For China and Russia, Common Interests Make for Closer Security Ties

8 MINS READSep 11, 2019 | 09:00 GMT
Military officials salute each other in a ceremony before Russia and China warships set out for a naval cooperation exercise.

Military officials salute each other in a send-off for a joint Russian-Chinese naval exercise in the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk.

(YURI SMITYUK\TASS via Getty Images)
  • To counter the United States in key Asian and European theaters, Russia and China will increase the size and scope of their joint military exercises in the coming months.
  • Russia and China will also increase consultations with each other on internal security issues, including their shared desires to create a sovereign internet and manage unrest in Moscow and Hong Kong, respectively.
  • But such cooperation will be limited by Russia and China's own strategic competition with one another, particularly in areas of overlapping influence such as Central Asia and the Russian Far East.
  • In the longer term, Russia-China security ties will last only until the three great powers' triangular relationship inevitably shifts again, and prompts Moscow and Beijing to recalibrate their positions.

As the saying goes, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." And indeed, that dynamic is what has seemingly brought Russia and China closer together in recent years amid the two countries' separate standoffs with the United States. The U.S. trade war with China and Washington's prolonged sanctions campaign against Moscow, for one, have driven greater economic and energy ties between the Eastern neighbors. Over the past year, Russia and China have also coordinated their diplomatic positions to counterbalance U.S. interests and influence in areas such as Venezuela, Iran and North Korea.

As a result, Beijing and Moscow have found themselves aligned with each other in the many areas where they both stand at odds with Washington — and increasingly, that includes security issues. But in the long term, Russian-Chinese security ties will ultimately depend on the evolution of each country's relationship with the United States and, thereby, with each other.

The Big Picture

Escalating tensions between the United States on one hand and Russia and China on the other are pushing Moscow and Beijing into greater cooperation on numerous fronts. The growth of this partnership, however, will ultimately be limited by the inherent differences between the two Eastern powers, as well as future swings in the balance of power between Moscow, Washington and Beijing.

A Path for Military Cooperation

Perhaps the greatest area of U.S.-motivated growing alignment between Russia and China has been in the security sphere. As Washington challenges Russia in the former Soviet periphery and contends for influence in China's maritime periphery, Moscow and Beijing have recently increased military cooperation with each other, particularly when it comes to joint military exercises. And broader U.S. military buildups in both European and Asian theaters will likely continue to prompt even more joint military drills between the two countries — especially now that the United States is less constrained to develop its missile capabilities amid the collapse of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.

Following years of accusations of non-compliance from both sides, the United States suspended its Cold War-era treaty with Russia in February before formally withdrawing in August. In its announcement, the United States said that Russia's weapon development had not been in compliance with the INF limits the two countries agreed to more than 30 years ago. But Beijing has also been significantly ramping up the development of its own intermediate-range missiles, which no doubt factored into the U.S. decision to withdraw from the agreement as well.

As a counterweight to China's weapon development, Washington will likely first focus on building up its missile capabilities in Asia with the help of its chief regional allies, South Korea and Japan. Given this, it is perhaps no coincidence that Russia and China chose to conduct their first-ever, joint long-range air patrol in the Sea of Japan in late July. During the joint exercises, South Korea accused a Russian surveillance plane of entering its airspace over the disputed island of Dokdo (also known as Takeshima), prompting South Korean warplanes to even fire a warning shot. That's not to say the recent joint exercise was directly linked to Washington's INF withdrawal, as such exercises don't directly affect weapons capabilities or deployments that the treaty limited. But it nevertheless points to a growing level of shared military cooperation as a result of shared concerns between Russia and China.

This map shows areas where Russia and China have conducted joint military exercises.

In tandem with U.S. military buildups, joint Russian-Chinese military exercises will thus likely only increase in size, scope, and frequency in the coming months. This could include joint air drills elsewhere in Asia, or joint naval drills in areas like the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean. To further signal their growing military interoperability to Washington and its global allies, Moscow and Beijing could also start pooling assets like surveillance and tanker aircraft, and engage in the joint production of heavy-lift helicopters and other military equipment.

