An Emerging Strategic Partnership: Trends in Russia-China Military Cooperation

One more policy brief from the series on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, written for a collaborative project organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative. This one is on Russia-China military cooperation.  Several sections of this brief are based on previous work on Russia-China cooperation that was co-authored with Michael Kofman, Paul Schwartz, and Katherine Baughman.

As with the previous ones, I am posting the full text here with permission from the Marshall Center. Please go to the newly updated Marshall Center website if you would prefer to read a PDF version.


Executive Summary

  • Since 2014, Russia and China have developed a strategic partnership, primarily due to enhanced military cooperation, including sales of advanced military equipment and an increasingly robust program of bilateral and multi-lateral military exercises. Economic and diplomatic cooperation have also increased, though to a much lesser extent.
  • Bilateral cooperation is unlikely to advance to the level of a full alliance because of differences in geopolitical interests and asymmetries of power, with Russia remaining reluctant to fully acknowledge China’s geopolitical rise.
  • Actions by the United States to pressure both Russia and China have the effect of pushing the two countries closer together. To prevent a closer partnership, the United States should focus on creating areas of policy divergence between the two states.

Introduction

There is widespread consensus among scholars that, although Russia and China have been moving toward closer cooperation through the entire post-Soviet era, the trend has accelerated rapidly since 2014.1 The relationship was boosted by Russian leaders’ belief that Russia could survive its sudden confrontation with the West only by finding an alternative external partner. 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.

Since 2014, the bilateral relationship has been focused on increased military cooperation, closer economic ties, and an increase in coordination on responses to various issues in international politics. Although some advances have occurred in all three areas, military cooperation has advanced the most. As discussed in more detail later in this paper, Russia and China have institutionalized a comprehensive mechanism for military consultation, expanded military technical cooperation initiatives and military personnel exchanges, and expanded regular joint military exercises. In the diplomatic sphere, Russia and China have supported each other in various international organizations and worked to establish new international institutions that could act as alternatives to existing Western-dominated institutions.2

Although economic cooperation is the weakest aspect of the Russia-China alignment, it has progressed a great deal, particularly in the energy field. “China is eager to increase energy relations with Russian companies,… [while] Russian concern over its increased dependence on China in the East is deemed secondary to expanding Russia’s customer base beyond the still dominant European market.”3 At the same time, there have been limits to this cooperation, particularly in the economic and financial sectors outside of the energy sphere. China refused to help Russia overcome the effects of Western economic sanctions and bilateral trade and trade in national currencies has remained limited, with little diversification of trade and investments. On the political side, neither country has shown itself to be prepared to support the other’s geopolitical interests if doing so would hurt its own interests.4

This policy brief focuses primarily on strategic and military cooperation, where the two sides have made the greatest progress. After briefly discussing the prospects for a strategic partnership between Russia and China, I examine the progress in and remaining constraints on expanding bilateral military cooperation, outline three scenarios for future cooperation in this sphere, and conclude with a discussion of how the United States should respond.

Strategic Partnership?

As bilateral cooperation has progressed, analysts have increasingly examined whether the Russia-China relationship has reached a level of strategic partnership. The growing consensus is that it has.5 According to Alexander Korolev, the partnership is neither ad hoc nor temporary and provides clear benefits for both sides: “Through this partnership, Russia can gain access to more instruments for promoting its agenda of balancing the United States and enhancing its version of multi-polarity in Europe. China, in turn, receives Russia’s political backing and access to Russia’s energy resources and military technologies, which are essential assets for China in its growing tensions with the U.S. in Asia.”6  Some Russian scholars are even more optimistic about the trajectory of the relationship, suggesting that, over time, the two states might even develop an alliance.7

At the same time, there is a similar consensus forming that the current upward trend in Russia-China strategic cooperation should not be viewed as irreversible. In particular, scholars note that, should Russia’s challenge to the United States start to destabilize the international system, it may also jeopardize China’s peaceful rise. This would lead to a divergence in the countries’ interests and potentially cause a rift between the two powers to emerge.8 Some scholars argue that the geopolitical and economic factors that have hindered Russia’s past Asian pivots could have a similar effect again, although this is distinctly a minority position. One possibility proposed by analysts who hold this view is that a future leadership transition in Russia might result in a policy shift back toward a preference for closer relations with Europe, undermining the long-term prospects of Russia’s partnership with China.9

Central Asia represents one potential area of tension between Russia and China, because the two states have formulated competing regional influence projects for the region. As a result, some analysts believe that the two countries may be heading toward a strategic rivalry caused by China’s increasing desire to play a role in Central Asian security and by competition over energy export routes and trade connectivity in general.10 A more likely scenario, however, is that the two countries will maintain a division of responsibilities that allows them to continue to cooperate in the region, with Russia taking primary responsibility for security issues while China focuses on economic development.11

The global coronavirus pandemic initially introduced another source of tension into the Russia-China relationship, especially since Russia moved quickly in late January to close its borders with China. This move was seen by some observers as an indicator of a lack of trust in Chinese information, since China at the time was still making an effort to minimize the scope and threat of the epidemic. At the same time, the almost immediate decision to reopen the border to commercial traffic highlighted Russia’s dependence on Chinese goods.12 As it turned out, even this partial closure proved to be economically damaging, especially in the Russian Far East.13 However, any residual tension was overcome once China largely ended community spread of the virus. Once the threat of spread was over, the two countries developed complementary information campaigns designed to highlight their mutual assistance in the crisis and the superiority of authoritarian systems over democratic ones in marshalling resources to fight the pandemic.14

