The Emperors League: Understanding Sino-Russian Defense Cooperation


Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a series on Sino-Russian defense cooperation organized by the Center for a New American Security.


At a gathering in October 2019, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia has been helping China develop a ballistic missile early warning system. Without offering specifics, Putin suggested that “This is a very serious endeavor that will fundamentally and radically increase the defense capability of the People’s Republic of China because only the United States and Russia have such a system at present.” Kremlin spokespersons elaborated that Russia has an advanced partnership with China, which includes the most sensitive areas “linked to military-technical cooperation, security, and defense capabilities.” Little is known about the deal, indicative of a trend in Russian-Chinese defense collaboration which increasingly involves sensitive technology and secret agreements.

Russia has sought a more institutionalized defense relationship with China with regular consultations, exchanges, exercises, and agreements codifying increased defense-technical cooperation. Hardly a recent development, this policy of rapprochement emerged from the latter days of the Soviet Union, recasting Russia’s relations with China. Building on agreements made in the 1990s, and early 2000s, to demarcate and demilitarize the border, the two powers have spent years investing in confidence-building measures, consultation mechanisms, frameworks for defense cooperation, and aligning their foreign policy outlooks. In a step-by-step process, Moscow and Beijing worked to reduce that which would lead both powers to view each other as potential threats, while gradually increasing military cooperation.



The past decade illustrates a departure from what might have been earlier construed as pragmatic deal-making with steps towards an entente or strategic alignment. Growing cooperation in the military realm is of paramount significance for U.S. strategy and policy planning. Indeed, alignments or ententes can have much greater substance behind them than formally declared alliances.

What Kind of Alignment?

Russian and Chinese elites describe their relationship as one of “strategic cooperation and comprehensive partnership.” Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have met more than 30 times in the past six years, calling each other best friends and the like. The relationship certainly has a great deal of formality in terms of contacts, pronouncements, and agreements signed, but activity is not achievement. So how should we think about it analytically? While some have proclaimed an alliance, others have dismissed this as nothing more than cosplay, no less contentious is the debate on whether this alignment will last. A cogent case can be made for why the current relationship is not simply transactional, an axis of convenience (or other similar terms of art), and at the same time unlikely to become a military alliance. It appears durable, but highly dependent on elite machinations, and there’s not much evidence that either side will reap enough benefits to seek a more formalized alliance beyond the current alignment.

First, the relationship is not premised on “convenience.” It is not a product of recent events or a specific circumstance in which both countries have found opportunity in alignment. This rapprochement has deep roots traversing more than 30 years. As notable expert on Russo-Chinese relations, Vasily Kashin, remarked, rapprochement with China is in fact one of the longest standing vectors in Russian foreign policy tracing back to mid-1980s. One of Moscow’s strategic blunders during the Cold War was to allow its relationship with China to sour in the late 1950s, resulting in the Sino-Soviet split. For Moscow, this developed into a second front of competition as it struggled with China for leadership of the socialist world. The contest drew Soviet resources to build military infrastructure, deploy substantial forces, etc., far from the main theater of contest in Europe. Ultimately the two fought a brief war in 1969, the Sino-Soviet border conflict, which — while limited — proved a low point in relations during the Cold War.

Since Gorbachev’s time Moscow has sought to restore relations with Beijing, to engender a degree of interdependence, and more recently to align foreign policy in opposition to U.S. primacy in international politics — an imperative which took on newfound significance after 2014 when U.S.-Russian relations turned overtly adversarial. Soviet mistakes serve as enduring lessons, and although the ideological competition is no longer a factor, Moscow is keen to avoid a second front competition with China while taking on the United States. Instead Russian elites have looked to China in an effort to balance the United States, and strengthen Beijing as a competitor to Washington, drawing U.S. resources further into a contest in the Asia-Pacific region and away from vital Russian interests in Europe. Hardly a novel Russian strategy, Moscow has sought to empower China before with similar aims, during the inter-war period against Japan and in the post-war period of the 1950s.

