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China Trends #3 – China and Russia: Brothers-In-Arms?

China Trends #3 – China and Russia: Brothers-In-Arms?
 Angela Stanzel
Senior Policy Fellow

China’s military cooperation with Russia has been traditionally strong. In particular, because Russia would sell weapons to China, which China has not been able to buy from Western countries due to the arms embargo that had been imposed on China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989.

While Russian arms could not replace Western modern technologies, in particular American ones, the Sino-Russian military bond not only lay the basis for China’s weaponry to date but also its strategies and theories. In recent years this bond has grown even stronger as both countries are united against the West, or at least this is the picture they paint for the outside world. Both countries are increasingly engaged in joint military exercises, as seen in the South China Sea in 2016, and even in European waters both countries have conducted joint military exercises, first, in the Mediterranean in 2015, then in the Baltic Sea in 2017.

Wang Haiyun, executive director of the Sino-Russian strategic cooperation think tank (中俄战略协作高端智库) and a former major general, wrote an opinion piece earlier this year, hailing military relations to be the most strategic and prominent areas in Sino-Russian relations [1]. He looks back since the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, and finds that military relations have become an important driving factor for the continuous improvement of strategic cooperation between the two countries.

The Sino-Russian military bond not only lay the basis for China’s weaponry to date but also its strategies and theories.

During this period, Wang notes that the development of Sino-Russian military relations was mainly concentrated on the following areas: Firstly, in the field of military technology. Cooperation between the two countries began due to military technology blockade of the Western powers in the 1990s. China then decided to introduce a number of Russian military technology and equipment in large quantities. Military technology cooperation became the highlight of the talks between the two sides and Russia became the only source of advanced weapons and equipment for the Chinese military.

Secondly, in the field of military security in border areas, both countries began negotiations on "mutual reduction of military forces in the border areas." (相互裁减边境地区军事力量的谈判). In 1996, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, the "five countries and two parties" ("五国两方") reached an agreement in Shanghai on strengthening military trust in the border areas. In 1997, the "Shanghai Five" (“上海五国”) agreed to reduce military forces in border areas and it was this cooperation mechanism, which laid a cornerstone for the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001. Thirdly, the Chinese and Russian armed forces reached an agreement in the 1990s, to strengthen cooperation in the field of military education. China began to send students to military academies in Russia.

Fourthly, since 2005, China and Russia have engaged in joint military exercises. Since then, the joint military exercises of the two armies have been gradually institutionalized and the exercise areas have gradually expanded from the "home doorstep" (家门口) further away, such as to the Baltic Sea. These military exercises have played a significant positive role in improving the actual combat capability of the Chinese military. Finally, both countries started cooperating in the area of theoretical military research. China copied a large number of Soviet military theories to draft its own theories for the armed forces on the ground and in the air (大陆军作战理论, 空地一体机械化作战理论) in the 1980s. Later, these military theories developed into the information warfare theory under the conditions of high and new technologies (高新技术条件下的信息化作战理论).   
Notably, the author believes that the modernization and reform of the Chinese military should focus on the relationship with the Russian military, rather than imitating the U.S. military. He argues that, firstly, China’s military, its weapons, equipment, research and development, are all based on the same system as the Russian military. Then, there are the geopolitical conditions, which China and Russia share as well, both being mainland countries and therefore their armed forces rely on the land for geographical support. Thirdly, both China and Russia share the nature of military operations, which are, in Wang’s view, more defensive than offensive. This, in his view, is also a major difference to the U.S. military's operations of overseas attack and long-range strike (海外进攻、远距离打击).  Finally, Chinese and Russian armed forces cooperate in the field of international military security, such as maintaining the international non-proliferation regime, maintaining cyber security, among others. Cooperation in the field of security within the SCO, in particular on combating the "three evil forces" (三股势力)-by which he means the “three evil forces” of terrorism, separatism and extremism - is also inseparable from the continued deepening of Sino-Russian military relations.

In sum, military relations have always occupied an important position in Sino-Russian relations and in Wang’s view the two sides should go further and push the two armies into "special friendly armies" (特殊友军). This would entail to expand transparency in military strategy to ensure strategic mutual trust; "back to back" (背靠背) military deployment, military theoretical innovation, and military reform. Finally, both countries should jointly develop and accelerate breakthroughs in military technology.