Future of Bilateral Military Cooperation

Russian senior officials have highlighted the special nature of Russia’s defense relationship with China by characterizing the ties in terms of a strategic partnership. As the two countries have expanded the number of military exercises and consultations while deepening military technical cooperation, analysts have suggested a growing alignment between the two countries at a political level that allows for stronger defense ties. This does not mean that Russia and China are about to enter a military alliance. As cogently argued by Michael Kofman, Russian and Chinese leaders have labeled the relationship a strategic alliance because a military alliance is not needed, given that the two countries do not need each other for security guarantees or extended nuclear deterrence. That said, they have sought to make their ties more formal, as shown by the 2017 agreement on a three-year road map to establish a legal framework to govern military cooperation. This framework is expected to be completed and signed later in 2020, further codifying various aspects of defense ties, including the option of conducting joint long-range aviation patrols.15

Military Technical Cooperation

Although China was Russia’s leading client for military hardware in the 1990s and early 2000s, the arms sales relationship sharply declined after 2006 because of a combination of Chinese unhappiness with Russian pricing policies and the poor maintenance record of Russian equipment, as well as Russian concerns about China’s tendency to reverse-engineer Russian equipment for both its own use and export abroad. Russian arms sales to China saw a modest revival post-2011 but expanded most substantially after the Ukraine crisis, with agreements for the sale of S-400 air defense systems and Su-35 combat aircraft signaling the end of Russia’s informal ban on sales of advanced weapon systems to China.16 In October 2019, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was helping China develop its own ballistic missile early warning system. Russia’s new willingness to share information related to strategic nuclear weapons highlights the extent to which old sensitivities about sharing advanced military technology with China has dissipated in recent years.17 Russia has also turned to China for electronic components and naval diesel engines that it could no longer obtain from the West. Most significantly, military cooperation and defense ties improved as defense sales declined, making clear that such ties are driven at the senior political level and not tied to arms sales.

However, Russia faces a difficult choice this decade in either providing advanced technology to China, knowing that the technology will most likely be copied, or forgoing arms sales but with the expectation that China’s defense sector will develop comparable systems in the near future. The previous Russian arms export strategy of selling the “second-best” technology available while staying a generation ahead is no longer viable. China’s defense industry has sufficiently caught up with or worked around Russia via defense-cooperation deals with other countries that it is now only interested in the most-advanced Russian weapons available. China’s advances in weapon design and general goal of self-sufficiency in military production suggest that Russian arms sales will never reach the peak achieved in the early 2000s and that China will emerge as a stronger arms market competitor to Russia over time.

Military Exercises

Military exercises are a central pillar of bilateral military relations. Moscow and Beijing have recently been rapidly expanding the scale and pace of their joint exercise activity far beyond the two traditional programs, the Peace Mission ground forces exercises in Central Asia and the Joint Sea naval exercises. Both of the long-standing exercise programs have had an anti-U.S. character, with gradually increasing levels of complexity and joint activity. However, the exercises have been criticized for being overly scripted and poorly coordinated, as well as for continuing to lack a joint command structure.18 These criticisms are not necessarily warranted, as the purposes of the exercises are primarily to build military ties at the senior level and to signal political intentions rather than to establish interoperability. There has been no evidence that Russia and China intend to operate in a joint command structure; such a structure would not make sense for two countries that have not entered a formal military alliance.

The naval exercises between Russia and China have been more effective in terms of providing realistic operational experience, although they have not focused particularly on interoperability between the two navies. Naval exercises are not only becoming more frequent but also are being held in new geographical areas. Before the Ukraine crisis, Russia refused to hold bilateral exercises in such controversial territories as southern China near Taiwan. Since 2015, however, naval exercises have been held in areas such as the Baltic and South China Seas as a way of signaling the two countries’ growing power, expanding military ties, and mutual displeasure with the United States.19 Recent trilateral exercises with Iran represent another example of this steady expansion in the use of exercises for political signaling, now including third nations.20 Given China’s desire to be more visible in the European maritime theater, one can expect an increase in exercises that serve the Chinese desire to show its flag in distant waters.

Since 2015, the two countries have expanded their repertoire of exercises, including adding joint missile defense exercises in response to the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. Most observers are aware of growing Chinese participation in Russian strategic exercises, including Vostok-2018 and Tsentr-2019. A joint Russian-Chinese bomber patrol in July 2019 demonstrated that Moscow is increasingly willing to disregard the interests of other states in the Asia-Pacific region in its pursuit of a closer military relationship with China.21

These exercises are primarily focused on setting a positive tone for military-to-military ties at the highest levels, rather than increasing interoperability at the tactical level. The exercises suggest that Russian-Chinese military cooperation in the air domain, which lags naval exercises, will increase. Stronger participation of Chinese air assets in Tsentr-2019 further substantiates this observed trend.22 Space is the next likely frontier for expanding cooperation, although it may be limited given sensitivities about the technologies involved in this domain.

