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3 Possible Futures for China-Russia Military Cooperation

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3 Possible Futures for China-Russia Military Cooperation

After the Ukraine war, will China maintain, expand, or scale back its military cooperation with Russia?

3 Possible Futures for China-Russia Military Cooperation

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (right) and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe observe the Vostok 2018 military drills, Sep. 12, 2018

Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense

Despite the expansion of China-Russia military ties in recent years – driven by a shared sense of threat from the U.S. and its allies – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the global backlash it precipitated have cast a shadow over the strategic partnership as a whole. Signs of bilateral military cooperation are likely particularly sensitive to Beijing at a time when countries around the world are calling on China to use its influence over Russia to bring the conflict to a halt. How bilateral military relations develop in the months and years ahead will have direct effects on the two countries’ ability to modernize their forces, credibly deter adversaries, and protect national interests.

This article examines three possible “futures” of China-Russia military cooperation, namely: (1) a state resembling the status quo, (2) a notable weakening of ties, and (3) a marked strengthening of cooperation. Each “future” considers possible geopolitical drivers behind relative levels of cooperation, a plausible range of activities the two militaries could conduct, and corresponding implications for China, Russia, and the United States.

Future 1: The Status Quo Persists

While the war in Ukraine has catalyzed profound changes in Western defense establishments – from Germany’s increased defense spending to Finland and Sweden’s rethinking about joining NATO – it may not affect the broad contours of China-Russia military relations. A quick end to the conflict, whether by a mediated peace or Russia’s withdrawal, could ease international pressure on Beijing to curtail its relations with Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin maintaining his grip on power could also ensure stability in military ties, as the strength of the strategic partnership has been attributed in part to close personal ties between him and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

A future China-Russia military relationship that resembles the bilateral cooperation of recent years could see the two sides maintaining or gradually expanding existing lines of effort, to include:

  • Technical cooperation through arms sales in areas such as aircraft engines and the joint development of platforms like heavy-lift helicopters. Factors that could limit growth in this area include Russian concerns about Chinese reverse engineering, competition for arms sales in foreign markets, and China’s lessening dependency on Russian imports.
  • Bilateral military exercises like the “Joint Sea” series (the most recent iteration of which occurred in October 2021) and the “Aerospace Security” air and missile defense exercises of 2016 and 2017. Such exercises could continue to gradually exhibit greater frequency, complexity, and geographic scope.
  • Combined patrols, such as the air and naval patrols Chinese and Russia forces have conducted in close range of Japan since 2019.
  • Key leader exchanges, to include virtual or in-person meetings between defense and service chiefs in China and Russia.

China would likely benefit most from continuity in bilateral military relations with Russia. China has acquired advanced Russian platforms and equipment that have been crucial to the People’s Liberation Army’s modernization, and Chinese troops purportedly learn much from training with their Russian counterparts (who, unlike Chinese servicemembers, actually have recent combat experience). Although Moscow’s benefits from bilateral defense cooperation have largely been economic in nature, arms sales to China will continue to be an important foreign market as Russia’s economy struggles under the weight of Western sanctions. For the U.S., although continuity in China-Russia military relations will remain undesirable, it will not present any surprises that force the Pentagon to quickly revise its strategic planning (as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine allegedly has).

Future 2: Ties Notably Weaken

The reverse of the factors in the above scenario could lead to a weakening of China-Russia military cooperation. If the Ukraine conflict does not end quickly and the West remains united in its opposition of Moscow, China could feel increasingly pressured to publicly distance itself from Russia (especially if the West threatens China economically over its tacit approval of Russia’s actions). Beijing, concerned about promoting a positive image of itself, could curtail aspects of the strategic partnership that foreign audiences construe as signs of support for the war in Ukraine, including highly visible aspects of bilateral military ties. Additionally, if Putin were forcibly removed from power, Xi may require time to familiarize himself and build trust with the new leader, which could lead to China taking a more cautious approach to bilateral military cooperation in the interim.

