and China has become one of “key factors of maintaining international security and stability and establishing a multipolar world order, democratizing global governance mechanisms and ensuring the rule of international law,” Patrushev stated.

In his turn, a member of the Politburo of the Chinese Community Party’s Central Committee, Yang Jiechi, noted that a joint Russian-Chinese statement on developing strategic cooperation, signed this June (2019), outlined new goals for Russian-Chinese close cooperation in ensuring strategic security. According to him, amid current unstable international climate, Moscow and Beijing should step up cooperation in order to jointly counter external threats and foreign meddling.