Limitations on Bilateral Military Cooperation

Despite steady progress over the past decade, there remain significant geopolitical and technical constraints on military cooperation between Russia and China. Although senior Chinese and Russian officials repeatedly and publicly affirm that their relationship is characterized by great trust, in reality, a lack of mutual trust remains an obstacle to more robust cooperation. Although Russia and China formally settled the last of their border disputes in 2008, there are still regions where the two sides’ geopolitical interests may not align in the long term. Russia remains concerned over potential Chinese encroachment into the Russian Far East. Russia’s concerns are fueled by a combination of past Chinese claims to territory Russia annexed in the 1800s and the contrast between the sparsely populated Russian Far East and the densely populated Chinese border regions, which have generated ongoing Chinese immigration. A military incursion is seen as unlikely by Moscow relative to the more insidious problem of what Russian leaders fear could prove to be (1) a creeping annexation, in which China projects influence into parts of the Russian Far East on a de facto basis through a large influx of illegal Chinese immigrants, and (2) a steady reorientation of the Russian Far East toward more economically attractive Chinese markets and away from the distant center of power in Moscow.

As the relative balance of influence in Central Asia continues to shift more in favor of China, the potential for the two sides to clash over interests in the region remains significant. Beijing has steadily supplanted Russia as the principal economic power in Central Asia in terms of investment and lending. Still, countries in the region continue to look primarily to Russia to defend their security interests; additionally, Russia remains the principal labor market for this region.

Thus far, this de facto division of labor has enabled Russia and China to maintain a reasonably stable working relationship in Central Asia, such that they do not step on each other’s vital national interests or security concerns. However, as China’s Belt and Road Initiative develops, its economic footprint in Central Asia is likely to grow larger, which could lead to tensions between Beijing and Moscow.

Russia has sought to play a key role in the development of the Arctic region; in particular, it plans to capitalize on new energy sources, as well as the opening of the Northern Sea Route. While Moscow has been willing to work with other members of the Arctic Council, Russia has been reluctant to allow non-Arctic powers, such as China, to play a major role in the region. By contrast, a resource-hungry China has plans to extend its presence to the Arctic and is building its first domestically-produced icebreaker. Although none of these geopolitical concerns are currently likely to cause tensions that could limit military cooperation between Russia and China, they could be factors in the long term.

The asymmetry in economic power between the two countries, including their potential regional influence and global heft, has grown more visible. Furthermore, Russian strategic culture, long having seen itself as superior to China, is visibly struggling with the new realities of this power balance. As a result, Russian political elites have yet to come to terms with China’s rise. Finally, both countries are deeply nationalistic and prestige-seeking, which means neither would be particularly willing to subordinate its military to the leadership of the other. Russian leaders’ desire to maintain an independent foreign policy means that they will not accept Chinese leadership or impose limitations on their relationships with other countries for the sake of Chinese foreign policy. Although the two countries seek to manage conflict over core interests, most international competition is seen as fair game, whether it is arms sales or foreign direct investment.

Russia and China have placed a low priority on achieving greater interoperability during joint military exercises, reflecting an enduring lack of interest on the part of both sides in developing the kind of integrated military capability needed to conduct effective joint military operations.23 At the tactical level, issues such as language and communication highlight that these are decidedly different military structures, with different planning processes and organizational cultures. This limits what the Chinese are able to learn from their counterparts.

China is seen as a predatory power by many Russian experts, so there is a natural degree of apprehension among the Russian military. General Staffs plan contingencies around capabilities, because intent can change. This is especially so when dealing with another great power that is self-admittedly revisionist in its ambitions. Despite the positive outlook of Russia’s national leadership on the benefits of a growing Sino-Russian alignment, the military establishment will always see the Chinese military as a potential adversary and plan accordingly.

Scenarios for Future Russia-China Military Cooperation

The impact of various scenarios for the development of Russia-China military cooperation on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region is inversely correlated with their likelihood. That is, the most likely scenarios are relatively low impact, while the highest-impact scenarios are very unlikely to develop. In this section, I outline three scenarios for future military cooperation between Russia and China.

Low Impact, High Probability

In a low-impact, high-probability scenario, Russia and China expand their military cooperation by holding additional joint naval exercises with countries that are seen as adversarial to the United States and expanding the visibility of their maritime presence both in the Pacific and the Mediterranean regions. As noted earlier, previous joint naval exercises have been conducted in the South China Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Baltic Sea, and future theaters could include other areas within the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Expanded exercises in these regions would serve the two countries’ respective purposes, as Russia seeks greater visibility in the Asia-Pacific and China seeks greater visibility in the European maritime theater.

Both countries seek to reciprocate U.S. freedom-of-navigation operations to the extent possible by visiting the Western Hemisphere. Russia and China could agree to hold a naval exercise in the Caribbean Sea, hosted by Venezuela or Cuba. Such an exercise would have little long-term impact on either Russia’s or China’s geopolitical influence in Latin America and it would not do much to improve their military capabilities or naval interoperability. It would, however, generate a great deal of media attention, highlighting the countries’ ostensible global reach and potential strategic partnership. In other words, both countries could feel that they had scored a propaganda win at relatively low cost, but the actual impact on regional security would be negligible.

Medium Impact, Medium Probability

A medium-impact, medium-probability scenario might focus on additional sales of Russian advanced military equipment. The most interesting systems for China would include diesel-electric submarines, over-the-horizon radar systems, early warning systems, space-related technology for satellites, microchips, and next-generation aircraft engines. In return, Russia might accelerate the purchase of Chinese defense-industrial components, such as heavy-lift cranes, machine tools, and circuitry board components and parts. Although Russia would benefit substantially from procuring Chinese surface combatant vessels, given the shortcomings in those parts of the Russian defense-industrial complex, the financial interests of Russia’s domestic defense industry would likely prevent such deals from being made.

