Two events in the second half of July point to a new level of military cooperation between Russia and China. First, the Russian government announced that in accordance with Ministry of Defense proposals, it intends to negotiate a new agreement on military cooperation with China. Second, Russian and Chinese long-range bombers conducted their first joint patrol mission over the Sea of Japan.

The patrol sparked a controversy over a Russian airborne warning and control system aircraft’s possible breach of South Korean airspace around the disputed Dokdo islets, to which both Japan and South Korea lay claim. However, the incursion, if it indeed happened, was clearly technical and doesn’t change the situation much. The real question is why the two countries need a new agreement on military cooperation.

An earlier agreement between the Russian and Chinese defense ministries approved by the Russian government on October 11, 1993, remains in effect to this day. It’s a fairly short and abstract document that focuses on creating conditions for cooperation in the field of military technology between the two countries. Back then, it was essentially at the core of bilateral relations. Political cooperation between Moscow and Beijing on international issues was at its nascent stage, and no one would have dared to even think of joint military exercises.

The 1993 agreement listed personnel training, learning and information exchanges, mutual assistance in servicing weapons and military equipment, and conducting joint research and commemorative military events.

The agreement didn’t directly provide for joint military exercises, but merely mentioned inviting representatives from the other side to national exercises as guests. The document did, however, leave room for further cooperation by adding a provision for other forms of cooperation “subject to agreement between the parties.”

As a result, the parties simply supplemented the 1993 agreement with additional documents. By December 1 of each year, the two sides would sign a cooperation plan for the next year, detailing specific steps for developing mutual cooperation. Sometimes the countries also signed additional agreements, such as the 2007 agreement on the status of troops temporarily stationed on each other’s territory, which was made after regular joint exercises were launched in 2005.

In 2017, Russia spearheaded the adoption of a three-year road map that created a legal framework for the entire scope of military cooperation between the two countries.

But the cooperation between the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Russian armed forces has long reached a new, substantively different level. Every year, troops from both countries participate in several large-scale and fairly complex military exercises, and prepare for the eventuality of conducting joint operations under certain conditions. Joint chiefs of staff have created a mechanism for strategic consultations. In terms of military technology, weapons exports are now complemented by joint development and limited industrial cooperation. 

The fact that the basic agreement lacks clearly defined cooperation procedures for all of these issues complicates planning and means the cooperation has no firm legal foundation. Strictly speaking, under those conditions, each of the parties had an easier time abandoning previous agreements and renegotiating the substance of cooperation when another plan or road map was up for discussion.

Up until a certain point, this situation suited both Moscow and Beijing. Until recently, both countries actively used each other as a counterbalance in their complex political games with the United States.

This was possible while both countries enjoyed complex, multidimensional relations with Washington characterized by both competition and cooperation. Russia was first to enter into a long-term confrontation mode in its relations with the United States, so it’s quite telling that Russia initiated framing its cooperation with China as long-term, with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu proposing a three-year road map.

Now that China is also engaged in a systemic confrontation with the United States, a new permanent agreement seems more feasible. The agreement will officially formalize many existing elements of military cooperation between the two countries, which will now gain permanent status, for instance naval exercises, operational missile defense exercises, or participating in the other side’s military exercises. New avenues of cooperation may also appear: the recent aircraft patrol mission or strategic missile defense cooperation are some examples. 

This is, therefore, quite an important change in bilateral relations. In this context, the July 23 joint patrol points to Russia’s intention of being actively involved in China’s policy of containing the United States in Asia. 

Chinese H-6K and Russian Tu-95MS bombers participated in the patrol, as well as airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft from both countries. Most likely, AWACS aircraft were to gather intelligence information once the South Korean and Japanese air forces responded to the appearance of Russian and Chinese planes. 

The H-6K does not play an important role in China’s nuclear deterrence forces. The plane carries high-precision cruise missiles, but has a limited range and lacks the means to refuel during flight.

At the same time, the H-6K is an important element in China’s Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy in the Pacific theater of operations, which enables the PLA to launch massive non-nuclear missile strikes against the United States and its allies, targeting their military infrastructure as far as the U.S. territory of Guam, and possibly even further.

Thanks to modernization programs during the past few years, Russian strategic bombers are now capable of using high-precision non-nuclear weapons. Even in the absence of a formal alliance between the two countries, Russian involvement in Pacific operations alongside Chinese counterparts casts the prospects of a possible conflict in the region in a different light.

This development significantly increases the PLA’s striking capabilities, which will in turn require the United States to take certain costly steps in response, while Russia and China incur no additional costs.

Russia’s apparent willingness to enhance its military role in the region changes a lot. After all, the Russian factor was simply ignored until recently in analysis of East Asia conflict scenarios (Taiwan and the South China Sea).

Given the weakness of the Russian navy in the Pacific, long-range aircraft is the main instrument enabling Moscow to seriously influence the situation in the region. 

In taking its military cooperation with China to a new level, Moscow will strive to preserve its anti-American slant. Russia clearly wants to stay out of Beijing’s numerous disputes with Asian countries over islands and historical grievances. In addition, the current nature of Russian-U.S. and Chinese-U.S. relations means Russia and China’s military cooperation will inevitably have an anti-United States focus.

  • Vassily Kashin