One of the most persistent myths in geopolitics is that Western countries are at risk of driving Russia into the arms of China. French President Emmanuel Macron recently cited this as one of the main rationales for French rapprochement with the Kremlin. And it is a common line of reasoning among American strategists. However, a close look at Sino-Russian military and security relations hardly justifies their fears.
Cooperation between Beijing and Moscow has increased in recent times. It involves strategically important and industrially significant commitments that reflect a deeper alignment of interests.
On the sidelines of the recent Valdai Forum in Sochi, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would help China build a new missile early warning system. This is not – as is often reported – a missile defence system. Missile early warning systems are designed to detect and classify missiles, as well as to predict their flightpaths. However, unlike missile defence systems, they are unable to intercept missiles. As neither Russian nor Chinese entities have commented on the exact system they will co-produce, it is hard to tell which capabilities the Chinese will receive.
Still, one should not underestimate the strategic significance of the deal. The agreement will boost China’s capacity to track not only nuclear-armed ballistic missiles but also other objects in space, such as satellites. States can integrate early warning systems into missile defence systems as they provide queuing to more precise (but shorter-ranged) fire-control radars. Given that both Russia and China are developing missile defence systems and anti-satellite systems, it seems likely that the early warning system will feed into these projects.
Cooperation between Moscow and Beijing on the development of the early warning system will affect Sino-Russian defence-industrial relations. Chinese and Russian expertise on sensors is complementary. Russia’s strengths are in the electromagnetic sphere (radars, jammers, and other radio-detection systems), while China’s are in the electro-optical sphere (lasers, light detection and ranging, and thermal imaging). In strategy and industrial policy, the countries’ decision to pursue the early warning project suggests that they have established a stable and amicable relationship that they expect to last for many years.
Another recent display of Sino-Russian cooperation came in the form of the Centre 2019 military exercises, which drew little attention from the Western media. Held in Russia’s central and southern military districts, the manoeuvres were officially portrayed as counter-terrorism exercises. In fact, they involved rehearsals of a combined-arms offensive against a state actor.
Like Vostok 2018, Zapad 2017, and many other large-scale manoeuvres, Centre 2019 was designed to fine-tune procedures for large-scale offensive operations, incorporate military lessons from the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, and disseminate new tactics among the armed forces. Like Vostok 2018, Centre 2019 placed an emphasis on airborne and air-mobile units as fast, rapidly deployable shock troops who could capture territory and decide a military campaign before the enemy brought its reserves into the theatre. While Russia appears to rehearse such operations with NATO in mind, China may be interested in them as part of plans to decide a campaign against Taiwan before the US Navy could scramble to the island’s defence.
Nothing that Chinese leaders do or stand for would ever inspire Russians to topple the regime in Moscow.
Tactically, the exercise focused on the use of modern military data networks and inter-service cooperation to identify, track, and strike targets, as well as air-to-surface strike coordination and unmanned aerial reconnaissance. Chinese forces are better equipped than their Russian counterparts in these areas: China produces more varied and capable drones, and makes greater use of computing and artificial intelligence to support its armed forces. But the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is both undertrained in the areas and organised in a more traditional way. The services of the PLA are still much more segregated than their Russian counterparts and have had very few opportunities to use their assets in the field.
This is why China sent a detachment of roughly 3,200 soldiers to participate in Centre 2019 and thereby learn from the Russian armed forces first hand. Russia would not have allowed the PLA to participate in the exercise if it believed that it might have to counterbalance China at some point. This is because doing so will, in the long term, give away Russia’s only military advantages over China: organisation, leadership, and combat experience
The third development to go largely unnoticed in the West provides deeper insight into the future of the Sino-Russian entente. In the wake of the Moscow protests against allegedly rigged local elections, Russia’s domestic intelligence agencies made ample use of facial recognition and electronic surveillance tools to identify, track, and prosecute dissidents. Chinese and Russian domestic security agencies have long shared various techniques of mass repression under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Recently announced Sino-Russian arrangements for deepening cooperation on surveillance technology codify a process that has been going on for years.
They also illustrate the predicament crafted by Western Russlandversteher (those who sympathise with the Kremlin) who ponder what the West can offer Moscow to lure it away from cooperation with Beijing. In a rare interview, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu recently described security operations through the prism of “regime security”, explaining that this is the state’s primary objective and all other tasks derive from it. In this way, Shoigu subordinated foreign policy to domestic security: the projection of an image of strength through military exercises is intended to discourage foreign actors from supporting the Kremlin’s domestic political opponents. At a time when the Kremlin faces domestic unrest, Beijing could provide effective capabilities and techniques for repression – while all that some European governments could do was stay silent on the Moscow protests.
The West poses an inherent threat to the Kremlin merely through its existence, as many Russians are drawn to Western ideas about human rights and the rule of law – and may want their government to adhere to these ideas. And there are Western leaders who promote these ideas. In contrast, nothing that Chinese leaders do or stand for would ever inspire Russians to topple the regime in Moscow. This is why the Kremlin believes that it must deter the West as a military opponent, but that China – despite its growing power – poses no such threat.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.