The two countries could also build on Russia’s recent sale to China of S-400 long-range air defense systems to agree to the sale of Russian S-500 air defense systems once those come online. S-500 systems would have a longer range than existing systems owned by China and may have the capability of defending against a wider range of missile types. These capabilities would lead to a significant improvement in Chinese air defense capabilities versus the United States and its allies. China would seek to acquire the 40N6 extended-range (400-km) missile, which has reached initial operating capability with the S-400, either as part of an S-500 deal or on its own for China’s existing S-400 systems.

High Impact, Low Probability

A number of highly unlikely but potentially very damaging scenarios present themselves. One such area would involve greater Russian-Chinese defense industrial cooperation on sensitive technology, such as theater hypersonic weapons or submarine quieting. Although military establishments on both sides would almost certainly resist allowing the other side access to such technology, if such cooperation did develop, it would substantially affect the ability of the United States to maintain a favorable regional military balance and retain a technological edge in certain domains over China. One possibility for enhanced defense cooperation that has been discussed in recent years, though with little progress to date, is a potential technology transfer deal in which Moscow would provide Beijing with the RD-180 rocket engine in exchange for space-grade microelectronic components.24 Past discussion centered on trading finished equipment, but a  closer relationship between Russia and China may result in consideration of exchanging production technology in the future. Such a deal would increase China’s lift capacity and Russia’s ability to produce advanced guidance and control systems.

Another scenario in this category is a joint military intervention, most likely in a Central Asian country in the event of a political crisis or instability, because Russia and China have previously conducted exercises to deconflict areas of responsibility in this type of scenario. However, one should not exclude the possibility of a joint Russian-Chinese intervention in Africa or the Middle East. While the countries lack core interests in these regions, the cost and risk of intervention is also dramatically lower and the barrier for entry in such operations is not especially high. Both countries have the expeditionary capacity to conduct relatively small force deployments around much of the world and might well seek to do so together in response to a contingency where their interests align.

The least likely, but nonetheless possible, scenario is a military crisis with the United States in which one country takes advantage of a situation to press for geopolitical gains. For example, in the event of a standoff between the United States and China, Russia would seek to leverage the distraction of the United States to make opportunistic gains. Russia could deploy forces to Asia or provide military assistance via deniable means to China in order to raise costs to the United States. Because China is quite remote from Europe, the likelihood of Chinese involvement in a crisis between Russia and members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Europe is too low to be worth considering.

How Should the United States Respond?

There is a general perception among experts that greater cooperation between Russia and China is inevitable, given the core precepts of present-day U.S. foreign policy. Scholars focused on relative power suggest that the two countries will inevitably balance against the most powerful country in the international system.25 Furthermore, U.S. efforts to pursue a hard line against either Russia or China, and especially against both at the same time, have the effect of driving the two countries closer together. For some scholars, this suggests that accommodating them within the existing international order would be a more effective response.26 Scholars focused on the role played by ideas highlight the perceived threat of liberal ideology and suggest that if the United States reduces its emphasis on democracy promotion and regime change, this would reduce the impetus to Russian-Chinese cooperation.27

In this geopolitical environment, actions by the United States that threaten Russia and China in a similar manner or present a common security challenge will have the effect of driving the two countries closer together. This is especially true if the actions are strategic in nature. Examples of such actions include the deployment of missile defense systems or freedom-of-navigation operations near the shores of either Russia or China. Both of these actions create a perception among Russian and Chinese leaders that they share a common global security challenge from the United States—and one that is serious enough that they would be best served by facing it together.

On the other hand, actions that disaggregate the nature of the threat perceived by Russian and Chinese leaders would help create divergence in their interests and thereby slow the trend toward a closer bilateral relationship. For example, the United States could challenge Russia in ways that are exclusive to the European theater, such as by pulsing additional troops to NATO member states for exercises. Similarly, China could be challenged in the regions of Taiwan and Southeast Asia rather than in East Asia or maritime territories adjacent to Russian territory. Russian relations with such countries as Vietnam and India could be exploited to highlight potential tensions between Russia and China.

Notes

1 Alexander Gabuev, Friends with Benefits? Russian-Chinese Relations After the Ukraine Crisis, Carnegie Moscow Center, June 29 2016, https://carnegie.ru/2016/06/29/friends-with-benefits-russian-chinese-relations-after-ukraine-crisis-pub-63953.

2  Alexander Korolev, “How Closely Aligned Are China and Russia? Measuring Strategic Cooperation in IR,” International Politics, May 2019.

3 Tom Røseth, “Russia’s Energy Relations with China: Passing the Strategic Threshold?” Eurasian Geography and Economics, Vol. 58, No. 1, 2017, pp. 23–55.

4 Mikhail Korostikov, Дружба на расстоянии руки: Как Москва и Пекин определили границы допустимого [“Friendship at Arms’ Length: How Moscow and Beijing Determined the Boundaries of the Permissible”], Kommersant, May 31, 2019, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3984186.

