Navigating Sino-Russian Defense Cooperation
Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a series on Sino-Russian defense cooperation organized by the Center for a New American Security.
In recent weeks, U.S.-Chinese relations have deteriorated to arguably their worst point in nearly four decades. The Trump administration has outlined a hardline stance against China as the country’s authoritarian leaders adopt increasingly aggressive and repressive policies at home and abroad. While this growing confrontation between the world’s two largest economies has garnered headlines of late, Washington is also concerned about the prospects of further Russian interference in the upcoming U.S. election, and reports of Russian-paid bounties for the killing of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Regardless of who wins the election in November, the United States seems likely to be locked into a prolonged period of competition with both Russia and China. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the salience of that competition, especially with Beijing. Numerous studies have addressed this great-power competition and identified principles and approaches that the United States should pursue to maintain its competitive edge. Central to almost all strategies is the recognition that the United States will need to work with allies and partners to pool the collective heft of like-minded states to push back against authoritarian regimes and prevent them from dominating key regions of the world.
While there is broad recognition that alliances will play a key role in any U.S. strategy to compete with China and Russia, far less thought has been given to how these countries might leverage their own partnerships to amplify their power and influence. This is in large part because neither Moscow nor Beijing have many friends. Russia and China have long eschewed alliances, viewing them as entanglements that constrain their latitude for maneuver. They have opted instead for transactional relationships that allow them to exert influence through economic coercion, leverage, and — particularly in the Russian case — military might.
In recent years, however, cooperation between China and Russia has grown. The alignment of their interests and convergence of their efforts is amplifying the challenge they pose to the United States. This is especially true for China, which has been able to leverage its relationship with Moscow to fill gaps in its capabilities and complement its efforts to undermine U.S. global leadership.
This article introduces a series organized by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) examining Sino-Russian defense cooperation. The articles in this series look across multiple dimensions of defense relations, including Chinese and Russian ties in technology, the cyber domain, and space. Successful long-term competition requires an understanding of one’s rivals, what they’re up to, and why. This series addresses the challenge that sustained China-Russia cooperation would pose and identifies recommendations for managing and preparing for the growing synergy between them.
Drivers of Cooperation
Relations between Russia and China have been developing gradually since the waning days of the Cold War. Their cooperation accelerated dramatically in 2014 when Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and subsequent occupation of Ukraine shut down Russian opportunities for cooperation with the West. These events drove Russia toward a China demonstrating greater foreign policy assertiveness under President Xi Jinping amidst concern about Western efforts to foment “color revolutions” along its periphery in the wake of the Arab Spring, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, and Washington’s “pivot to Asia.”
Since then, Russian and Chinese views of the way the world should be ordered have converged. The two countries are united in their mutual discontent with the United States and the U.S.-dominated international order that they feel disadvantages them. As Adam Segal shows in his forthcoming article, such alignment of interests has driven Russia and China to cooperate more in the cyber realm. But while Russia and China may have initially banded together in discontent, they increasingly share a vision of a values-neutral global order that advantages authoritarians. Moreover, their repeated interactions are fostering a deeper and more enduring partnership. In October 2019, the Russian president went so far as to characterize Sino-Russian ties as “an allied relationship in the full sense of a multifaceted strategic partnership.”
The growing alignment between Russia and China is reflected in their deepening defense cooperation. As Mike Kofman discusses in his article, for example, there have been major increases in both the frequency and scale of joint military exercises in recent years. Joint naval exercises in the Baltic Sea and the South China Sea focused on air defense and anti-submarine warfare, and the two states shared command-and-control information during the 2017 Aerospace Security exercises. Between 2014 and 2018, roughly 70 percent of China’s arms imports came from Russia, including sophisticated air defense systems and combat aircraft. Strategic defense cooperation is also evident, as Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in 2019 that Russia would assist China’s development of a ballistic missile early warning system.
Looking forward, two sets of drivers are likely to facilitate, if not deepen, their defense cooperation. First, a sustained U.S. hardline approach against both Russia and China creates common cause between them. U.S. sanctions have pushed the two countries together, especially by making Russia more dependent on China. The U.S. military presence on both states’ peripheries also fosters a shared threat perception. Neither country views U.S. military dominance of their respective regions as acceptable, and both oppose U.S. weapons systems deployments in their regions and are developing deterrent capabilities. The shared intent to counter U.S. capabilities and influence is evident everywhere, from joint air patrols that aggravate the United States and its allies, to Russia’s sales of S-400 air defense systems to China to counter U.S. airpower in the Pacific.