Second, defense transactions are not the driver of cooperation. Russian arms sales to China loomed large as a share of overall trade in the 1990s (estimated at $5 to 7 billion at the time) and mid-2000s ($40 billion), while military to military cooperation was weak. Defense ties had increased while the value and relevance of arms sales declined dramatically, with India becoming Russia’s dominant arms importer. That is to say Russian arms sales to China went from being perhaps 25 or more percent of the total value of trade in the 1990s, peaking in the early 2000s with a value of over $3 billion, to declining dramatically and amounting to 3 percent of the current trade between these two states, which exceeds $100 billion annually. The trajectory of defense relations simply does not track with the value of defense transactions. Defense cooperation increased as the value of transfers, and economic relevance declined.

Third, although it is not a formal alliance, that should matter little for U.S. purposes. Alliances are a formal type of alignments, but behavior is what matters more than what is written on paper. Historically there have been plenty of empty alliances, and alignments that prove more significant but not codified in agreement. The two sides reference their own relationship as a “strategic alliance” or “strategic partnership,” but eschew terms that suggest a formal military alliance. This is significant, but there are important reasons why defense cooperation will not produce a military alliance. China is a revisionist power in Asia-Pacific where Russia is a status quo power, and the inverse is true in Europe. Their relative symmetry in military power means that one does not need the extended security guarantees, conventional or nuclear, from the other. Russia can contribute little in military power to China’s cause in the Pacific, while China’s military power projection in Europe is nonexistent. This does not mean they cannot aid each other, but it will not take the form of direct military support. Both countries are deeply nationalist and autarkic, seeking to avoid formal alliances rather than to make them.

The current relationship is best described as an entente, which at a bare minimum can be interpreted as a non-aggression pact. Russia hopes to translate this relationship into a pact of mutual economic and technical assistance. An analogous relationship, for consideration, was Soviet-German cooperation from 1922 to 1931 following the Treaty of Rapallo, when both powers were weak while harboring revisionist aspirations (albeit of a different kind). Germany and the Soviet Union crafted a framework for defense industrial cooperation, technical assistance, and military cooperation. The non-aggression component of the relationship is the first test of this alignment. For it to endure the two countries should not contest each other’s vital interests or support their respective adversaries in key contests. The implication of Russia’s so-called “strategic partnership” with China is that the two countries intend to contest the United States, as one Russian analyst put it, “together, but separate,” forcing the United States to compete on both fronts at the same time.

Finally, it would help to dispense with some prevailing tropes and tautologies that tend to obscure the dynamic in Sino-Russian relations. Russia is not China’s junior partner, nor does Beijing treat it as such. That Moscow does not want to be anyone’s junior partner is a given. Asymmetries in economic power are not deterministic of relations. Having a larger GDP, or a more complex economy, does not mean a country just gets its way on things. Any limitations on Russian foreign policy have been, and continue to be, self-inflicted, the result of ruined relations with Western nations, as opposed to Chinese impositions. On the other hand, it is difficult to see a binding ideological glue, or shared Sino-Russian vision for the international order on the basis of authoritarian commonalities. It is doubtful that an ideological conspiracy exists between Moscow and Beijing, but Washington struggles to conceive of a contest with authoritarian powers without engaging in an ideological dialectic. This says much more about American elites than it does about thinking in Russia or China.

From Seller to Contractor?

Russian defense cooperation with China is subject to a paradox: The more advanced the Chinese military is, the less providing it with military technology poses a meaningful added military risk to Russia. Moscow is operating in a “sell or lose” scenario, with the expectation that Beijing’s own defense sector will be able to develop indigenous analogues with or without access to Russian military technology. China’s growing industrial potential in the defense sector is likely to change the nature of defense cooperation from transactional arms sales to more joint development, defense services, and transfer of technology.

Intellectual property concerns linger, but are not a determining factor of the relationship, as they have proven not to be with many companies who both fear having their technology copied, but fear missing out on the Chinese market even more. This view is expressed by Russian defense analysts, such as Andrei Frolov, stating that “It’s always bad when someone copies your weapons without permission, but I think it’s fair to say that since Russia continues to cooperate militarily with China, this is not very critical [for Russia].” Vasily Kashin wrote that “[Technology theft] is a shared problem for all companies who do business in China … It’s becoming increasingly difficult to offer China anything new, so Russian policy is to move away from arms sales to joint development.” Tales of Chinese reverse-engineering have been oversold. Often left out in the story are the availability of expertise in post-Soviet states to aid in development and manufacture of Soviet-era platforms; the years it took China to accomplish said feats; and the fact that some supposedly stolen systems were developed with Russian help under contract.

