Russian-Chinese military cooperation has mostly leveled off in recent years, after expanding rapidly from 2014 to 2019, with limited evidence of continued expansion in either military-technical cooperation or joint military activities since 2020. Both countries’ leaders will likely continue to highlight military cooperation because of mutual symbolic benefits. But to determine the trajectory of actual military cooperation, observers should focus on trends in military diplomacy, military-technical cooperation and joint military activities, rather than on political rhetoric. This 90-page report is an analysis of all major arms sales, military-technical cooperation events, exchanges of military personnel for education and training, joint military exercises and operations, and other relevant military-to-military engagements between Russia and China from 2014 through 2022.
There is widespread consensus among analysts that, although Russia and China have been moving toward closer cooperation through the entire post-Soviet era, the trend has accelerated rapidly since 2014. The relationship was boosted by Russian leaders’ belief that Russia could survive its sudden confrontation with the West only by expanding alternative relationships. China was the obvious candidate because it had a suitably large economy, was not openly hostile to Russia, and was not planning to impose sanctions in response to the Ukraine crisis. Moreover, the two countries had a record of cooperation dating back to the early 1990s that could serve as a basis for expanded cooperation.
This report seeks to establish a detailed understanding of the extent of military cooperation between Russia and China, focusing on military diplomacy and other political aspects of the relationship, military-technical cooperation, and exercises and joint operations. The goal is to provide an analysis of the dynamic of the cooperative relationship in the period since 2014, including a discussion of what the relationship allows the two partners to accomplish together that they cannot do alone. On the basis of that analysis, we build a discussion of likely trends in the relationship in the near future.
This study is based on a comprehensive collection of Russian- and Chinese-language media reporting and technical articles on bilateral military ties. The analysis covers key bilateral agreements and official statements by both sides, all major arms sales and other forms of military-technical cooperation (MTC), exchanges of military personnel for education and training, joint military exercises and operations, and other relevant military-to-military engagements. The study primarily covers the period from 2014 to November 2022, though key aspects of earlier cooperation are brought in as relevant and some subsequent important developments through February 2023 are addressed.
To assess the level of Sino-Russian military cooperation, we adopt a scale that assesses levels of military cooperation based on seven issue areas, ranging from the establishment of mechanisms of regular consultation at the lowest end to the adoption of a common defense policy at the most advanced levels of cooperation. This methodology allows us to not only estimate the current level of overall military cooperation between Russia and China, but also to analyze its trajectory in the recent past and thereby estimate its potential future trajectory. In addition, by examining components of military cooperation, we can identify specific areas where it is developing faster or slower than the overall average. This examination allows for a more fine-grained analysis of developments in Russian-Chinese military cooperation.
China-Russia military cooperation has not always grown linearly over time. At various points, some aspects of cooperation have undergone periods of rapid expansion, while others stagnated. At other points, previously growing areas of cooperation have in turn plateaued. This unevenness in the dynamic of cooperation growth has been most notable in MTC and in joint exercises and operations, while the expansion of political consultations and military diplomacy has been more constant. Despite a number of rhetorical flourishes at leadership summits, after undergoing a period of rapid expansion from 2014 to 2019, Russian-Chinese military cooperation has largely plateaued in recent years, with little evidence of continued expansion in either MTC or joint military activities since 2020.
Over the last two decades, Russia and China have developed well-institutionalized political and military consultation mechanisms that can be rated at a moderate-high level on our military cooperation scale. The most important mechanisms include numerous summits between Presidents Putin and Xi, annual bilateral security consultations at the level of the head of each country’s security council and the semi-annual Northeast Asia security dialogue at the deputy foreign minister level. Since 2017, China and Russia have organized their military cooperation plans in five-year roadmaps, with the most recent such plan agreed to in 2021 and lasting through 2025.
The Putin-Xi February 2022 joint statement, made just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demonstrated an increase in overlap in the two sides’ security concerns, with both leaders focusing on the threat posed by the United States and NATO to international security in general and to their own countries in particular. Chinese officials have refused to criticize Russia’s invasion, generally blaming NATO and US threats for causing the war.