Second, Russia and China have complementary needs and capabilities that they can leverage to advance their great-power pursuits. China has relied on imports from Russia to bolster its air combat, air defense, anti-ship, and anti-submarine capabilities. Russia also has extensive operational military experience, most recently in Ukraine and Syria, while China’s military is largely untested. China has sent several thousand servicemembers to train in Russian defense universities, and both countries have increased the scope and frequency of joint exercises that benefit China’s forces. Conversely, China provides the capital needed to finance major Russian projects, purchase energy products, and buy military equipment that U.S. sanctions prevent Russia from selling elsewhere. In their article, Elsa Kania and Sam Bendett show that such complementarity is especially evident in the technology domain where China provides markets and resources and Russia provides human capital, particularly in mathematics. Russia has also turned to China in the wake of Western sanctions to access technology like electronic components that it previously obtained from the West. Moreover, both countries likely view cross-collaboration on a number of fronts — such as guided missile technology, unmanned systems, and training data for artificial intelligence — as opportunities to fill gaps and accelerate progress.
Despite these drivers, limits to their defense cooperation remain. Historic mistrust, a lack of cultural consonance, and the growing asymmetry in the relationship (for instance, Putin has no desire to become a junior partner) are barriers to deeper relations. Also, China’s rise has the potential to hurt Russian interests in key regions like Central Asia and the Arctic. Beijing could eventually encroach on Russian arms sales, and Russian officials also regularly object to Chinese intellectual property theft — an issue raised in several of the memos in this series. However, Russia and China continue to deconflict interests in key regions and the Kremlin continues to sell increasingly sophisticated weapons systems to Beijing, suggesting that Russian concerns about intellectual property theft and distrust can be overcome. The obstacles to Russian-Chinese defense cooperation, in other words, have so far not prevented their relationship from deepening.
Skeptics continue to argue that Russia and China are unlikely to enter into a formal alliance. But this sets the wrong bar. Russian-Chinese cooperation, particularly in the defense realm, has the potential to create significant challenges for the United States over the next five to 10 years, even if their relationship falls short of a formal alliance. Greater Russian-Chinese alignment will have wide-ranging consequences, but chief among them is the way their cooperation will elevate the challenges that China poses to the United States.
First, deepening Sino-Russian defense relations would amplify each country’s ability to project power and more visibly and credibly signal to onlooking countries their willingness to challenge U.S. dominance in key regions. In August 2019, Russia and China conducted a joint strategic bomber patrol in the Indo-Pacific, signaling their political convergence and willingness to push back against U.S. influence in the region. And in 2019, Russia and China practiced naval maneuvers in the Indian Ocean with Iran. These exercises may be aimed at undermining U.S. dominance or deterring future U.S. interventions, but in material terms, they could allow competitors to increase their power projection and force U.S. strategists to account for new scenarios.
Second, their sustained coordination would accelerate efforts to erode U.S. military advantages, which would be especially problematic for U.S. strategic competition with China in the Indo-Pacific. Russia already provides China with advanced weapons systems that enhance China’s capacity to keep the United States out of its backyard, including China’s ability to counter U.S. airpower in and around Taiwan. Russia also played an integral role in modernizing China’s surface combat capabilities by providing Sovremenny-class destroyers, advanced anti-ship cruise missiles and naval air defense systems, and by sharing design expertise for China’s indigenous ship production. Moreover, through military exercises and training, Russia is providing China with valuable operational experience, potentially offsetting one of the People’s Liberation Army’s most significant weaknesses relative to the United States. In these ways, sustained Sino-Russian defense cooperation would put at risk America’s ability to deter Chinese aggression in the region and uphold its commitment to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Beyond the Indo-Pacific, greater coordination between Moscow and Beijing could accelerate both countries’ research and development efforts, allowing them to innovate together more rapidly than the United States. Kania and Bendett assess that Chinese and Russian technological cooperation is likely to deepen and progress, providing a critical foundation for closer strategic ties and advancing China’s challenge to U.S. technological supremacy. Likewise, Jeffrey Edmonds argues that shared Russian and Chinese fears of U.S. dominance in space could lead to greater cooperation in counter-space capabilities. If these types of initiatives mature, the United States could struggle to retain its technological edge in certain domains over China. For example, greater Russian-Chinese defense industrial cooperation on sensitive technology, such as theater hypersonic weapons or submarine technology, would present significant challenges for the United States and its allies. Moreover, the ability to keep pace with Russian-Chinese joint innovation would place tremendous strain on an already stressed U.S. defense budget.