What does the future hold? Transfers of entire weapon systems or platforms are likely to decline, but actual defense cooperation will increase, and become more secretive. Russia’s need for machine tools to improve industrial capacity in the military industrial complex, and key components such as electronics, will see Moscow importing more from China. Recent examples include everything from cranes for Zvezda shipyard, which dramatically increased Russian shipbuilding crane capacity available in the far east, to engines for Grachonok anti-saboteur ships, and electronics. Access to electronic components will prove critical for Russia’s ability to develop and deploy the next generation of weapons, leveraging autonomy or AI, to confront the United States in space or cyberspace.

To be clear, not all imports are working out. When Russia imported Chinese diesel engines for Grachonok-class ships, to replace the no longer available German MTU engines, they broke down during the first test. Today, Russia’s Ministry of Defense is probably importing more Chinese equipment than they would like or perhaps know, mostly via defense enterprises or unscrupulous officials who at times try to illegally substitute components with more cheaply produced Chinese goods.

Defense will move more into co-development, subcontracting, and manufacturing of key components. An example of a co-development project today would be the Advanced Heavy Lifter helicopter project, with China seeking to compensate for its lack of heavy lift helicopters using Russia’s extensive expertise in this area and experience with mass production of the Mi-26. This is a case of Russia functioning as a subcontractor, Rostec official Viktor Kladov said at the time, “This will be a Chinese helicopter. Most works will be carried out by a Chinese company, and the Chinese side has tasked Russia with developing some key angles and components.” The recently announced cooperation on missile early warning systems suggests a stronger shift into “strategic” capabilities, with no information available on contracts signed or their value, i.e. work is taking place, but it is not being reported by either side.

Low hanging fruit would involve further air defense system and missile deals, such as 40N6 long range missile for S-400, and the S-500 system when it starts to enter production, or the newly developed S-350 Vityaz. Russia will continue supplying China with aircraft engines, namely D-30KP2, AL-31F, and Al-41F. For example contracts in 2017 included a sale of 100 AL-31F and a similar number of D-30KP2 engines valued at $1 billion. Engines for fifth-generation aircraft are candidates for sale or tech transfer in the future, once Russia completes work on Izdeliye 30 for the Su-57. Similarly, one should not be surprised to find more license produced Russian anti-ship missiles, with Chinese designations (for example YJ-18), based on the export variants of the more successful Russian missile designs.

The two countries could expand cooperation in space, which is ripe for collaboration, missile defense, and various missile technologies (e.g., air-to-air, or land attack). Other areas of collaboration which are less sensitive and offer opportunities to both sides could be unmanned systems, and dual-use transport aviation. Russia may have to outright buy Chinese surface combatants as it will face hull shortages rated for the “far sea zone” later in the 2020s. Shipbuilding and ship maintenance remain consistent weaknesses in Russia’s defense industry where complementary strengths can be found in Chinese industries. More sensitive cooperation would involve theater hypersonic weapons (Tsirkon), submarine quieting, space-based sensors, and undersea sensor technology. These could further erode U.S. military advantages, although the sensitivity of transferring these types of technology makes it less likely.

However, where there is opportunity, the relationship also faces headwinds. The two defense industries are largely autarkic, and the military establishments deeply nationalistic, which means that they will not enthusiastically jump at opportunities for co-development and deeper cooperation. Trust and sentimentality are not the issue. Domestic stakeholders wanting to keep the procurement dollars to themselves, and a desire for self-sufficiency are the forces working against greater cooperation. Declining domestic demand has led the Russian defense industry to once again look to export markets, particularly the aerospace sector, but the same cannot be said of Russia ability to import from China, due to the weakness of the ruble.

Granted, it is impossible to predict the economic state of either country looking out 10 to 15 years, but China’s economy is slowing down. The demand for Russian resources, which Russia needs to export to make money in order to buy Chinese goods, may be reduced in the coming years.

Why Interoperability Doesn’t Matter

Russian exercises with China have grown in frequency, geographic reach, and substance. At the same time, these exercises do not reflect a desire to develop interoperability, or tactical level cooperation, so much as operational or strategic deconfliction, while setting the tone for military to military ties at the highest echelons. Exercises have important signaling functions: They annoy the United States, offering a form of reciprocity for U.S. freedom of navigation operations and exercises near Russia’s or China’s borders, and they allow both countries to project power outside of their respective regions, demonstrating themselves to be great powers. They are important expositions for future potential arms sales, the events help illustrate that neither country is isolated by U.S. political efforts, and they send internal signals within their own establishments that they have threats in common which exceed the potential threat they see in each other.

