The 2014 Ukraine crisis became a turning point in revitalising the strategic partnership between Russia and China. Most evident of the shifting trends in the partnership is the defence engagement between Russia and China which today is set to include cooperation in sensitive fields, such as strategic missile defence, hypersonic technology, and the construction of nuclear submarines. While there are growing debates on Russia becoming a ‘junior partner’ in the relationship with China, defence cooperation between the two countries speaks otherwise. Despite China’s pursuit of indigenisation of its defence industry since 2000, it continues to largely depend on Russia for high end weapons and technological assistance. President Putin had recently revealed that Russia has agreed to ‘help’ its Chinese partners create a missile attack warning system. This is set to drastically increase China’s defence capability and put the Chinese on par with the United States and Russia who have such systems now. Strengthening of defence cooperation between Russia and China in recent times seems to largely focus on strategic deterrence against defence capabilities of the US. But given the historical1969 military tension phase between Russia and China, the technological theft by China, the trimming down of defence budget of Russia and the growing competition in global arms market, it is crucial to evaluate whether the defence cooperation between Russia and China will become an ‘Achilles heel’ in their strategic partnership in coming years.
The year 2019 marked the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and China. The bilateral relationship over the years has strengthened and expanded into the fields of trade and investment, energy, strategy, security, military, technology, cyber, space, and innovation. Also in recent years the two countries together play a pro-active role in shaping multi-polarity especially through multilateral fora such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), thereby posing a major challenge to the pre-eminence of the United States. The 2014 Ukraine crisis became the turning point in revitalising the strategic partnership between Russia and China. Russia announced the ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy in 2014 as a response to the West calling for global isolation of Russia during the Ukraine crisis. However, various interpretations of Russia’s ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy emerged. While some argued that there was no need for Russia to stress on such policy initiatives because being an Eurasian power, it never left the geopolitics of the Asian region, others cast doubts as to whether it is ‘Pivot to Asia strategy’ or ‘Pivot to China’ strategy as today the rapprochement between the two countries is at a historical apex.
The foundation for strong bilateral relations between Russia and China began when Russia, post-Soviet disintegration, called for ‘China First’ policy and since 1991, a series of agreements were signed which led to resolving bilateral issues such as the resolution of the border dispute of 1969 and strengthening of relations in various realms especially in defence cooperation. In the post-cold war era, China’s progress at the global platform has been noteworthy mainly its economic growth performance. Russia on the other hand, despite its military resurgence since the Soviet collapse continues to grapple in the economic sphere. Given these scenarios, there are growing debates on Russia becoming a ‘junior partner’ in the bilateral relations with China but the defence cooperation between the two countries speaks otherwise.
China has pursued the indigenisation of its defence industry in the 21st century but continues to largely depend on Russia for high end weapons and technological assistance. With the revival of its military industrial complex, the prospects for Russia to further its defence export market widens with the introduction of new high-end weapon systems at regular intervals given the growing competition in global arms market. For instance, during MAKS international air show held in Zhukovskiy from August 29-September 01, 2019, Russia showcased the export variant of its Fifth Generation fighter aircraft Sukhoi 57E.[i] During the show, the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu had stated that two Sukhoi Su-57 stealth fighter jets had successfully completed a two-day program of tests that included programme of trials and combat ones in Syria.[ii] It should be noted here that Russia is one of the few countries in the world to have a successful fifth generation fighter aircraft tested and to be inducted into service.
Russian President Vladimir Putin stated in his speech at the 16th meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club 2019that “Russia has agreed to ‘help’ its Chinese partners create a missile attack warning system. This is set to drastically increase China’s defence capability and put the Chinese on par with the United States and Russia who have such systems now.”[iii] Such statements from the Russian Head of State as well as the recent purchase of S400 missile defence systems, Su30MKK and Su35 fighter aircrafts from Russia are few evidences for China’s existing and continued reliance on Russia for high end weapons and military technology for its military up-gradation and power projection.
