With the world’s attention focused on Ukraine in the weeks since Russia began its operation on February 24, there has been fervent debate among foreign policy experts on how Russia’s relations with the West will be affected. Officials in Moscow and Western capitals have traded barbs at each other in the media, while sanctions and counter-sanctions have already begun to bite. But the effects of Russia’s operation on Chinese-Russian relations have been far less discussed. In recent years, both Russia and China have publicly promoted their increasingly strong partnership. Chinese President Xi Jinping has called Russian President Vladimir Putin his “best friend,” (NEUMAN, 2019) while both Xi and Putin have described the current state of Chinese-Russian relations as “the best they’ve been in history”.
This has been reflected in collaborative military drills (Blivas, 2021), increasing weapons (Schwartz, 2021) and energy (Kandy Wong and Laura Zhou, 2022) deals between China and Russia, and public support for one another across their state-run media outlets and their dealings within international organizations like the UN. Since the previous Ukraine crisis in 2014, Moscow has been particularly eager to promote these developments in its relationship with Beijing to limit the effects of diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions imposed by the West.
The current crisis in Ukraine is prompting further efforts by China and Russia to confront the US. While Russia’s core interest in doing so is in preventing Ukraine from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), China is keen to exploit any opportunity that arises during the conflict between Russia and Ukraine that challenges US influence. (Economist, 2022)
As war rages in Ukraine (one which China thus far has refused to condemn) Americans are acutely concerned about the partnership between China and Russia. Around nine-in-ten U.S. adults say it’s at least a somewhat serious problem for the United States, and a 62% majority say it’s a very serious problem – more than say the same about any of the other six problems asked about, including China’s involvement in politics in the U.S., its policies on human rights and tensions between China and Taiwan, among others.
Alongside the specific concern about the China-Russia relationship is a sense that China is a world superpower. About two-thirds (66%) of U.S. adults say China’s influence on the world stage has grown stronger in recent years. More Americans now also describe China as the world’s leading economic power. Around four-in-ten (43%) call China the world’s top economy – as many as say the same of the U.S. This marks a significant departure since 2020, when 32% of Americans said China was the world’s top economy and 52% named the U.S. This double-digit increase returns the share of Americans who consider China the world’s top economy to levels last seen in 2014.
Further development of China–Russia ties
The deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) further strengthened China–Russia defense ties. Most of all, since 2016, the China–Russia strategic and security relationship has become more institutionalized, with the signing of the ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ in 2016, of the ‘Roadmap on Military Cooperation for 2017–2020’ in 2017, and of the ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of coordination for a new era’ in 2019 (Diplomat, 2021).
As they upgraded their security ties with Comprehensive Strategic Partnership initiatives, they agreed to regularize more dialogue platforms at various levels, promote ranks of delegations for several meetings, and expand existing bilateral exercises or launch new ones. Moreover, the ‘Roadmap on Military Cooperation for 2017–2020,’ designed to make top-level design and draw up general plans for China–Russia military cooperation, enabled them to prepare an action plan for joint responses to common threats and for regional peace (Diplomat, 2021).
A further incremental shift in China–Russia strategic ties was seen in their outstanding military drills after the THAAD deployment was discussed in early 2016. During this period, China and Russia not only extended the existing bilateral drills, but also launched and conducted several brand-new trainings and patrols. First, given the intensifying tension with the USA, China and Russia showed a high level of military engagement through several remarkable exercises. For instance, during discussion over the THAAD deployment between the USA and South Korea, China and Russia held the large-scale Joint Sea 2016 around the South China Sea, deploying various up-to-date military assets. Specifically, the training content and location attracted international attention because this was the first China-Foreign joint naval drill around the disputed South China Sea, showing their resolute will to jointly defend their security and territorial integrity.
Moreover, during this exercise, for the first time both countries carried out ‘three-dimensional seizing and controlling of islands and reefs’ involving joint army–navy–air force actions, and also used a joint command information system to proceed with ‘posture sharing, document distribution…[and] command order transmission […] for command posts at all levels and for all combat units’ (Meick, 2017) The Joint Sea 2016 demonstrated that both countries had further upgraded the effectiveness of joint drills and constructed a high level of mutual confidence.
