US leaders say China and Russia's military ties are 'phony,' but there still isn't much they can do about them

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US leaders say China and Russia's military ties are 'phony,' but there still isn't much they can do about them
Chinese President Xi Jinping with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in China's Fujian Province, September 4, 2017. REUTERS/Wu Hong/Pool
  • Russia and China's growing ties and military cooperation have worried Western leaders.
  • Those ties may not be as deep and durable as they appear, but they won't be easy to undermine either.

The NATO summit last week focused on the challenges posed by Russia and China but made scant mention of those countries' increasing military cooperation, which has worried US leaders and their partners around the world.

The 14,400-word, 79-paragraph communique released at the end of the summit expressed concern about Russia's and China's military build-ups and "assertive" behavior.

Their military cooperation was mentioned once, in a sentence in the 55th paragraph: China "is also cooperating militarily with Russia, including through participation in Russian exercises in the Euro-Atlantic area."

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The Chinese and Russian militaries have held joint exercises for more a decade. A 2015 exercise was their first in the Mediterranean, followed by their first in the Baltic in 2017. (China has conducted exercises with NATO members.)

"I see cooperation that is superficial at best. I think it is higher at the tactical level, soldier-to-soldier, and I think it is pretty close to phony at the strategic level," Gen. Tod Wolters, the head of US European Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April.

US leaders say China and Russia's military ties are 'phony,' but there still isn't much they can do about them
Russian and Chinese warships in a Navy Day parade near St. Petersburg, Russia, July 30, 2017. Reuters

Adm. Philip Davidson, who led US Indo-Pacific Command until his retirement in April, told the committee in March that he saw "some collaboration" between Russia and China in the "tactical and operational space."

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"I think that there is less cooperation, although frequent discussion, at the strategic level. Through all of it, I view it with some alarm," Davidson said.

A senior Biden administration official told Politico this month that over the past decade the relationship has become "more concerning," operating as "almost a quasi-alliance."

Russia and China have pursued closer ties in part to counter Western countries and their partners, who see Russia's campaign against Ukraine and China's bullying in the South China Sea as troubling. While there is uncertainty about their exact level of coordination, the relationship has advanced quickly, according to Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center think tank.

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"If you compare, let's say, 10 or 15 years ago to the last five years, you definitely see Russia supplying more and more advanced technology to China. You see the Chinese being more willing to at least do exercises or have a presence out of their immediate neighborhood in East Asia," Rojansky told Insider, calling China's participation in those Euro-Atlantic exercises "very significant."

'A functional non-aggression pact'

US leaders say China and Russia's military ties are 'phony,' but there still isn't much they can do about them
Putin at a parade during Russia's Vostok 2018 military exercises, in which China participated for the first time, September 13, 2018. Alexei Nikolsky\TASS via Getty Images

Sino-Soviet relations devolved early in the Cold War, leading to a split in the early 1960s. They normalized ties in 1989, and security cooperation has been the most important part of the relationship between Russian and Chinese leaders since then.

"When China wanted to jumpstart the modernization of its air force and its navy in the early 1990s, it went out and purchased Russian planes and ships - primarily the Su-27 and the Sovremenny destroyers - because Russia had the best military technology that China could purchase," M. Taylor Fravel, a professor and dirctor of the security studies program at MIT, said at an event in April.

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Evidence of Russian influence can be seen in the weaponry and tactics of China's ground, air, and naval forces, according to Lyle Goldstein, a research professor and expert on the Chinese military at the US Naval War College.

"For sure, China has learned much from Russia [and] studying Russian tactics over the years," Goldstein said at an event in March, adding that China's study extends to Russian "intimidation tactics" used against Ukraine in the Black Sea.

US leaders say China and Russia's military ties are 'phony,' but there still isn't much they can do about them
A Chinese H-6K bomber is seen on a joint patrol with Russian aircraft over the Western Pacific, December 22, 2020. Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

At the hearing in March, Davidson told senators that China has participated in the annual "capstone exercise" for Russia's military districts "for three straight years," which is seen as a demonstration their closer ties.

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Davidson also cited Russia and China's "co-bomber flights" over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea in 2019 and 2020 - exercises that Goldstein described as "brandishing" of their air forces and that alarmed South Korea and Japan.

The 2019 exercise was "a joint operation" that included "surveillance and intelligence systems talking to one another," Alexey Muraviev, a professor at Australia's Curtain University, told Insider in an interview last year, adding that Russia's combat experience made it the leading partner in such exercises.