5 Tom Røseth, “Moscow’s Response to a Rising China: Russia’s Partnership Policies in Its Military Relations with Beijing,” Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 66, No. 4, 2019, pp. 268–286.

6 Korolev, 2019, p. 29.

7 Vassily Kashin, “Is the Conflict Inevitable? Not at All. How Reasonable Are Western Expectations of a Russia-China Confrontation?” Russia in Global Affairs, Vol. 17, No. 3, 2017

8 Andrej Krickovic, “The Symbiotic China-Russia Partnership: Cautious Riser and Desperate Challenger,” Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2017, pp. 299–329.

9 Chris Miller, “Will Russia’s Pivot to Asia Last?” Orbis, Winter 2020. See also Mikhail Karpov, “The Grandeur and Miseries of Russia’s ‘Turn to the East’: Russian-Chinese ‘Strategic Partnership’ in the Wake of the Ukraine Crisis and Western Sanctions,” Russia in Global Affairs, Vol. 16, No. 3, 2018.

10 Carla P. Freeman, “New Strategies for an Old Rivalry? China–Russia Relations in Central Asia After the Energy Boom,” Pacific Review, Vol. 31, No. 5, 2018, pp. 635–654.

11 Liselotte Odgaard, “Beijing’s Quest for Stability in Its Neighborhood: China’s Relations with Russia in Central Asia,” Asian Security, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2017, pp. 41–58.

12 Jake Rudnitsky and Evgenia Pismennaya, “Russia Closes Border With China to People, Not Goods,” Bloomberg News, January 30, 2020,  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-01-30/russia-closing-border-with-china-to-affect-people-not-goods.

13 Andrew Higgins, “Businesses Getting Killed on Russian Border as Coronavirus Fears Rise,” New York Times, February 24, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/24/world/europe/coronavirus-russia-china-commerce.html.

14 Van Ivej, “Выход из Кризиса и Преимущества Китая, [Exit from Crisis and China’s Advantages],” Russia in Global Affairs, April 1, 2020, https://globalaffairs.ru/articles/vyhod-iz-krizisa-i-preimushhestva-kitaya/; Fyodor Lukyanov, “Вирус Разнообразия [Virus of Diversity],” Russia in Global Affairs, March 25, 2020, https://globalaffairs.ru/articles/virus-raznoobraziya/.

15 Michael Kofman, “Towards a Sino-Russian Entente?” Riddle, November 29, 2019, https://www.ridl.io/en/towards-a-sino-russian-entente.

16 Siemon Wezeman, “China, Russia and the Shifting Landscape of Arms Sales,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, July 5, 2017, https://www.sipri.org/commentary/topical-backgrounder/2017/china-russia-and-shifting-landscape-arms-sales.

17 Dmitry Stefanovich, “Russia to Help China Develop an Early Warning System,” The Diplomat, October 25, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/10/russia-to-help-china-develop-an-early-warning-system.

18 Daniel Urchik, “What We Learned from Peace Mission 2018,” Small Wars Journalundated, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/what-we-learned-peace-mission-2018.

19 Chris Buckley, “Russia to Join China in Naval Exercise in Disputed South China Sea,” New York Times, July 29, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/29/world/asia/russia-china-south-china-sea-naval-exercise.html and Andrew Higgins, “China and Russia Hold First Joint Naval Drill in the Baltic Sea,” New York Times, July 25, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/world/europe/china-russia-baltic-navy-exercises.html.

20 Andrew Osborn, “Russia, China, Iran Start Joint Naval Drills in Indian Ocean,” ReutersDecember 27, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-military-russia-china/russia-china-iran-start-joint-naval-drills-in-indian-ocean-idUSKBN1YV0IB.

21 Franz-Stefan Gady, “The Significance of the First Ever China-Russia Strategic Bomber Patrol,” The Diplomat, July 25, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/07/the-significance-of-the-first-ever-china-russia-strategic-bomber-patrol/.

22 “China to Send 1,600 Troops, About 30 Aircraft to Russia’s Strategic Military Drills,” TASS, August 29, 2019, https://tass.com/defense/1075535.

23 Paul Schwartz, “The Military Dimension in Sino-Russian Relations,” in Jo Inge Bekkevold and Bobo Lo, eds. Sino-Russian Relations in the 21st Century, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), p. 105.

24 Eric Berger, “Russia Now Looking to Sell Its Prized Rocket Engines to China,” Ars Technica, January 18, 2018, https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/01/russia-now-looking-to-sell-its-prized-rocket-engines-to-china.

25 Robert S. Ross, “Sino‑Russian Relations: The False Promise of Russian Balancing,” International Politics, September 2019.

26 Krickovic, 2017.

27 John M. Owen IV, “Sino‑Russian Cooperation Against Liberal Hegemony,” International Politics, January 2020.

Midrats: Russia’s 2020

I was back on the Blog Talk Radio show Midrats this week, talking about Russia’s government shake-up, Russian foreign policy,  its relations with the United States and China, etc. The recording is now available on the show’s website. The show description is as follows:

Episode 529: Russia’s 2020

As Russia’s navy starts to transition away from the last of her legacy ships, to her approaching endgame in Syria, join us for the full hour to investigate the latest developments with Russia’s national security posture, including the domestic power politics and relationships with its near abroad that influences the same.

Russia’s Strategy in Southeast Asia

Paul Schwartz and I have published a new policy memo through PONARS Eurasia. Here’s a preview. Full memo may be found here, and the complete report that it summarizes was also published last week by IFRI.

