The Russia-China alliance – as Russian President Vladimir Putin has described it more than once recently – is getting stronger. Even though an alliance of short-term convenience, brought about by their shared conflict with the U.S. and the West, it is deepening in ways that have implications not only for the West but also Asia. The latest indicator is Russian assistance to China to build a strategic missile early warning system.
In the beginning of October, Russian President Vladimir Putin said at an international affairs conference that Russia will be “helping China build an early warning system to spot intercontinental ballistic missile launches, something only Russia and the United States possess at the moment.” Speaking at a Moscow-based think tank, Valdai Club, Putin added that “This is a serious thing that will drastically increase the defense capabilities of the People’s Republic of China.” Kremlin spokesman did not give any specific details such as when the system would be operational but reportedly said this move “highlighted Russia’s close ties with China.” This clearly is an indication of the growing strategic partnership and the nature of the special relationship that Russia and China enjoy.
In recent years, the Russia-China strategic partnership has assumed more importance than any other relationship for Russia. Russia has gone on to characterize this relationship as an “alliance” first in Vladivostok on September 6 2019, in Sochi October 3 2019 and later at the Valdai Club in Moscow on October 7 2019. In the first instance at Vladivostok, Putin had stated, “We have developed special relations over the past decade, truly allied, strategic.” Later at the Valdai Club, Putin is reported to have remarked, “We have an unprecedentedly high level of trust and cooperation. This is an allied relationship, a multifaceted strategic partnership.”
According to Russian media reports, an around $60 million worth contract has been already signed to develop the software for the PLA early-warning system (Systema Preduprezdenya o Raketnom Napadenii—SPRN) network. SPRN will include both ground (using powerful stationary radars) and space segments. The report stated that much of the work will be undertaken by IAC Vympel and the Central Research Institute Comet (part of the Almaz-Antey Concern for Aerospace Defense. – Vedomosti). China already possesses the Russian S-400 air defense system which can also partly serve the missile defense functions. Russia is in the process of developing a more advanced S-500 system and Moscow believes that if Beijing were to buy it, that would facilitate Russia setting up the full architecture of an integrated PLA SPRN and a missile defense network.
There is also some speculation that the system will allow the two countries to warn each other of third-country launches, but this clearly needs to be considered with some skepticism. For example, a military analyst based in Hong Kong, Song Zhongping opines that the Russian offer would facilitate the development of a joint early warning system between Russia and China. He added that “If the U.S. wants to attack China [with its ICBMs], their missiles are likely to be launched from the Arctic, and that will be covered by Russia’s early warning system, and that means Moscow will have the capability to alert Beijing.” But it is doubtful that this would come to pass. Strategic early warning systems are among the most closely guarded and vital national security establishments because they – literally – could decide the survival of the nation. It is unlikely that such systems will be operated jointly with another state, especially considering the history of past conflicts between Moscow and Beijing, as well as their current suspicions of each other.
China appears to be the beneficiary of the worsening Russia-West relations. After the Ukraine crisis and the sanctioning of Russia, Moscow has felt the need to cultivate its own strong partnerships in Asia and China has benefited immensely from this Russian outreach. But the reverse is also true: worsening U.S.-China relations is also making Beijing more receptive to Russian overtures. Irrespective of the reasons for this deepening alliance, it has implications for others, including Asian powers such as India, which have their own reasons for worrying about this relationship.