A somewhat cultish U.S. adherence to tactical level interoperability, borne out of America’s network of alliances consisting of decidedly junior military partners, at times blinds U.S. thinking to the fact that this is not how great powers tend to do business with each other. Interoperability, in the sense this term is typically used in U.S. defense circles, is unnecessary, and uncommon to find among major powers outside of wartime alliances. Large institutional militaries are dominated by their own respective cultures, strategies, doctrines, adversaries and the contingencies they plan around. They have no need for interoperability, and would not subordinate national priorities, identity, or procurement prerogatives for the benefit of compatibility with another force, especially when they do not know that they will ever fight together against a common enemy. If the political leaders in both countries formally state that they do not desire a military alliance, to what end would their respective militaries pursue interoperability?

Russia and China will divide a theater of military operations into fronts and deploy as two separate operational combat groupings to fight in their preferred manner. This is the kind of interoperability Russia and China seek to achieve, which amounts to deconfliction at the strategic level. Cultural barriers and inexperience limit Russo-Chinese interactions at the tactical level, but this is largely irrelevant. Absent a formal military alliance, and without discernible need for such a codified framework, one should not expect Russia and China to develop interoperability akin to how the United States prefers to work with its alliance network.

China’s foreign military education presence in Russia is unrivaled by its other exchange programs, and while this could provide inputs into the Chinese system and its understanding of modern combat operations, the reality is that the Chinese are building a different military from the Russian armed forces. Future exercises are likely to involve more Russian strategic deterrence force components, such as long-range aviation, integrated air defense, missile defense and the like, while expanding their geographic reach. The primary vehicle for out of area exercises will be Joint Sea and various types of naval drills. These exercises may increase in complexity, but that complexity will be irrelevant as a factor in Sino-Russian defense cooperation. More significant is where they are held, and the political signals they send about the two countries’ desire to spend political capital on behalf of their respective territorial disputes.

Military-to-military exchanges, exercises, and training programs will ultimately permit Russia and China to be able to execute three potential contingencies: a joint intervention in Central Asia, dividing the country into separate operational level theaters, a joint expeditionary operation in Africa or the Middle East, and a coordinated deployment of forces along separated operational fronts in the event of a military crisis in the Asia-Pacific region. This is a probabilistic though not an exhaustive list of contingencies.

What Does it Matter?

At the bare minimum Russia and China will have strategically liberated each other to pursue their respective contests against the United States, able to revise the regional security or economic order without having to “cover their backs,” so to speak. As some like Alexander Korolev have convincingly argued, they are willing to accept a degree of mutual strategic vulnerability to sustain cooperation, committing the bulk of their resources to take on the United States separately in their respective contests. Strategy is about choices. While in the past Russia and China have drawn considerable resources from their primary contests to hedge against each other, or compete for leadership, the evidence suggests they have made a different choice.

Second, as Russia and China deepen their technical cooperation, it will enable the two countries to obviate U.S. sanctions and restrictions on technology exports. These powers could leverage each other’s resources, networks of suppliers or partners. For Russia this would help avoid falling behind the United States in military technology — for China it could mean maintaining parity or in some cases leaping ahead.

Third, defense cooperation could incrementally intensify between the two countries over the coming years, becoming more formalized and engaging sensitive sectors for both sides or capabilities that they consider to be ‘strategic” in nature.

Finally, exercises could take on greater geopolitical significance as forms of political support for each other’s regional disputes, while important elements of military cooperation disappear further from sight into secret deals and pacts. There is evidence that this is the current trajectory of Russo-Chinese relations, but at this moment that story remains unwritten.

