As Russia, under Putin, becomes more isolated from the West, it has been forging increasingly close military ties with its former rival, China. While avoiding calling this cooperation a formal pact or agreement, both authoritarian powers are working together in multiple military fields to leverage mutual advantages against the U.S. (RELATED: Russia Warns Trump on Using New ‘Low-Yield’ Nuclear Weapons)
This cooperation includes an unprecedented number of joint military drills and even co-developing new weapons systems. China and Russia call it a “Strategic Partnership,” not a “military alliance.” But, should the U.S. worry? (RELATED: China Rushing to Double Its Nuclear Forces by 2030)
Among the increasing joint military drills, in December, China, Russia, and Iran completed a four-day joint military exercise in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman – the first time Iran has held a joint exercise with two major world naval powers at this scale.
According to CNN, Iranian Second Rear Admiral Gholamreza Tahani said that the joint drills serve as a signal to the world that relations between Tehran, Moscow and Beijing have reached a “meaningful” level.
In late 2018, Russian, Chinese and Mongolian military forces also held large-scale, joint military drills during the Vostok-2018 (East-2018) exercise at the Russian Tsugol training grounds in Siberia, reported Newsweek. The U.S. should expect even more drills in the coming months and years.
In terms of China and Russia co-developing weapons, one example noted by The National Interest (TNI), is a new drone that would be launched from a multiple launch rocket system. “Joint experimental design work with the Chinese side is underway,” Tecmash Research and Production Group deputy CEO Alexander Kochkin said at the ArmHiTec-2018 exhibition, according to Russia’s TASS news agency.
Another example is a missile early warning radar system being developed jointly for China.
Russian experts see a growing partnership, but not a full-throated defense commitment. As reported in December 2019 in Newsweek:
Politically, especially militarily, I would say we are advancing, but we are not allies,” Moscow-based PIR Center President Evgeny Buzhinskiy, a retired Russian lieutenant-general who is also vice president of the Russian International Affairs Council told Newsweek… “That means that both sides do not want to obligate themselves to interfere. Russia doesn’t want to interfere and help Chinese militarily in its adjacent waters with all their conflicts with their neighbors, as well as China is not going to support us militarily in case there is a conflict between NATO and Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also stated in December: “We do not have a military alliance with China and we do not plan to create one.” Instead, Putin said, according to Newsweek, assisting China with defense projects such as a new missile early warning radar system was to “add new quality to the defense capability of our strategic partner.”
China also speaks blandly of the relationship, partly to appease concerned defense planners in the West. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang was quoted in Newsweek as saying:
The China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era has become a major-country relationship featuring the highest degree of mutual trust, the highest level of coordination and the highest strategic value,” he added, noting this partnership “does not target any third party and will not be affected by any third party.
Other analysts see the relationship in a different light, and have noted that, while cooperation between Russia and China is booming, Moscow remains a junior partner to Beijing. “Both countries present this as a partnership of equals. But yes, for now, it’s still Russia selling advanced weapons to China,” Sam Bendett, at the Center for Naval Analyses, told TNI.
However, is that changing? And should the U.S. worry? U.S. Defense planners should prepare for all options, including even closer Russian-Chinese military ties in the near future.