Battles on the Homefront

In addition to conventional military cooperation, Russia and China are also finding common ground on internal security matters, with both countries facing protracted protest movements in recent months. China, for its part, continues to grapple with ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong. And Russia has also faced some of the biggest protests it has seen in nearly a decade, prompted by the government's decision to exclude many opposition candidates from the country's Sept. 8 regional elections. In handling each situation, the Russian and Chinese governments have opted for a similar mix of limited security crackdowns and selective political concessions, in the hopes of avoiding a broader military intervention.

Both Moscow and Beijing have also publicly blamed the United States for helping fan the flames in each situation. Russia's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stated that Moscow "took seriously" China's claims that Washington and other Western countries have "directly participated and organized unrest" in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang said U.S. support for the protests in Moscow serves as "an example of interference in Russia's domestic politics, which points to (the West's) hegemonic claims." According to Zakharova, Moscow and Beijing plan to hold consultations over U.S. involvement in their respective protests. While the details and extent of such consultations remain unclear, the fact that Russia and China have vocalized their support for each other over their respective claims of U.S. interference is significant in itself.

Similar Cyber Visions

Another area of potential security coordination between Russia and China is in the cybersphere. The two countries have been increasingly discussing their shared desire to each create an internet that can operate independently from the rest of the world — or what Moscow has coined "internet sovereignty." In July, Russia's state communications watchdog Roskomnadzor hosted a delegation from the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) — the first such delegation to ever visit Russia. Officials from the CAC also reportedly visited Yandex, Russia's major online search engine, as well as the Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab, to discuss joint cooperation prospects.

When the power balance between Russia, China and the United States inevitably shifts, so too will the incentives driving Moscow and Beijing's current security alignment.

Such consultations with China indicate that Russia is planning to take further steps to crack down on the cybersecurity front. In recent years, Moscow has been continuously tightening its internet controls, including blocking the use of the Telegram messenger app over its refusal to hand over encryption keys to the security services. Russia is also considering using Huawei's 5G networks next year, just as some countries are trying to avoid doing so under U.S. pressure (though Washington has been far less successful than it hoped in terms of getting other countries to outright ban Huawei). Russia, meanwhile, is also still pushing ahead with the development of its own indigenous 5G infrastructure to maintain a degree of technological independence, though it is significantly behind China, Europe and the United States on this front.

A Partnership of Circumstance

There are, of course, limits on how far this burgeoning cooperation between China and Russia can go. Beijing, for one, has a much higher threshold for overt state involvement in the cybersphere compared with Moscow. And this, combined with the vast differences between the two countries' domestic conditions and political environment, means that cooperation between Russia and China on internal issues like protest management and cybersecurity will likely remain more consultative than collaborative.

On the conventional military front, Russia and China's cooperation will also be limited by the fact that, historically, they pose as much of a strategic threat to each other than the United States does to them currently. Because of the two countries' geographic proximity, there are several areas where their interests have the potential to clash rather than overlap, particularly in regions close to their respective borders. While Moscow and Beijing have established a division of labor of sorts in Central Asia, China's growing economic clout is leading to an increased security focus and footprint there — one that has been carefully managed up until now, but could ruffle Russia's feathers down the line. Meanwhile, in the Russian Far East, ties could become more sensitive amid growing Chinese power and involvement in the region, with Moscow already threatening to cut off its timber exports due to what it claims as Beijing's illegal logging operations in the region.

Ultimately, however, Russia-China security ties and the broader relationship will be shaped by each country's respective relationship with the United States. In the current trajectory, both Russia and China are facing pressures and challenges from the United States that are pushing the two countries together on several security issues out of pragmatism and convenience. But when the balance between the three great powers inevitably shifts, so too will the incentives driving Moscow and Beijing's current security alignment.

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