An increase in military and security cooperation should not be interpreted as a sign that Russia and China would form an alliance in the event of armed conflict with the West.
What is the myth?
Amid deepening and expanding military cooperation between Russia and China, there is a widespread misconception in public and political debates that the two countries intend to join forces against the West. Although Russia and China have not created a formal alliance, concerns are growing that Moscow and Beijing are about to establish a de facto pact with far-ranging geopolitical and military consequences. By this account, Russia and China are expected to closely coordinate their coercive policies towards the West, and to offer each other at least limited security and/or military assistance in any conflict with the US and/or NATO. A joint statement by Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin on 4 February 2022 reinforced this narrative, with both sides affirming that their friendship has ‘no limits’ and that there are ‘no “forbidden” areas of cooperation’.
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
Senior Russian officials deliberately promote the idea that Russia might form an alliance with China. Asked whether one was possible, Putin replied at the Valdai conference in 2020: ‘It is possible to imagine anything. We have always believed that our relations have reached such a level of cooperation and trust that it is not necessary, but certainly imaginable, in theory.’ On 16 December 2021, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Russia and China will discuss tensions in Ukraine as ‘allies’.
Russian members of parliament reinforce the perception by framing the joint declaration of 4 February 2022 as ‘heavy political artillery’ and as proof that China is ‘ready to stand with us, back to back’. Also, Russian media outlets and think-tanks often classify the current Russia–China relationship as an alliance against the West.
The myth of an alliance in the making is also taken up by Western media – in particular, Russian-affiliated media operating in Western countries (such as RT) and far-right or far-left outlets – and circulates prominently in public debates in Western states. Furthermore, the question is a frequent topic in think-tank and academic research.
Why is it wrong?
It is true that Russia and China have strengthened, deepened and broadened their military cooperation since 2014. Russia has resumed selling its most sophisticated weaponry to China, delivering S-400 air defence systems and Su-35 multipurpose combat aircraft. In 2019, Putin revealed that Moscow is assisting China in developing an early-warning system. The Russian and Chinese armed forces engage in joint military education programmes and high-level consultations on strategic issues.
Moreover, until very recently both sides have significantly increased the frequency as well as geographical and functional scope of their joint exercises, from naval exercises to joint bomber patrols. In November 2021, both sides signed an ambitious programme of further military cooperation.
But while military cooperation helps in building trust and interoperability between Russia and China, and offers a useful tool for strategic signalling towards the US and its Asian and European allies, it does not necessarily indicate that both sides are ready to join forces in the case of a conflict with Western countries. Moscow and Beijing have never formally committed to lend each other military assistance, nor have they created integrated military structures for potential joint action. Neither is there evidence of a credible informal commitment to take each other’s side in the event of a military confrontation with the US and NATO. This situation is unlikely to change in the short to medium term.
Aside from their common rejection of a US-led world order, Moscow and Beijing have divergent interests and cost–benefit calculations in their policies vis-à-vis the US and NATO. Furthermore, the relationship between Moscow and Beijing lacks a reliable and sufficient foundation of trust, while it includes a non-negligible element of competition, too. This applies to the post-Soviet space and Central Asia, where China’s foreign policy and outreach undermine Russia’s quest for an exclusive sphere of influence, as well as to the Arctic region, where Beijing challenges Russia’s attempts to dominate the Northern Sea Route.
Russia’s war against Ukraine clearly demonstrates the limits of Russian–Chinese military cooperation, and how unrealistic the idea of Russia and China joining forces against the West is. There is no evidence that China is helping Russia to replace the hardware it has lost in the war, either by supplying armaments or by providing highly needed dual-use goods. Instead of evading Western sanctions, Chinese companies are restricting deliveries to Russia. For example, Chinese commercial drone producer DJI halted all sales to Russia to avoid the use of its products in combat. Furthermore, since the start of the war in 2022, joint exercises between Russia and China have not been extended, but rather downsized. From February to July 2022, no major joint military activities took place.
The only joint activity was a flight by four Russian and two Chinese warplanes that took place in May 2022 at the time of a ‘Quad’ meeting involving Australia, India, Japan and the US, and attended by US president Joe Biden. The main function of this joint bomber flight was signalling, but it added no value for interoperability between the air forces of Russia and China. Against the background of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Beijing seems to be downplaying the idea of an emerging military alliance with Moscow in order to avoid entrapment. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2022, China’s minister of defence, Wei Fenghe, classified Russian–Chinese relations as a ‘partnership, not an alliance’.