China’s participation in the existing Russia-led exercises marked another remarkable cornerstone in their incremental defense ties. In 2018, for the first time China officially sent 3,200 troops, 30 aircraft, and 900 tanks to the Vostok-2018 exercise (Carlson, 2018), (Bin, 2019)This was the first time China participated in a large-scale Russian exercise on Russian soil. In 2019, following Russia’s invitation, China participated in another Russia-led exercise, Tsentr-2019, along with India and Pakistan (CNBC, 2019). These two exercises were conducted in a multilateral format, so that China and Russia not only improved their bilateral defense engagement, but also enhanced interoperability
and mutual trust with other countries. One important motive for China’s participation in the Russia-led exercise and Russia’s acceptance of the Chinese- army on its territory was their broad consensus on the growing sense of threat from the USA (Bin, 2019, p. 118).
During the late 2010s, China and Russia also initiated new multilateral exercises with other countries. In late 2019, they held the first trilateral naval exercise with Iran around the northern Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman; in the same year, they conducted another trilateral naval drill with South Africa around the western Indian Ocean (CNN, 2019) and the last one, At the beginning of January, the naval exercise of Iran, Russia and China called “Maritime Security Belt 2022” began for three days in the northwest of the Indian Ocean with the slogan “Together for Peace and Security” in an area of 17,000 square kilometers (reuters, 2022).
While the exercise itself was very important from a military point of view, the drill provides the latest evidence of growing security cooperation between China, Russia, and Iran that should sound alarm bells in Washington, Jerusalem, and key Arab capitals (Bowman, B.Taleblu and Brobst, 2022). The exercise’s stated purpose was to focus on anti-air, counter-piracy, and nighttime maritime operation skills — fairly standard objectives for maritime exercises. It was clear, however, that the exercise had a larger purpose for the three governments, which are unified in their opposition to the United States.
For all three exercises, China and Russia sent advanced military assets and carried out various joint trainings, improving interoperability, coordination capabilities for maritime security, information sharing, and joint mission capacity (Xinhua, 2022). By consistently expanding their size, complexity, frequency, and geographical reach, China and Russia sent a clear message to the USA that they had become genuine security partners (Rinna, 2018).
China’s Global penetration through Central Asia
China’s ambitions for regional influence appeared to intensify starting in 2013, when Xi delivered a speech in Kazakhstan announcing plans for the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), the continental component of what eventually became known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Through this initiative, China planned to build infrastructure that would strengthen connections across the Eurasian continent to Europe and the Middle East while laying the groundwork for increased global influence (G.Carlson, 2022).
Russia was initially wary of China’s intentions, but by 2015 the two countries reached an agreement to link the SREB with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). To date, the concrete results of this effort have remained limited. Putin later attempted to subsume such regional cooperation into the vague concept of “Greater Eurasia.” For the time being, these efforts provide a political framework for easing potential conflicts between China and Russia.
In the view of many analysts, China and Russia have been able to manage their relations in Central Asia through a division of labor. In this scheme, Russia continues to be the main provider of regional security, while China serves as an engine for regional economic development. Whether China will continue to limit its involvement in regional security over the long term, however, remains an open question. As its investments in the region accumulate, China might eventually feel compelled to provide its own security rather than relying on Russia. China’s accommodation of Russia’s interests in Central Asia could prove to be merely a transitional phase that is necessary in order to achieve its near-term aims. In the long run, Russia might prove unable to prevent China from gaining dominance in Eurasia (Rolland, 2019). A Russian defeat in Ukraine, or even an outcome in which Russia achieves some of its objectives but emerges weakened, could accelerate this process.