To great fanfare, in May 2016, Russia hosted the third ASEAN-Russia Summit at the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Commemorating the 20th anniversary of Russia’s acceptance as an ASEAN dialog partner, this summit was intended to give new impetus to longstanding efforts by Russia and Southeast Asia to forge closer economic and security ties. Defying efforts by the West to isolate Russia, leaders from all ten ASEAN member states attended the summit.[1]Despite having recently skipped several high-level ASEAN summits, this time President Putin led the Russian delegation himself. He also met separately with the leaders of all ten ASEAN states. After the summit, Putin proclaimed that the two sides had reached agreement “on building a strategic partnership over the long term.” Demonstrating that this was not just mere rhetoric, the two sides also announced a raft of new measures during the summit, on topics ranging from security relations to closer political and economic ties. However, Russia’s ongoing Sino-centric focus, ASEAN’s limited ability to act collectively, and Moscow’s preference for bilateral relations will continue to predominate in its overall relations with the region.

A Pivot Toward Eastern Relationships?

In the aftermath of renewed conflict with the West over Ukraine, Russia sought to accelerate its much-discussed “turn to the East” in a bid to avoid isolation and to circumvent Western sanctions. This initiative, which was first launched after the 2008 financial crisis, was intended to allow Russia to reduce its dependence on the West, while harnessing the dynamic growth of the Asia-Pacific region as a means for modernizing the Russian Far East and ultimately Russia itself. The first concrete action to this effect was Russia hosting the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Vladivostok in 2012, followed by an acceleration in efforts to increase economic cooperation. While Russia has consistently placed the highest priority on increasing its ties with China, it also sought to diversify its relations with other Asia Pacific countries in order to avoid becoming overly dependent on Beijing. Southeast Asia figured prominently in this effort, as Russia sought to build upon its existing relations with countries in the region, especially Vietnam, Indonesia, and Myanmar, to maintain its strategic independence. In a move reminiscent of its recent policy in the Middle East, it also sought to expand relations with countries long considered U.S. allies such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand.

The pivot to Asia came to include three components:

  • a civilizational alliance against Western “universal values”;
  • a geopolitical effort to provide a regional alternative to the U.S.-centered alliance system; and
  • a geo-economic push to integrate Russia into Asia’s dynamic economy.

Please click here to read the rest of the policy memo

 

5 things to know about Russia’s Vostok-2018 military exercises

I have an explainer article about the Vostok exercise on the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog today. Here’s a sampler…


Military analysts around the world are keeping a close eye on Russia’s annual fall military maneuvers, as this year may turn out to be the largest post-Cold War show of force. Vostok-2018 kicks off this week in Russia’s Far East and the Pacific Ocean, along with auxiliary exercises before and after the main event.

The big news this year is the addition of joint exercises with China. What do these military exercises entail, and what do you need to know?

1. What are these war games?

The Vostok exercise is part of an annual rotating series of large-scale exercises that serve as the capstone to the Russian military’s annual training cycle. The series rotates through the four main Russian operational strategic commands (Eastern, Caucasus, Central and Western) that give name to the exercises. “Vostok” means east; last fall’s Zapad-2017 took place along Russia’s western border.

Similar major strategic operational exercises took place each fall throughout the Soviet period as well. However, unlike past military readiness drills, the Defense Ministry has billed Vostok-2018 as a strategic maneuver exercise, in which the forces are divided into two groups that engage each other rather than fighting against an imaginary opponent, as was the case in all previous iterations.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Russia and China vie for influence in Central Asia

I’m still swamped with various projects, so in the meantime, here’s another Oxford Analytica brief. This one is from mid-December…

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Although China and the United States have focused greater attention on Central Asia in recent years, Russia remains the dominant power in the region. Its size and the cultural, political and economic connections that remain from the Soviet period are such that Central Asian countries are reluctant to take any actions that would antagonise Moscow. For Russian leaders, Central Asia serves as a buffer zone that protects Russia’s southern border from potential threats.

Impacts:

  • Increasing Chinese economic presence in Central Asia will curtail Russia’s efforts to limit China’s regional political influence.
  • After NATO’s exit from Afghanistan, Russia and Central Asian states will cooperate to prevent radical Islam from destabilising the region.
  • Shifting patterns of energy demand and supply will reduce Russia’s ability to use energy as a tool for political influence.

ANALYSIS:

Russia’s various initiatives in Central Asia are shaped by three interest groups with widely divergent interests that often work at cross-purposes to each other:

  • The military and defence industry is focused on the role of great power competition in the region; it seeks to promote arms sales and to increase Russia’s military presence.
  • The energy industry focuses on securing exclusive rights to gas transit from Central Asia to Europe.
  • The security services concentrate on the transnational threats to Russia from radical Islam, terrorism and drug smuggling.

Maintaining monopoly

Throughout the last decade, Russia sought to maintain its energy-transit monopoly on the export of petroleum and natural gas from Central Asia. Until 2005, all major export pipelines from the region went through Russia giving it control over transit fees. Russia’s monopoly over natural gas transit to Europe also gave it political and economic leverage over downstream countries dependent on supplies of Russian natural gas for domestic consumption.