A state of weakened China-Russia military ties could see the following changes in bilateral activities:

  • Reduced technical cooperation, including a decline on Chinese purchases of Russian arms and a freeze on joint development projects.
  • Watered down exercises, in which China seeks to portray combined exercises as less confrontational in nature. One way would be to highlight noncontroversial exercise topics such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Exercises could also be “multilateralized” (through existing frameworks like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s “Peace Mission” counterterrorism exercises) to make them less about China-Russia ties and more about multiple countries’ shared interests.
  • Suspended combined patrols in waters or airspaces near U.S. allies – or at least a suspension of China and Russia’s release of information on related activities.
  • Less frequent and high-level key leader exchanges and less detailed public readouts of the meetings that occur.

The United States would be the biggest winner in a state of weakened China-Russia military ties. Reduced trust and operational familiarity between China’s and Russia’s armed forces could degrade their ability to coordinate military actions detrimental to U.S. and ally interests. China would be negatively affected by a reduction in bilateral military cooperation, as it would lose some opportunities to acquire advanced arms and to train with combat-hardened Russian troops. The impacts, however, would probably have little effect on China’s timetable for force modernization and transformation (China’s defense industry, for one, has become increasingly self-sufficient). The biggest loser would be Russia, as decreased arms sales to China would further aggravate strains on the Russian economy amid Western sanctions that Putin has called “akin to a declaration of war.” Less public support from China could increase Putin’s sense of isolation and motivate him to take more dangerous actions – to include threats of using nuclear weapons.

Future 3: Cooperation Is Markedly Strengthened

Unlike the two scenarios above, a future of strengthened China-Russia military cooperation may have less to do with the way the Ukraine conflict plays out and more to do with China’s perception of threats in the Indo-Pacific. Such a future would see the United States and its allies increasingly united in their rhetoric and actions aimed at pressuring China over its declared interests in areas such as Taiwan, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and disputed islands in the South China Sea. China may find it beneficial to visibly strengthen its military ties with Russia if it believes the chances of an Indo-Pacific conflict are growing and that military cooperation with Russia could enhance its deterrence messaging against the U.S. and its allies.

Stronger China-Russia military ties could be manifested in:

  • Enhanced technical cooperation, to potentially include ongoing Chinese purchases of Russian arms and an expansion of joint development projects on platforms that incorporate key Russian technologies (e.g., submarines). Amid expanded cooperation in this area, China may seek to pressure Russia to reduce its arms sales to countries with which China has territorial disputes, such as India and Vietnam.
  • Expanded combined exercises that exhibit greater frequency, scale, and complexity. Combined exercises could continue to feature high-end warfighting topics like anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface warfare and potentially expand to joint exercises with multiple military services.
  • More targeted combined patrols, to include air and maritime patrols around Japan and possibly other U.S. allies — or the United States itself. Chinese military ships and aircraft have in recent years demonstrated capabilities to operate at increasingly distant ranges in the Pacific.
  • More frequent key leader exchanges, during which leaders articulate shared assessments of the security environment and determination to support each other’s interests. Related readouts would continue to affix blame on the U.S. and its allies for geostrategic instability from Eastern Europe through Asia.

At a time in which many of the world’s advanced economies are united in their opposition to Putin’s war, Russia would probably be the most enthusiastic party for strengthened military relations with China. An enhanced military relationship could include the expanded sale of Russian arms to ease some of the pain of Russia’s struggling economy, and it could also signal to the world — including the Russian people — that China remains supportive of Russia’s leadership. China would likely favor stronger military ties with Russia that more credibly deter the U.S. and its allies, accelerate China’s acquisition of key technologies that its defense industry cannot yet replicate, and heighten the realism of Chinese military training. A stronger China-Russia military relationship — to potentially reach the level of a formal alliance — is the worst of the three futures for the United States, as it would improve Beijing and Moscow’s capability of waging coordinated two-front coercion or even war in the future. Such a scenario would make the Pentagon’s “integrated deterrence” framework — the leveraging of all instruments of national power among the U.S. and its allies — more important than ever.