China’s concerns about security along its western borders have already pushed it to increase its role in regional security. As early as 2016, China engaged with Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, all of which have territory abutting China’s western border, in a regional security format that excluded Russia. By 2018, news reports emerged that China had constructed a border post for the People’s Armed Police (PAP) in Tajikistan, as well as a base for mountain forces in the Badakhshan region of Afghanistan. China engaged in careful outreach to Russia, seeking to provide assurance that its goal was to provide security along its western border, rather than to encroach on Russia’s security role in the region. Meanwhile, Russia continues its efforts to act as a regional security provider, primarily through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In January 2022, acting through this organization, Russia dispatched forces to Kazakhstan in an effort to suppress an uprising there. Russia accused the United States of attempting to foment a “color revolution” in Kazakhstan, a charge that China endorsed.
Despite long-term questions about the ability of China and Russia to harmonize their interests in Central Asia, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan could promote China-Russia security cooperation in the near term (G.Carlson, “The Taliban Takeover and China-Russia Relations, 2021). In August 2021, as the Taliban victory neared, Russian forces participated in Joint Western-2021, a set of domestic Chinese military exercises in China’s western Ningxia Province. This was the first time that Russian military forces had participated in domestic Chinese military exercises. The drills focused on a counterterrorist scenario, becoming the latest in a long series of China-Russia counterterrorist exercises dating back to Peace Mission 2005.
In the wake of the Taliban takeover, a regional insurgency or the rise of a terrorist threat could prompt China and Russia to mount a joint intervention in Central Asia with the goal of reestablishing regional order. In the meantime, events in Afghanistan could reshuffle regional diplomacy. The Taliban takeover has already given rise to cooperation within the Pakistan-Iran-Russia-China (PIRC) grouping, which met on the sidelines of the SCO summit in September 2021. This could be another sign that important regional powers are coalescing into competing diplomatic alignments.
As these events unfold, the United States increasingly confronts the prospect of overstretch in its foreign policy (Brands, 2022). The most recent US National Defense Strategy, which was published in 2018, established the goal of maintaining the US ability to defeat a single great-power adversary at any given time. Thus, the strategy implicitly acknowledges that the United States would be incapable of successfully waging major wars in Europe and Asia simultaneously. This situation offers leverage to China and Russia, each of which operates with the awareness that US military intervention in one region could leave US allies and partners exposed in the other. Short of the outbreak of armed conflict, this situation also potentially affords both countries some additional leverage at the bargaining table in diplomatic negotiations.
China’s assistance to Russia will raise fears among China’s neighbors with their own disputes with Beijing. This support being provided to Russia by China could be enough to galvanise coordinated regional antagonism toward Beijing, supported by a heightened US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Despite these real and potential consequences, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has already instigated greater cooperation between China and Russia — a trend that will only continue. Russia’s need to shore up its situation may have expanded China’s leverage over it, but both Beijing and Moscow are well aware of the need to work together to undermine the US dominance in world affairs — and they see the wider global instability resulting from the conflict in Ukraine as an effective way to do so.
Russia’s relationship with China could eventually break down as a result of diverging interests and the growing power gap in China’s favor, but the West’s ability to influence this process is likely to be limited in the near term (Brands, The Eurasian Nightmare: Chinese Russian Convergence and the Future of American Order, 2022). Another approach would be for Europe to strengthen its own military capabilities and to assume greater responsibility for its own security, freeing the United States to focus on Asia. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spurred European countries, most notably Germany, to approve significant increases in defense spending. If Europe could summon the will to sustain this effort, then it could make a significant contribution to the defense of NATO’s eastern flank. This, in turn, would help to ensure the alliance’s ability to deter Russia in Europe while allowing the United States to devote sufficient attention to the vital task of deterring China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia (A.Colby, 2021, pp. 268-278).
The China-Russia relationship stretches US attention and resources, dramatically increasing the difficulty of fulfilling US security commitments and supporting partners around the world. As diplomatic alignments grow increasingly rigid, this situation is likely to become even more entrenched. Recent events starkly illustrate the risk of a two-front war resulting from Russian aggression in Europe and Chinese aggression in Asia. This situation already places growing strain on US defense strategy. In addition to this concern, US and allied defense planners must consider the possibility that China and Russia could someday, perhaps following a messy settlement in Ukraine, fight together in an armed conflict in Asia.
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