But at the same time, given the impact of economic sanctions imposed on Russia post-Crimean referendum, investments from China have become crucial to prevent Russia from sinking back into the almost insuperable 1990s situation which crippled the operational capability of Russia’s military industrial complex. The current trend in the bilateral relationship of China and Russia reflects an amalgamation of Russia’s resurging military diplomacy and China’s economic prowess.
Although being a top defence manufacturer of the world for a very long time, Russia’s defence exports had reduced by 17 per cent from 2009-13 and 2014-18 according to 2018 SIPRI report. The growing defence cooperation between Russia and China had come at a crucial juncture as China has been one of the key factors in determining Russia’s position among arms exporting countries.[iv]Russia’s rising military diplomacy and effective weapons display during the Syrian crisis has made China more desirous of strengthening its defence relations with Russia. Given these scenarios the cooperation and collaboration in the defence sphere between these two arms exporting nations requires special focus.
Defence Cooperation: From Confrontational to Constructive Collaboration?
It can be stated that the current trend of Russia- China defence engagement has surpassed the Soviet-era level of interaction and has become more institutionalised through intense engagement. Traditionally, Moscow reserves its best military hardware exclusively for domestic use. However, China has managed to get access to Russia’s cutting-edge aviation technology in terms of designing, metallurgy, stealth, etc. This is perceived as a positive development for the Chinese which have been investing heavily in military hardware, but lacks in domestic skill such as aircraft design.[v]Military technical cooperation (MTC) with Russia therefore, becomes a key aspect in technical up-gradation of China’s defence industry. The fact that Russia has recommenced the supply of high-end defence technology to China and the institutionalisation MTC has further enhanced China’s indigenisation process of its Defence Industrial Complex (DIC). One of the shared-mutual interests of Russia-China strategic partnership is to challenge the US led international system.
In this situation, the hostility and contest between Russia and the West has come as a boon for China in particular. The strengthening of defence cooperation between Russia and China in recent times seems to largely focus on strategic deterrence against defence capabilities of the US including new areas of possible confrontation such as Cyber and Space domain.
Given the fact that the US has huge advantage in advanced military technology and higher-end defence industrial capabilities, both the countries are well aware of the shortcomings of ill-prepared military forces and an obsolete military technology. Therefore, both Russia and China through defence cooperation are strengthening their respective military and intelligence capabilities focusing their efforts in building better equipped armed forces suitable for fighting the wars of the future. In this direction, Russia has set aside its concerns about the process of ‘reverse engineering’ by China and is now seen actively assisting in building up its military potential. The sale of 24 Su-35 fighter aircraft and S-400 air-defence missiles is once again an indicator of revamped defence cooperation between the two countries.
Apart from cooperating in the DIC, the two countries also frequently involve in large scale military exercises such as Vostok-2018. This military exercise held from September 11-17, 2018 involved 3,00,000 soldiers, 36,000 military vehicles, 1000 aircrafts, 80 ships, missiles including the nuclear warhead capable Iskander missile. Almost 3,600 personnel of China’s military were also part of Vostok-2018 along with their Russian counterparts. Also, in July 2019, the first joint patrol by Russian and Chinese long-range bomber aircraft took place over the Pacific Ocean.[vi] With the intent to encourage like-minded players across the globe, Russia-China has expanded their military cooperation to include certain other countries. The recent conduct of Russia-China-Iran Joint Naval Exercises from December 22, 2019-January 20, 2020 is acase in point.[vii]
With the intent to institutionalise their defence engagement, one of the ground breaking defence agreements signed in recent years between the two countries is the ‘Roadmap on military cooperation for 2017-2020’ signed on June 7, 2017. This agreement makes top-level design and general plan for the military cooperation between China and Russia from 2017-2020. Also on September 20, 2019 the two countries drafted a cooperation plan for the Defence ministries for 2020-2021 at the 24th session of the Russian-Chinese intergovernmental commission. This plan proposed approval for military-technical cooperation in the near future.[viii] The other new trends in the defence cooperation between Russia and China are expected to include cooperation in sensitive fields, such as strategic missile defence, hypersonic technology, and the construction of nuclear submarines.[ix]
While Russia poses a global military challenge to the West, China as a military challenge is restricted at the regional level. Joint military exercises in contested regions such as in the South China Sea and China’s inroads in Indian Ocean region spurs China’s power projection in Indo-Pacific region. Unlike Russia, whose well-executed military diplomacy has worked in Syria, China is yet to prove its mettle in military diplomacy and hence needs Russia’s military wherewithal to enable China preserve its regional and global interests and security. Militarily, China has been cautious especially in pursuing its military interests in a foreign country unlike Russia. China’s military assertiveness is largely seen in its area of influence such as the South China Sea (SCM) and in the adjacent maritime region – the Indo-Pacific. Russia on the other hand poses a global military challenge for the West led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and its cost-effective and successful military intervention in Syria is a case in point.