"The Chinese don't have the opportunity to operate and exercise alongside any other major military power," Muraviev said. "So for them to learn about innovation on the battlefield, to actually adopt network-centric approach, to be introduced to maneuver warfare - it's all coming from Russian manuals and exercising with the Russians."

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US leaders say China and Russia's military ties are 'phony,' but there still isn't much they can do about them
Chinese tanks at Russia's Vostok 2018 military exercise, September 13, 2018. Vadim Savitsky\TASS via Getty Images

Muraviev, an expert on Russian security policy in the Pacific, described the Russia-China relationship as a "near defense alliance."

At a Senate hearing in April, Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, echoed Wolters and Davidson, calling Sino-Russia cooperation "opportunistic and transactional" and arguing neither wanted "a deep military alliance" as they had more "flexibility" without one.

Michael Kofman, senior research scientist at the CNA think tank, has written that while Russia and China don't have "a functional military alliance per se" and their relationship is "at bare minimum a functional non-aggression pact" that allows each to "focus on the United States, believing the other will not stab it in the back."

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While arms sales don't drive that relationship, they do benefit both Russia and China, though Moscow may shift from seller to contractor as Beijing's capabilities advance, Kofman wrote last year.

China still seeks advanced technologies, some of which, like jet engines, Russia has been reluctant to sell, said Fravel, an expert on the Chinese military.

"China, I think, is still trying to import and to fill in gaps in technology where Russia has experience and advantages, and that may be shrinking over time as China's industrial base matures and as its technical capacities grow," Fravel added.

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'A new type of great-power relations'

US leaders say China and Russia's military ties are 'phony,' but there still isn't much they can do about them
Xi and Putin toast during a visit to the Far East Street exhibition in Vladivostok, Russia, September 11, 2018. Sergei Bobylev/TASS Host Photo Agency/Pool via Reuters

President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin have met dozens of times in recent years, and they and other officials in their governments have touted that relationship in glowing terms, but it still has faultlines.

China has ambitions in the Arctic and a growing presence in Central Asia - both areas where Russia has long been the influential power.

"The limitations are clear on the peripheries, in particular the Arctic and in Central Asia," Elizabeth Wishnick, a professor and expert on Chinese foreign policy at Montclair State University, said at an event in May.

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Moscow and Beijing have formally settled border disputes that sparked deadly fighting in 1969, but they remain potential fodder for future leaders seeking to stoke nationalist sentiment. China's aggressive approach to territorial claims elsewhere has been noted in Russia.

"I think [in] Russia at a certain level, probably just below the senior leadership levels, there is definitely concern about China's growing presence everywhere," Christopher Bort, a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia on the US's National Intelligence Council, said at an event in April.

"They are able to work through potential competition, but, as many people have noted, [this] is going to be a problem, perhaps for the next generation of Russia's leaders," Bort added.

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But Western countries' ability to exploit those fissures is limited, experts said.

US leaders say China and Russia's military ties are 'phony,' but there still isn't much they can do about them
Putin with other world leaders at a G8 summit meeting in the UK, June 18, 2013. Tim Brakemeier/picture alliance via Getty Images

Russia and China "act in parallel, not in coordination, largely brought together by domestic drivers and not a reflexive response to US or NATO actions," Wishnick said, citing cooperation on security, energy, agriculture, and technology as well as their broader desire "to create what they call a new type of great-power relations."

"So I don't think some kind of reverse Nixon strategy of driving wedges is going to be effective," Wishnick added, referring to the US president who normalized relations with Beijing after the Sino-Soviet split.

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Western countries may be better off trying to guide Sino-Russian ties, finding areas of cooperation to lower tensions, such as peacekeeping or arms control, and building relationships that "work across the East-West divide," Goldstein said.

Focusing on issues relevant to partners would also likely be more fruitful than trying to sow division between Russia and China, Wishnick said. "I think there are many states that are uncomfortable with their position between China and Russia ... and would appreciate more engagement, not just on security matters."

Western countries don't have enough "common ground" with Russia to be an alternative to China, but the US "can offer Russia choices" if it works through allies with stronger ties to Moscow, such as Japan or South Korea, said Rojansky, an expert on US relations with Russia.

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"It makes more sense for the Russians to pursue a diversified relationship with [those countries] than exclusive partnership with China, so that's an area where, yes, we can offer the Russians choices other than full dependency on China," Rojansky added.

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