The most significant scenarios for the United States stem from the fact that the entente is not a functional military alliance per se, but it is at bare minimum a functional non-aggression pact, which means both countries can focus on the United States, believing the other will not stab it in the back. The potential consequences are most evident in global warfighting domains, space and cyberspace, where one state could sabotage or otherwise degrade a U.S. response to a military contingency, were they so inclined. A two-theater scenario, in which one power launches opportunistic aggression as the other engages the United States, is unlikely. However, Russia and China can play supporting roles to each other and dramatically complicate U.S. thinking in a crisis. Moscow or Beijing can choose to materially impact a U.S. response in a conflict, increasing American costs, and block for each other with military deployments, use of owned assets, or cyber-attacks. The geographic asymmetry lends Russia a much greater opportunity to deploy forces in a U.S.-Chinese contingency, but Beijing is not without options in continental Europe.

Cooperation in defense technology will continue to focus on sectors of greatest concern to the United States as an expeditionary aerospace and maritime power. For Russia this would offer access to three things it needs: industrial capacity which is its defense sector’s primary limitation, components to which access has been constrained or cutoff due to sanctions, and a sustained export market for defense industrial output in lieu of reduced national demand for defense procurement. Conversely, China could gain Russia as a subcontractor or co-developer for important military or dual-use technology projects, access to technologies where they are a generation if not more so behind, and purchase discrete systems that would make qualitative differences to China’s military power.

What to Do?

The United States has options, but its competition with Russia and China is borne out of a policy consensus that offers little maneuver room given the imperatives of alliance politics, and a strong desire to fight for primacy. The United States retains the option to change the ways and mechanisms by which it pursues its interests to alter the impetus for a Russian-Chinese entente, taking prudent steps to reduce the confrontation with either adversary, but those strategies do not appear to be on the horizon. America’s ability to engage in statecraft is self-constrained.

Consequently, Washington will need much better intelligence on Russian-Chinese defense cooperation, secret deals on licensed production, technology co-development projects, and undisclosed arms transfers. The United States can continue to restrict the export of dual-use technology, isolate specific companies, and discourage cooperation by raising the potential costs for Chinese industries (because they are much more diversified into civilian markets than Russian counterparts). In order to do so, Washington would need good information about what sectors to target, and why. There is room to reduce the economic rationale for defense cooperation, but it requires stronger economic pressure on China, and greater energy exports to reduce the overall market price for Russian energy exports.

Washington would need a tectonic shift in current strategy towards one of these powers to substantially affect the relationship between Moscow and Beijing. Such revisions remain unacceptable to the Washington policy consensus. Asking what the United States can do to hurt Russo-Chinese relations is the wrong question. (The answer is “not much.”) As attractive as it may seem notionally, a wedge strategy simply won’t work, amounting to what Gene Rumer rightly describes as “magical thinking.” Action officers and planners invariably need ideas for things they can do, but a better way of thinking about the problem is to find ways the United States can mitigate the impact of a Russo-Chinese entente. Strategy is about what you choose not to do, as much as what you choose to do. One of Washington’s proclivities is overreacting to the presence of other great powers, in part because of the unfortunate incentives in the bureaucracy to “find” a great-power competition in their area of responsibility in order to justify their mission. Often it is best to get out of the way and let one’s adversaries compete against each other.

Most regions are likely to generate foreign policy contradictions between Russia and China because they do not represent vital interests and are therefore free for competition. In some arenas actively competing with other great powers simply spreads out U.S. resources. As Frederik the Great said, “he who defends everything defends nothing.” Washington should resist the urge to compete everywhere and ignore the deluge of think tank reports proclaiming a great-power competition taking place in parts of the world where it has low stakes and a weak hand.

The United States should look to allies in counter-balancing Russian or Chinese influence in flank theaters and compete for relative influence among partners like India. Geopolitical shifts, crises and events will present opportunities which can be seized, but the inevitable outcome of U.S. strategy today is to engage in activities that will only further increase Sino-Russian comity. This comity will endure or deteriorate of its own accord. The United States is a catalyst in this equation, but the relationship has its own rationale born in the strategies and outlooks of the other two powers. In other words, it is not simply a response to American hegemony or pursuit of primacy. The U.S. goal at this stage should not be to stop it, but to recognize the strategic implications and potential costs for U.S. strategy in these respective contests and seek to mitigate the effects by leveraging its own network of allies and partners as potential counter-balancers.



Michael Kofman serves as director and senior research scientist at CNA Corporation and a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. Previously he served as program manager at the National Defense University and a nonresident fellow at Modern War Institute at West Point. The views expressed here are his own.

Image: Russian Ministry of Defense