Both China and Russia share the nature of military operations, which are, in Wang’s view, more defensive than offensive.

Han Lu, researcher at the China Institute of International Studies, underlines Wang’s impressions, stating in a 2017/2018 article about highlights of Sino-Russia relations, that military cooperation between the two countries in particular reached a new level. In 2017, China and Russia conducted in-depth cooperation in defense consultations and joint training. Both countries signed a road map for military cooperation and development for the period of 2017-2020. At the same time, Lu highlights, both countries carried out three joint performances on sea, land, and air. At sea, the Chinese and Russian navy held an annual joint naval military exercise (in Vladivostok, the "Joint Sea 2017"), including on counter-terrorism, joint search and rescue, and the protection of maritime traffic lines. On land, the two countries held a joint counter-terrorism exercise, which aimed at enhancing the ability to jointly respond to terrorist threats. Finally, Chinese and Russian armed forces carried out the six-day air defense drills dubbed "Aerospace Security - 2017" (空天安全-2017), where the two armies made new breakthroughs cooperating in the field of anti-missile coordination.

The annual report on Russia-China relations, jointly published by Chinese and Russian academia notes, however, that China and Russia did not achieve major breakthroughs when it came to military-technical cooperation in 2017 [2]. Instead of signing new large-scale contracts they focused on implementing agreements that had been signed in the past. In addition, they point out that there was no record of new large contracts being signed between China and Russia in the field of military technology in 2017 (and until the report was written in March 2018). The authors of the report highlight that it is necessary to consider the lengthy process of preparing major contracts in the field of military cooperation, as well as a large number of technical features. Often, drafting these contracts takes three to five years, and in some cases even longer, which explains the seeming lack of progress in signing major contracts.

Even without major breakthroughs, they found that bilateral military technical cooperation between the two countries seems to have increased and expanded into new and more sensitive areas. The fact that the amount of relevant information and materials in the media has decreased may have been at the request of the Chinese side. For instance, there was an unscheduled meeting of the Russian-Chinese Intergovernmental Commission for Military-Technical Cooperation (中俄政府间军事技术合作混合委员会会议), which was held in Moscow in December 2017. This meeting could indicate that there was new joint project coordination but the specific content was not announced.

Meanwhile the authors listed continued military cooperation projects, such as Russia supplying a large number of aircraft engines to China, including a contract for the supply of approximately 100 AL-31F engines and the same number of D-30KP-2 engines, for a total amount of approximately $1 billion. In addition, there was continued cooperation in the areas of joint development and technology exchange, however slow. Negotiations on joint development of heavy helicopters, for instance, was a project that started in 2008/09, but it was not until May 2016 that a framework agreement was signed. Cooperation in the field of dual-use technology, namely the wide-body long-range aircraft (C929), was progressing faster. The two sides reached an agreement as early as the end of 2016 and established the company China-Russia Commercial Aircraft International Corporation Co., Ltd. (中俄商用飞机国际有限公司).

In terms of numbers, in 2017, China accounted for approximately 14.4% of Russia's total defense industry orders ($6.5 billion), including S-400 air defense missile systems, Su-35 fighters, and Mi-171 helicopters. The number of weapons Russia provided to China in 2017 exceeded India for the first time in years (even though more than 50% of Russian arms sales went to the Middle East).

A Xinhua headline recently proclaimed"China, Russia to lift military relations to new high" as "the two sides will enhance their mutual support on their respective core interests, and improve exchange and cooperation mechanisms at all levels". This headline and subheading should be music to the ears of Wang Haiyun, and the articles presented here confirm a strengthening of the Chinese-Russian military bond. However, even if cooperation is increasing it does not seem that China and Russia can reach a new dimension of joint military cooperation. One of the reasons may be that even though both countries strive for modernization and military high tech, they do it separately.


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[1] Wang Haiyun: Military relations reflect the 70 years of China-Russia diplomatic relations, Global Times, 3.6.2019

[2] "Sino-Russian military technology cooperation” (中俄军事技术合作), in the 4th annual report of “Russia China Dialogue: 2018 Modus operandi" (中俄对话:2018 模式), published by the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, Russian International Affairs Committee, and Far Eastern Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, May 2018

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