Finally, overt defense cooperation between Russia and China could complicate U.S. defense plans and capacity. One could imagine, for example, a future Gulf crisis in which Russia and China both send a squadron of ships to “observe” the situation, which would seriously complicate the U.S. response. In a less likely but more dangerous scenario, Russia and China could coordinate aggressive actions along their peripheries, challenging the current U.S. force planning construct. If, for example, Russia and China made concurrent moves further into Ukraine or the South China Sea, U.S. forces would be hard-pressed to respond to both threats. The resources required to fight in either theater are costly, and major upgrades to U.S. readiness and capacity are likely required to ensure success on either front today.
What to Do
Given the potentially serious implications that closer Russian-Chinese defense cooperation could have for the United States, what can be done to slow and/or limit the extent of such cooperation? In the long term, the United States should pursue an approach designed to show Russia that its continued alienation from the West increases the Kremlin’s vulnerability to domination by China. U.S. policy should aim to shape Russia’s calculus such that the Kremlin views at least some collaboration with the United States and its partners as possible and preferable to over-dependence on China.
The current realities in U.S.-Russian relations mean that moving in this direction would take time. Moreover, there is no guarantee that efforts to lure Russia away from China would be successful. This is because Putin views the United States and not Beijing as a threat to his hold on power. Xi, for his part, views Russia as useful in distracting Washington from implementing a tougher stand against China’s policies at home and abroad, undermining U.S. global dominance, and countering U.S. efforts to limit Chinese leverage in multilateral institutions. Approaches designed to drive a grand wedge between Russia and China, in other words, are unlikely to work.
Instead, the United States should monitor and plan for, limit, and — where possible — pull at the seams in Russian-Chinese relations. Most immediately, policymakers and strategy documents should differentiate more clearly between Russia and China. The two countries pose distinct threats to the United States and there are important fissures between Russia and China. Policymakers should therefore recognize and respond to the distinct challenge to U.S. interests posed by each individual country while also working to limit what Russia and China are willing to do together. The articles in this series will provide policymakers with insights and opportunities that will equip them to navigate this challenge.
First, Kofman establishes the contours of Russia-China defense relations, including the drivers of and constraints on the partnership. He highlights the need for better intelligence on Russia-China exchanges, the imperative for planners to prioritize where the United States should compete, and the importance of engaging allies to increase the headwinds that Russia and China encounter. Kania and Bendett focus in on technology cooperation. While warning of the risks of growing Sino-Russian technology cooperation, they identify the constraints and potential fissures in the technology domain. Among other opportunities, they highlight the importance of attracting Russian and Chinese expertise to the United States for maintaining U.S. competitiveness and slowing Sino-Russian collaboration.
In the cyber realm, Adam Segal shows how Sino-Russian cooperation has grown and the way the two are learning from each other. He highlights the importance of renewed U.S. leadership in international organizations to pushback against shared Russian and Chinese efforts to rewrite global norms and standards that would work against U.S. interests and influence. Finally, Edmonds takes on Russia-China cooperation on space. He argues that Russia and China cooperate in space for material benefit, broader strategic foreign policy goals, and potential military benefits. He warns that defense planners need to look for indications that suggest Russia and China are moving toward cooperation in the counter-space field out of a growing fear of U.S. dominance in space, as well as consider how that would affect both countries’ nuclear deterrent.
Mounting cooperation between Russia and China will be a key determinant of America’s strategic landscape for the foreseeable future. Denying this reality or holding out hope that differences in their objectives will ultimately drive them apart ignores the more immediate damage they could do to U.S. interests. In addition to tackling the significant challenges both countries on their own pose to the United States, it is time to address head-on the growing synergy that is emerging between them.
Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
David Shullman is a senior advisor at the International Republican Institute and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Dan McCormick is a graduate student in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. He was previously an intern at the Center for a New American Security.