Despite Russia’s resurgence in Defence Industrial Complex and military diplomacy, China’s economic power and muscle flexing in its zone of influence, shared mutual interest in global geo-politics, and close interaction and engagement between the two militaries, it is unlikely that Russia and China would get into a military alliance in the near future as both the countries individually pursue different trajectories and role for itself in the future global order.
Defence Cooperation: A Possible Achilles Heel?
Despite the growing trend in defence cooperation in terms of arms trade, technological assistance, joint military exercises, shared interests and mutually-shared threat perception between Russia and China, the defence cooperation is yet to achieve an infallible engagement. The return of Russia in global politics in recent years has been mainly through military diplomacy in promoting its national interests. In other words, Russia’s current military diplomacy includes well-equipped armed forces, well-coordinated defence manoeuvres and a revamped DIC. Through revival of the DIC, Russia has reclaimed its position as an important global defence market through its steadfast defence reforms and programmes.
China’s appetite for military assistance from Russia on the other hand seems insatiable despite emerging as a competitor in global arms trade. China since its pursuit for indigenisation of its defence industry from late 1990s has emerged as a potential global arms supplier nation in the 21st century, but with shortfalls. China has created its own space among the global arms exporters slowly but steadily with a limited number of customers such as Pakistan, North Korea, Algeria, Albania, Myanmar, etc (Fig 1). China’s limitation in terms of non-availability of state-of-art weapons technologies in some niche areas has restricted the country to grow big in the global arms export market. Additionally, the growing domestic demand for arms and weapons limits China’s ability to export more products to its limited customer nations.
Source: Chart prepared by Author by compilation of data from SIPRI Database 2018
As for Russia, the impact of the 2014 economic sanctions led the State Armament Programme (SAP) for trimming down of its defence budget. While Russia has stated that it will not involve in ‘senseless’ arms race due to the rising tension with the US, cutting down of defence budget is said to impact its Research and Development (R&D).[x]Affected by economic sanctions since 2014, Russia has seen its spending decrease since 2016. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) 2018 annual report, Russia’s position fell from fourth to sixth place in world’s military expenditure.[xi]This period is likely to slow down Russia’s technological progress if the budget cuts impact defence R&D and this is said to provide China the much needed ‘window of opportunity’ to upgrade its defence technology alongside Russia’s MTC. China for now is and continues to be an ‘import’ dependent nation of Russia’s defence market till the time its own defence industry makes headway in advanced weapons technology. However, though China for instance needs Russia’s latest and powerful aircraft-based IRBIS radar system, Russia has a very limited catalogue of military hardware that it can sell to Beijing at this point as observed by Konstantin Makienko, the Deputy Director of Centre for Arms and Strategic Technologies.[xii]
It is believed that Russia would reach its saturation point in terms of sharing its defence technology with China in the near future. In such situation, Russia may consciously withhold technologies and weapons through which China could achieve matching capabilities or beyond.
