As global instability and the threat of terrorism increase, all the nations that have a substantial economic, political or military potential need to start thinking about how they could contribute to strengthening international security. From a military perspective, Russia and China are among some of the most developed countries in the world. In addition, they share a common border, which extends for more than 4,200 km, and have access to the Pacific Ocean. The ultimate responsibility for security in most parts of Eurasia and the Asia Pacific region rests on the shoulders of these two nations. And the cooperation between them in the defense sphere may have a significant impact on the balance of power in the entire world.
For now the Russian Federation and the PRC are not members of a common military alliance (it is well known that the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, within whose framework the two nations collaborate on security issues, is not a military bloc). Still, along with economic cooperation, there has been stronger military collaboration between the two countries in recent years. The two countries have been exchanging technology and information, organizing meetings between their top military personnel and staging joint military drills.
For example, in September 2018, Chinese military forces took part in Vostok-2018, i.e. Russian military exercises that were held in the Far East region of the Russia Federation and also in the Pacific Ocean. These were the biggest military drills staged in Russia since the collapse of the USSR. Approximately 300,000 military servicemen (including personnel from China and Mongolia) and almost 40,000 units of military equipment were a part of the military exercise. Joint maneuvers of ground troops, Russia’ Pacific Fleet and Russian Federation’s Aerospace Forces (VKS) were carried out to ensure their readiness. The drills showed that these forces were well-prepared for military tasks on land, in the seas and in the air. The staging of such military exercises in the first place and PRC’s participation in them, both clearly indicate that Moscow and Beijing recognize their role in the region.
In July 2019, media outlets published several reports on military cooperation between the Russian Federation and China.
On 22 July, Russia’s official internet-portal of legal information published an Order of the Government of Russia that approved the proposal, made by the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, to hold negotiations with the view of signing a cooperation agreement between Russia’s Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China.
And in the morning of 23 July, Russian and Chinese strategic bombers were already on their joint air patrol mission over the Sea of Japan, near the Liancourt Rocks islets. This caused a firestorm of protest from South Korea and Japan, who have been embroiled in a territorial dispute over these islands. Both countries issued a statement that their air space had been violated. The Russian Federation and the PRC have rejected these accusations and have stated that the aircraft flew over neutral waters in accordance with international law.
The next day, on 24 July, Beijing released its white paper on national defense, which contains a part of PRC’s military doctrine that is not classified. China has issued such documents on a regular basis since 1998. The updated white paper includes an analysis of the current strategic environment and the key goals of the PRC’s military forces for the nearest future. In addition, the document states that the former Celestial Empire is intent on fostering military cooperation with the Russian Federation in every possible way, and also highlights the significance of this collaboration for the rest of the world. According to the paper, the two nations will develop cooperation between their ground troops as well as their respective air and naval forces. The documents also states that no third countries will be targeted by this collaborative effort.
Military cooperation, and perhaps a military alliance between Russia and China in the future, may be in line with the goals set by the governments of both these countries. After all, the nations do share some common challenges and objectives. For instance, both Russia and the PRC are engaged in a confrontation with the West, and the ability to rely on a strong partner could provide the necessary support during political disputes. In addition, both nations wish to weaken the influence of the West on the Asia Pacific region (APAC). China intends to dominate in the Pacific and Indian Oceans by sheer military might and push Western forces out of these regions. Russia is also determined to live up to its potential and become a power in its own right in the Pacific Ocean. The Russian Federation, just as China, does not like the West’s presence in this region, i.e. the numerous U.S. military bases in Japan.
Furthermore, both countries are facing the challenge of maintaining security in Central Asia, where the threat of terrorism remains high because of the difficult economic situation in this region and non-stop wars raging in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Stability of Russia’s southern borders and China’s western frontiers, as well as the implementation of PRC’s transportation and economic initiative, the New Silk Road, all depend on the situation in the countries of Central Asia.
Besides, both nations face their own challenges and could help each other deal with them. For example, once Western forces leave APAC, China may wish to fully resolve its prolonged territorial disputes with India, Bhutan, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Korea, Japan and others. And perhaps it may rely on Russia’s assistance to do so. The Russian Federation, in turn, will have to reach an agreement with Japan on who the Kuril Islands belong to. There have been ongoing discussions on this topic in recent years. During this period, Japan has made a number of ill-advised statements and taken some provocative actions. For instance, it denoted the Kuril Islands as Japanese territory in the documents of the G20 Summit, held in Osaka in June 2019, and also published maps containing the same information as the documents. After that, Russia staged naval exercises in the southern Kurils.
Perhaps, one of the aims of the Vostok-2018 military drills was to also showcase Russia’s military might to its Japanese opponents and their Western allies. And China’s participation in these exercises only served to drive this point home even further. Now that the military cooperation between Russia and China is gaining a more official status, none of the regional players ought to be left with any doubts about the seriousness of these two powerful nations’ intentions or capabilities.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”