The construction of alternative pipelines over the last decade has eliminated Russia’s monopoly on hydrocarbon transit from Central Asia. Energy-producing states in the region can now sell their products to China and Iran. At the same time, changes in patterns of supply and demand for natural gas in Europe have decreased the political and economic significance of Russia’s remaining monopoly on natural gas supply to some European countries. The development of new methods of shale gas extraction in the United States has increased the supply of LNG to Europe at the same time as the 2008-09 global financial crisis has led to a sharp drop in demand for natural gas.

These factors decreased Russia’s ability to set prices and to use its control of energy supply for political ends, thus reducing the importance of future Caspian pipeline transit. Russia is now likely to focus on energy production in the Caspian Sea region and has already begun to develop several oil and gas fields that it controls jointly with Kazakhstan.

Keeping China at bay

China has sought to increase its economic and political influence in Central Asia without alienating Russia for a number of reasons. For example:

  • Central Asia has become one of China’s primary energy suppliers;
  • Central Asia serves as a security buffer zone between China and both Russia and the United States; and
  • China seeks to prevent Uighur separatists in Xinjiang from using Central Asia as a safe haven.

To further these goals, China made large investments into the Central Asian economies and, in particular, in energy infrastructure. The region provides raw materials to China in exchange for finished products such as machinery, food and consumer goods.

Russian leaders fear that their country’s position in Central Asia is gradually being displaced as China’s political influence and economic power grow. To maintain its sway in Central Asia, Russia has focused on ‘tying’ China into regional networks and institutions while retaining levers of influence through institutions in which China is not a member.

In the security realm, Russia has combined participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with its role in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). While the SCO provides a neutral forum where Russia can discuss security and plan joint operations and exercises with China, the CSTO allows Russia to address Central Asian security issues without China’s participation. At the same time, Russia has sought to counter China’s economic influence in Central Asia by setting up the Customs Union, which, in 2014, is expected to include Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Recent discussions concerning the establishment of the Eurasian Union in 2015 are also part of the effort to cement Central Asian economic ties to Russia.

Ensuring political stability

Although most of the regimes in the region have endured for over 20 years, Central Asia is now entering a period of potential political instability.

  • Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are all bracing for a potential resurgence of Islamist radicalism in the aftermath of the likely US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.
  • Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — both states ruled by authoritarian presidents in their mid-1970s — are highly vulnerable to succession risks.
  • Kyrgyzstan is still recovering from two episodes of violent regime collapse in the last decade.

The potential destabilising influence of radical Islamist groups and drug smuggling networks is a key concern for Russia. Moscow believes that the current Central Asian leadership has been able to contain the threat of radical Islam and is worried that a regime change, combined with the withdrawal of NATO troops, would facilitate the spread of radical Islam to Russia.

These concerns have led Russia to provide various forms of security assistance to the region’s more vulnerable states. In the last year alone Russia has:

  • extended leases on military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan;
  • sold weapons to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan;
  • sought to persuade Uzbekistan to re-engage with the CSTO; and
  • agreed to provide 1.3 billion dollars to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to modernise their military forces and ensure their security after the departure of Western troops.

The extension of Russia’s military base agreements with Central Asian countries, together with Kyrgyzstan’s decision to ask the United States to vacate the Manas base after the NATO departure from Afghanistan, will leave Russia as the sole security provider to vulnerable states in the region.

CONCLUSION: Russia’s security relations with Central Asian states will strengthen as they face the consequences of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. At the same time, Moscow’s efforts to remain the dominant economic partner of the region’s key players will likely falter as China strengthens its position as the main recipient of Central Asian energy exports and a key supplier of imported consumer products.

Russian Politics and Law, November 2011 Table of Contents

Volume 49 Number 6 / November-December 2011 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the M.E. Sharpe web site at http://mesharpe.metapress.com.

This issue contains:

New Directions in Russian Foreign Policy: Editor’s Introduction p.3
Dmitry Gorenburg
Modernizing Russian Foreign Policy p.8
Dmitry Trenin
Russia and the New Eastern Europe p.38
Dmitry Trenin
Russia-China: Time for a Course Correction p.54
Evgenii Verlin and Vladislav Inozemtsev
Russia-China: “Reloading” the Relationship p.74
Vasilii Mikheev

New Directions in Russian Foreign Policy: Editor’s Introduction

For many American commentators, analyzing Russian foreign policy can be a fairly contentious topic. Some see Russia as a continuation of the Soviet Union and are therefore concerned about the future possibility of a revived Russia once again posing a threat to the United States and the rest of the democratic world. Others believe that while Russia is certainly not a Western democracy, it does not bear any aggressive intent toward the West. In this issue, we look at what Russian experts see as the goals of Russian foreign policy.

The issue begins with two lectures by Dmitry Trenin. The first, “Modernizing Russian Foreign Policy,” examines the current goals of Russian foreign policy and makes some recommendations for its future trajectory. Trenin argues that for the last decade, Russian foreign policy has been aimed primarily at maintaining the country’s status in the world. He argues that since the start of Vladimir Putin’s second term as president in 2004, Russia has been focused on cementing its status as an independent power in a multipolar world. Its primary emphasis has been on maintaining its preeminent status in the former Soviet republics. A second goal has been to ensure that it has a say on all the critical issues facing the international system. And the final goal is for the Russian economy to realize a profit from the country’s foreign policy.