Simultaneously, the fact that defence cooperation between Russia and China has moved beyond cooperation to competition in global arms trade, Russia realises that to preserve its position in global arms trade, the DIC is an important asset. The DIC has greatly contributed in Russia’s growth and power projection in international relations besides being a key revenue generator for Russia. As an export oriented defence market, Russia has not held back in selling weapons to India, Southeast and Southwest Asian countries - that are perceived as threats by China. Russia’s defence deals with countries such as Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia and India are arguably challenging China’s interst in the Asian region. Also, Russia will not lose its focus on India as it is by far the largest importer of Russian weapons, as well as free from ambiguities and suspicion. Contextually, for Russia, its DIC will remain a vital component because Russia understands the impact of demographic trends while the future size of Russian armed forces is under question against the Chinese availability of massive human resources.
On the flip side, for Russia’s traditional partners such as India is concerned, its revived defence cooperation with China is a major concern as it amplifies the combat capability of the People’s Liberation Army. In addition, the sale of S-400 missiles to both India and China and the sale of Russian Mi-35 attack helicopters to Pakistan runs counter to the de facto understanding of Russia not to sell advanced weapons capabilities to countries that have been a major threat to India’s national security until now.
Therefore, although both Russia and China seem to sail on the high tide of defence cooperation at present, it may not last forever. For instance, given the nature of how defence supplier nations function, Russia will not sell any weapon systems unless they have an updated version inducted in its own defence forces or it possesses an anti-dote to the defence equipment sold. Russia has sold S-400 air defence system to China only when their S-500 Prometheus which is a mobile, surface-to-air missile system (SAM) that is an advanced version of S-400 got successfully developed in Russia.
Also Russia-China defence cooperation in terms of frequent military exercises is not only an opportunity to mutually learn from each other but also to keep a tab on each other’s operational planning, tactics, manoeuvres and development. It can also be stated that the series of defence agreements and institutionalisation of defence cooperation are an elaborate attempt by both the countries to show-off their combined capabilities to deter the West. However, one should not forget that such agreements and more existed in the past during the Sino-Soviet era too and the ghost of 1969 Sino-Soviet split and military tension cannot be completely neglected.
China’s dependence on Russian DIC may also see its low tide in the future due to following factors:
Finally, concerns about a possible confrontation down the road between Russia and China — exists in the defence circles of both the countries when their interests collide. In other words, China is not completely obliterated from Russia’s threat perception enumeration and vice versa. Both Russia and China will therefore contemporaneously monitor each other’s growing military capabilities and assertiveness in international relations. And a possible Achilles heel in a future between the two countries could trigger from their respective Defence industrial complex.
*Dr. Chandra Rekha, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i]Key facts about Victory Day Parades in Moscow’s Red Square, Victory Day 2019, TASS Russian News
Agency, 09 May 2019, https://tass.com/defense/1057520, accessed on 22 July 2019.
[iii] “Vladimir Putin speech at the final plenary session of the 16th meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club”, Valdai International Discussion Club session, 03 October 2019. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/61719
[iv]Pieter E.Wezeman, et.al, “Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2018”, SIPRI Fact Sheet, march 2019, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2019-03/fs_1903_at_2018.pdf, accessed on December 30 2019.
[v] Matthew Bodner, “In Arms Trade, China Is Taking Advantage of Russia's Desperation”,The Moscow Times, 01 November2016,https://themoscowtimes.com/articles/in-arms-trade-china-is-taking-advantage-of-russian desperation-55965,accessed on 24 November 2019.
[ix]Vasily Kashin, “Russia and China Take Military Partnership to New Level”, The Moscow Times, 29 October 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/10/23/russia-and-china-take-military-partnership-to-new-level-a67852
[x]Lucie Beraud Sudreau, “Russia’s defence spending: the impact of economic contraction”,International Institute ofStrategic Studies, 06 March 2017, http://www.iiss.org/en/militarybalanceblog/blogsections/2017-edcc/march-f0a5/russias-defence-spending-7de6,accessed on 22 July 2019
[xi]Nan Tian, Aude Fleurant, Alexandra Kuimova, Pieter D. Wezeman and Siemon T. Wezeman, “Trends in world military expenditure, 2018,” April 2019.https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2019-04/fs_1904_milex_2018.pdf,accessed on 21 September 2019.