The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Alexander Korolev – senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts, Design, and Architecture, at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, and the author of forthcoming “China-Russia Strategic Alignment in International Politics” (Amsterdam University Press) – is the 318th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”
Briefly explain the history of China-Russia military cooperation and recent role reversal.
China-Russia military cooperation dates back to the early 1990s when the two countries introduced confidence-building measures (CBMs) aimed at demilitarizing and de-securitizing the joint border. With the border issues resolved in the early 2000s, the CBMs developed into a comprehensive mechanism of regular military consultation at various levels. In the mid-late 2000s, these developments facilitated the rise of the bilateral military-technical cooperation (MTC), accompanied by the introduction of military personnel exchanges and regular military exercises. China became Russia’s “privileged partner” in the sphere of MTC.
The volume and quality of the bilateral arms transfers increased, setting the stage for more advanced forms of military cooperation. These included joint aerospace engine development, export to China of Russia’s advanced anti-aircraft weapon systems, supermaneuverable fighter jets, and military helicopters. The apotheosis of China-Russia military cooperation was the announcement by President Putin in October 2019 that Russia was actively helping China to create a missile attack early warning radar system, which is claimed to fundamentally enhance China’s defense capability.
It is early to talk about a “role reversal” as such in China-Russia military cooperation. A more accurate description would be growing interdependence with bilateral cooperation becoming a reciprocal “two-way street.” This pattern consolidated after the Ukraine Crisis of 2014, when Russia started to consider China as not only a market but also a provider of critical items for Russian arms. Russia has changed its attitude toward a more comprehensive and interdependent military cooperation with China and is no longer cautious about relying on China in this area. Russia is reconsidering its previous defense-equipment-for-cash model of military cooperation with China in favor of long-term cooperation projects that interlock military production in both countries and increase interdependence.
Explain the difference between China-Russia “normal military-technical cooperation” vs. Chinese military assistance to Russia in wartime.
“Normal military-technical cooperation,” if such a thing exists, is a part of a longer-term development in interstate military-technical cooperation. There is an element of path-dependency in it because it is grounded in the procurement agreements, which are nested in the existing networks of bilateral treaties, contracts, or other agreements in the military-technical sphere. It is an outcome of the existing prevailing institutional configuration of the relationship.
However, it is more of a political question in wartime when the borderline between “normal cooperation” and “military assistance” becomes blurry. The fact that the Russian combat vehicle BMD-4, used in the war in Ukraine, is equipped with thermal imaging cameras produced by the French company Thales has been harshly criticized by some as an attempt to bypass sanctions. However, this cooperation precedes the Ukraine war, and it is unclear whether the French company would sell this technology today. In the case of Chinese military assistance to Russia in wartime, it will be difficult to tell what is “normal” and what is not.
What are some examples of interdependence in China-Russia military cooperation and why do they matter?
China-Russia contracts for the joint design of weapons systems and military R&D are difficult to track. However, it is known that the share of technology transfers and joint ventures in the overall transfers of Russian military equipment to China has increased. The Russian defense industry has also started to search for suppliers in China. Examples include procurement by Russia of naval diesel engines produced by Henan Diesel Engine Industrial Company instead of German corporations for its coast guard patrol ships and missile corvettes. Some projects take the form of the joint production of weapons in Chinese territory with Russia developing critical elements of different platforms (e.g., airframes or suspension systems), rather than entire platforms.
The most extensive bilateral programs are related to aircraft engines and anti-aircraft weapons. For example, the Chernyshev Moscow Machine-Building Enterprise and the China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation are jointly modernizing the Russian Klimov RD-33 turbofan engine for a lightweight fighter jet that has become the primary engine for the Chinese CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder lightweight multirole combat aircraft.
Technological partnerships based on subcontracting work on various essential elements of the overall design and joint programs for defense innovation transform the nature of the ordinary transactional China-Russia military-technical cooperation. It gradually diminishes Russia’s role as a net weapons provider and creates long-term mutual dependencies.
In which capabilities, if any, does China have an advantage over Russia? If China were to provide military assistance to Russia, which assets would that involve?
China currently has much to offer, particularly electronic components, including those for the space program, composite materials, drone technologies, and engines for warships. In this context, the two countries are working on Russia procuring and acquiring production technology of space-grade radiation-resistant electronic components from the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation in exchange for Russian RD-180 liquid-fueled space carrier rocket engines and production technology. Another area where China might have an edge is cyberspace. As of 2019, the Chinese Huawei Technologies Group was facilitating China-Russia cyber integration by opening data centers in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan, Novosibirsk, and Nizhny Novgorod.
Given the current comparative technological advantages between China and Russia, if China is to provide any military assistance, Russia would be interested in military drones. Watching the war in Ukraine, drones proved to be very effective, but Russia’s capacity to produce military drones is limited. China has made significant technological leaps in that direction both qualitatively and quantitatively.
Assess the risks and rationale of China’s hypothetical military assistance to Russia in a protracted conflict and implications for the U.S., EU, and NATO.
If China decides to provide military assistance to Russia in the protracted war in Ukraine, it will risk becoming a target of not only secondary but also direct sanctions. The U.S. has already started sanctioning China, even without sufficient evidence of China’s military assistance to Russia.
As to the rationale, it is important to zoom out and look beyond just China-Russia relations. The problem is that Beijing increasingly recognizes that China and the U.S. are on a long-term collision course and that Washington has embarked on a strategy of containing China. Beijing is taking the recent AUKUS initiative as an explicitly anti-China alliance. High-profile arms sales and visits to Taiwan by U.S. officials and high-profile lawmakers as a form of brandishing Taiwan’s independence also provoke China, pushing it to conduct extensive naval and air exercises around Taiwan and reconsider its military cooperation with Russia.
The possibility of a tighter China-Russia military alignment in which both countries provide military assistance to each other in their confrontation with the West will have serious global geopolitical implications. As a recent special report to Congress states, the United States’ military superiority has eroded to a dangerous degree, to the extent that the U.S. might struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia, especially if it is forced to fight on two or more fronts simultaneously.