Trenin criticizes these goals as inadequate for the twenty-first century. He argues that to be a superpower it is no longer sufficient to be able to destroy the rest of the world or even to be able to export rare natural resources at a premium. The greatness of a state in the modern world, according to the author, lies not in what it can offer the world but in how attractive it is to others. He finds that Russia has little to brag about in this department.

To change this dynamic, Trenin proposes that Russia focus on wide-scale international cooperation in all possible areas. Economic cooperation would be greatly enhanced if Russia were to join the World Trade Organization. He then takes on the question of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion, arguing that although he is not a proponent of further expansion, he finds it difficult to see how the admission of states such as Ukraine or Georgia to NATO could be seen as a threat to Russia. The old Soviet mentality of maintaining a buffer zone around its border does not correspond to present realities, in which Russia and NATO are developing a partnership in dealing with the real security challenges. In this environment, the best strategy for Russian foreign policy is to let these states make their own foreign policy decisions while using its cultural influence to ensure that its neighbors are positively disposed toward Russia.

Having addressed the general outlines of Russian foreign policy in the first lecture, in “Russia and the New Eastern Europe,” Trenin focuses more specifically on Russia’s relations with Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova. His first point is quite simple: these three countries now constitute a distinct and durable geopolitical reality that he calls the New Eastern Europe. Given the history of Russia’s interactions with this region, it is not at all surprising that these states’ political elites have devoted a great deal of effort to ensuring that their countries develop distinct political identities that are separate from Russia. Trenin’s second point is that the existence of this region is not a transitory phenomenon. Russian efforts to integrate the states that formerly constituted the Soviet Union are unlikely to succeed, in part because of opposition within these states but in part because of Russia’s unwillingness to subsidize these states in the way that the Soviet Union used to subsidize its satellites. At the same time, this region is unlikely to be incorporated into the European Union (EU) either, both because the EU is suffering from enlargement fatigue and because the states that make up the New Eastern Europe are not yet politically or economically ready for such incorporation.

Given this geopolitical reality, Russian foreign policy will have to address its relationship with this region. When Russians travel to this region, they do not feel like they are in a foreign state. This affects their country’s policies toward the region, including the use of terms such as the “near abroad” that attempt to portray the region as less foreign than the rest of the world. But because of this feeling of cultural similarity, Russian policy toward the region is governed by emotion rather than pragmatic considerations. This is the context through which Trenin views such potentially counterproductive policies as Russia’s reaction to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and its visceral opposition to NATO enlargement. At the same time, there have been gradual improvements in Russian attitudes, as shown in the country’s relative equanimity in advance of the 2010 Ukrainian presidential elections and its efforts to restore cooperation with NATO soon after the 2008 Georgian war. A shift from a foreign policy focused on status maintenance to one aimed at domestic modernization would further help Russia develop normal relations with the New Eastern Europe, which in turn would only enhance Russian security on its western borders.

The last two articles in this issue focus on Russia’s relations with China. In “Russia–China: Time for a Course Correction,” Evgenii Verlin and Vladislav Inozemtsev focus on examining alternative scenarios for the evolution of this relationship, with an emphasis on the potential threats posed to Russia by China’s growing economic and demographic power. They argue that given its economic and political development, China is already a new superpower, although it is not yet sure about its place in the international system. The authors see the likeliest configuration of future power centers as involving a big three of the United States, the European Union, and China, with other regional powers such as Russia and Brazil allied with one of these centers on relatively unequal terms. They believe that Russia should respond to China’s emergence as a superpower by focusing on establishing a balanced relationship with China. Russians must end their long history of looking down on the Chinese, as this attitude has long provoked Chinese hostility. Although such views may have been acceptable when the Soviet Union was clearly more powerful than China, they are no longer permissible in the current geopolitical environment. The authors are concerned that the Russian–Chinese relationship is currently built on situational factors that are unlikely to last. This presents a danger to Russia, which faces a choice between becoming “an industrial appendage of Europe for a time or a raw-materials appendage of China forever.”

Vasilii Mikheev focuses on the role the Russian–Chinese relationship plays in overall Russian foreign policy. In “Russia–China: ‘Reloading’ the Relationship,” he argues that using the Chinese card in Russian relations with the United States is a potentially dangerous course that is unlikely to yield many benefits for Russia. Whereas the previous article focuses on the dangers that China’s growth presents for Russia, this article focuses on the potential opportunities. Mikheev argues that Russia should seek to develop a closer military and political partnership with China, including interactions on areas of potential common concern such as political stability in Central Asia and nuclear security. A dialogue on security in the Asia–Pacific region and the situation in North Korea are also necessary. In focusing on the Russia–China–United States triangle, Mikheev hopes that Russia will be able to avoid focusing on one or another of these states. To this end, he advocates for a trilateral dialogue that enhances international security. The strategic goal for Russia is to ensure that its relationship with China is closer than China’s relationship with the United States.

Although these four articles by no means offer a complete assessment of Russian foreign policy, they do show some of the key issues Russia is facing as it begins its third decade of independent statehood. After an initial effort to try to fit into the West and a subsequent period of attempting to regain the international status held by the Soviet Union, Russia is at a point where it is beginning to come to terms with its status as a regional power that still maintains a significant amount of freedom of action in its own neighborhood but needs to develop alliances with other powers to influence events on a global stage. I imagine that this process will continue over the next decade as Russia gradually cements its place in the international system.