Furthermore, Beijing has so far been reluctant to assist Russia significantly in non-military aspects of its conflict with Ukraine and the West. Although Beijing is supporting Moscow politically and diplomatically by spreading Moscow’s narratives (for example, assigning blame to the US and NATO) or by voting in favour of Russia in international institutions (it voted against suspending Russia’s membership of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights), it has so far avoided high-profile steps such as recognizing the annexation of Crimea or the independence of the so-called ‘People’s Republics’ of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Beijing’s cautious and ambivalent approach to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 clearly indicates a reluctance to harness Chinese prospects to Russian adventurism. As the stronger partner in the relationship, and the one with less pressing perceived security challenges, China can afford to bide its time while Russia suffers the destructive effects of Western sanctions.
Given the simultaneous trends of growing asymmetry in power relations with China and a deepening confrontation with the West, Moscow could increasingly face difficulties in maintaining its room for manoeuvre vis-à-vis Beijing. For example, while still maintaining military cooperation with states that have territorial disputes with China, like Vietnam, Moscow has already begun to abandon its previous policy of strict neutrality with regard to China’s claims in the South China Sea. However, this does not equate to Russia joining forces with China, e.g. with regard to a possible Chinese attack on Taiwan. Under the surface of ‘strategic partnership’, mistrust towards China’s long-term intentions persists. Moscow’s leadership seems to favour a policy of ‘strategic solitude’ over a formal or informal alliance which it fears would restrict its options.
What is its impact on policy?
By promoting the myth of an emerging Russian–China alliance, the Kremlin (aided by other supporters of this myth) tries to put pressure on the West. The consequent argument that Russia must be prevented from being drawn into an alliance with China is then presented as justification for Western leaders and policymakers reaching out to Moscow and offering accommodations and concessions, for instance with regard to Ukraine and NATO enlargement.
The urgency of this argument is underscored by the US administration’s assessment of China as its primary competitor. By this logic, incentives accordingly grow for the Kremlin to classify China as a kind of ally, or to intensify events that showcase close military cooperation: for example, joint exercises in contested regional settings or the extension of military-technological cooperation to sensitive or secret areas.
However, the underlying assumptions are misconceptions. The prospect of Russia and China joining forces is not imminent, nor are Russia–China relations solely about containing the West. They are also based on a strong foundation of endogenous factors, such as economic complementarity between a resource-rich Russia and an energy-hungry China. Given these factors, Western policymakers risk basing their decisions on wrong assumptions and overlooking the real risks that emanate from Russian–Chinese military and security cooperation.
The first risk emanates from Moscow’s contribution to modernizing China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). By delivering modern combat aircraft and long-range air defence systems, Russia enhances Chinese capabilities. Furthermore, Beijing will clearly draw lessons from Russia’s military performance in Ukraine. Western leaders should clearly observe how this influences China’s military posture and its underlying risk calculation in the Asia-Pacific region.
Another risk concerns the way in which both sides are learning from each other about applying non-military methods against Western states, for instance by spreading disinformation, pursuing proxy operations in the cyber domain or infiltrating economic structures. Beijing will be monitoring closely to see which tools work most effectively to weaken Western cohesion. Moreover, Western states should not exclude the possibility of Russia and China coordinating their coercive diplomacy in specific scenarios that could put the US and NATO under pressure. For example, Russia and China could simultaneously conduct readiness checks of their armed forces near US allies’ territories.
What would good policy look like?
Good policy must be based on options that carefully consider both the limits of and prospects for further military and security cooperation between Russia and China. Based on the assumption that the systemic confrontation between Russia and the West will continue, any attempts to disengage Russia from a deepening partnership with China – or to pursue what is sometimes dubbed a ‘wedge policy’ or ‘Kissinger in reverse’ approach – are futile. Any Western attempts to drive a wedge between the two countries make sense only in the unlikely event of a fundamental change in Russia’s political regime and policy.
Western diplomatic efforts should therefore focus on China. A smart strategy would include both carrots and sticks. On the one hand, the West should increase the cost to China of continuing to cooperate closely with Russia in the military sphere. Thus, a more deliberate reference should be made in public discourse to the common challenges posed by Russian and Chinese assertiveness and hybrid threats.
In this way, the West would signal to China that Russia’s military adventures also have negative side effects for China, which has so far tended to expand its interests in Europe and the US more quietly. Western countries should also keep open the possibility of imposing sanctions on countries that buy Russian weapons.
On the other hand – and notwithstanding the fundamental limitations mentioned above in relation to any ‘wedge policy’ – Western diplomatic actors could benefit from providing China with incentives to distance itself from Russia to a certain extent. Here, the US and European states could encourage China to take a more active diplomatic role in ending the war in Ukraine, thereby enhancing its image as a responsible global actor.
Publication date: 23 August 2022