MTC grew rapidly for a brief period after 2014, but its trajectory has plateaued since 2019, as a result of the increasing self-sufficiency of China’s defense industry and the impact of Western sanctions. Sino-Russian MTC continues to operate at a high level, though there is potential for further growth because some aspects of the interaction remain one-sided, with China most frequently acting as a consumer of Russian technological know-how. Even as arms sales have become a less significant aspect of the overall bilateral military cooperation relationship, joint technology projects and trade in components have rapidly become the most important line of effort in Sino-Russian MTC.
Russia and China demonstrate a high level of cooperation in military exercises and joint operations. As with other aspects of military cooperation, Sino-Russian joint military exercises and operations underwent a rapid period of expansion in the mid-2010s, with increases in the frequency and global reach of joint activities and a transition to increasingly complex exercises designed to improve coordination. As with MTC, the frequency and geography of Sino-Russian military exercises expanded rapidly in the mid-2010s, but has largely plateaued in the last three years. However, the exercises have continued to become more advanced during this period. The lack of increases in frequency and geographic expansion since 2020 is primarily the result of constraints introduced first by the COVID-19 pandemic and later by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While the former no longer affects bilateral military activities, the latter may continue to act as a brake on the availability of Russian military assets for exercises with China.
Russia and China derive clear benefits from their military cooperation. While the most significant benefits come in the form of mutual political support on the international stage, there are also clear benefits in terms of defense industrial production and in improvements in operational capabilities, especially for the Chinese side. There is political symbolism of Russia and China supporting each other in fighting against what they consider US efforts to preserve its global hegemony are also beneficial. Concrete actions such as arms deals and major joint exercises also have a strong symbolic component, showing that the two countries are working together to address global challenges and to strengthen each other’s positions in the world. The symbolic benefits of military cooperation are particularly important for Russia as it seeks to counter the perception that it is isolated internationally as a result of its invasion of Ukraine.
On the other hand, there is a clear sense that China gains more from the relationship than Russia does in terms of the material benefits of cooperation. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has long used military exercises to learn from its Russian counterparts and to improve operationally. The Russian military, which sees itself as more advanced in operational knowledge than its Chinese counterpart, has gained less in practical terms. At the same time, Russia’s performance over the last year in its war with Ukraine may introduce some doubts among PLA leaders about the quality of the Russian military, which may in turn affect the perceived utility of what the PLA may be able to learn from joint exercises and operations with the Russian military. While it is far too early to see evidence of such a shift in Chinese perceptions, it is a possibility that observers should consider going forward.
Although the overall rapid expansion of Sino-Russian military cooperation in terms of MTC and joint exercises that was clearly in evidence in 2014–2019 has not been as evident in the last three years, the continued frequency of security consultations and the issuance of statements reaffirming close military ties during the 2020–2022 period suggests that this lull is most likely the product of external circumstances rather than a change in the willingness of either party to continue to pursue the development of an ever-closer military relationship. If this is the case, then it is these circumstances—including Western sanctions and resource constraints faced by the Russian military as a result of its invasion of Ukraine—that will determine whether there is a renewed push to further expand the military relationship in the coming years.
In determining the trajectory of the relationship over the next three to five years, observers of the MTC sphere should focus on the extent to which China is supplying Russia with military and dual-use technologies and how much real assistance Russia is providing to China through joint projects such as the early warning system and advanced heavy lift helicopters. In the joint exercises and operations sphere, observers should focus on the extent to which China and Russia are conducting military exercises that are provocative to third-party states, such as in the Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom (GIUK) gap or near US territory in the Pacific, or if either undertakes missions that are primarily of importance to the other, such as joint naval activities in the South China Sea near Taiwan or in the Mediterranean or Baltic Seas. These indicators will be more significant than further ritual statements about unlimited friendship made at summit meetings.Download full report
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- Pages: 90
- Document Number: DRM-2023-U-034684-Final
- Publication Date: 3/31/2023