The complexity of the Sino-Russian alignment has been on display in recent months. The two states have continued to strengthen their defense ties through joint exercises and other activities. Yet, their foreign policy alignment remains disjointed—they cooperate closely in some regions, but not in others. Nonetheless, managing Chinese-Russian ties will present an important challenge for the next U.S. presidential administration.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) again played a prominent role in the annual Russian-organized International Army Games, a multinational display of military skills by Russian-friendly countries, which this year ran from August 23 to September 5. Though many contests, including those on Chinese territory, were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, six PLA teams, consisting of 260 troops equipped with China’s new ZTZ-96 tanks, competed in six events. PRC Defense Ministry spokesperson Senior Col. Ren Guoqiang said the goal of PLA participation in these so-called “War Olympics” was “to further strengthen the strategic cooperation between the Chinese and Russian militaries and deepen their practical cooperation in military training."
In September, PRC State Councilor and Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe participated in a special meeting of the defense ministers of the three most important Eurasian multinational security organizations: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Wei’s attendance was remarkable in that the PRC is not a member of the CIS or CSTO, which are Moscow-dominated structures originally intended, at least in part, to balance China’s growing power in Eurasia.
The PLA also joined Russia’s largest annual defense exercise, “Kavkaz-2020,” held this year in Russia’s Southern Military District from September 21-26. The Chinese troops, mostly comprised of forces from the PLA Western Theater Command, practiced “long-range cross-border force projection, the establishment of command bodies, pre-combat training, and joint campaign planning.” The PRC Ministry of Defense stated Beijing’s reasons for participating were to “move forward the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era, deepen practical cooperation in military training between the two militaries, and enhance the capacity of multinational forces to jointly respond to security threats and safeguard regional peace and stability.” PRC analysts also noted how the drills helped the PLA analyze Russian defense technologies and rehearse long-distance deployment capabilities.
Such joint exercises complement the growing Sino-Russian military-industrial cooperation. In recent years, Russia has supplied the PLA with some of its most advanced weapons systems, including Su-35 warplanes and S-400 surface-to-air missiles. The two countries are now collaborating on developing China’s missile early warning system and a next-generation conventional diesel submarine.
A leading Russian expert on the PLA, Vasily Kashin of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, notes that through these interactions, the two militaries are acquiring the capacity to conduct joint military operations—ranging from a military intervention in a jointly neighboring country to a combined noncombatant evacuation of Chinese and Russian nationals from a conflict region--should their political leaders ever decide to do so. "In principle, there is also preparation for larger joint military operations, but for now there is no political decision," Kashin said. "Yet, it's clear that the Russian and Chinese leaderships want to have the option of moving rapidly in that direction if they decide to do so." However, Beijing and Moscow have notably not decided to do so.
Meanwhile, Beijing and Moscow notably failed to fully align their foreign policies regarding some recent crises. In June’s fiery confrontation between China and India over the disputed Ladakh region, the Kremlin remained decidedly neutral, not wishing to antagonize either of Russia's two strategic Asian partners. On this occasion, Moscow hosted meetings of foreign and defense ministers of India and China in a futile effort to dampen tensions. Even worse from the Kremlin’s perspective, India withdrew from its planned participation in “Kavkaz 2020,” presumably to avoid Indian troops operating alongside Chinese and Pakistani troops. A PRC military expert quoted in Global Times belittled New Delhi’s withdrawal decision as manifesting “childishness” that “China's presence could eclipse its role.” Though India and Russia still conducted an independent bilateral navy drill and Moscow reaffirmed its commitment to provide more advanced weapons to the Indian Armed Forces, India’s terrible security ties with China threaten to paralyze the SCO, BRICS, and other multilateral institutions in which China, India, and Russia are leading members. For decades, Soviet and Russian diplomats had unsuccessfully attempted to overcome Sino-Indian tensions to forge a common alignment on behalf of Moscow’s foreign policies.
The alignment of Beijing and Moscow in the current Eurasian crises in Belarus and Nagorno-Karabakh has been less conflictual but still marginal. The Chinese and Russian governments accepted the reelection of Alexander Lukashenko despite evidence of widespread fraud. They also called for an end to the military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but they took both steps independently. Notwithstanding their parallel statements, Beijing and Moscow have not launched joint diplomatic or other concrete initiatives regarding either crisis.
Like Russia, China strives to limit its liability in regional crises that may be of prime concern for Moscow but not Beijing. Given Russia’s major security stakes in the former Soviet republics, PRC diplomacy has generally focused on selecting Eurasian partners for the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative; if problems arise in one location, PRC projects will flow to another. But in the security domain, Beijing generally expects Moscow to take the lead in maintaining stability in these states. Likewise, Moscow hedges its bets in Asia by maintaining diverse security partnerships despite the possibility that some of Russia’s arms recipients might use these weapons against China.
Most remarkable, there have recently been several atypical public spats between China and Russia. The Russian government has recently arrested several of its citizens for committing illicit technology transfers or espionage on China’s behalf. Russia also delayed deliveries of some S-400 units to the PLA. Meanwhile, prominent Chinese commentators complained when the Russian Embassy celebrated the 160th anniversary of Vladivostok, the largest Pacific municipality. The writers reminded their audience that Tsarist Russia had seized the city and surrounding region from China in the mid-19th century following China’s defeat in the Second Opium War. Though the assertive combination of rising Chinese nationalism, determination to recover former territories, and avenging past humiliation at the hand of foreigners has affected Beijing’s stance towards India, Japan, Vietnam, and other regional neighbors, these conditions have not had an appreciable impact on Chinese policies towards Russia. Presumably, Beijing sees maintaining strong Sino-Russian ties as imperative at a time when the PRC’s relations with every other world power (India, the EU, and the United States) have deteriorated.
Still, managing the Sino-Russian challenge will be a priority for whomever is the U.S. president next year. Even if not a formal alliance, Beijing and Moscow can undermine U.S. security interests through joint vetoes in the United Nations, support of problematic regimes like Iran and North Korea, and exploitations of fissures in Western domestic and multinational institutions for anti-U.S. purposes.