China Forges Closer Military Ties to Russia

Military exercises signal larger defense coordination and threaten U.S. security, experts say

Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping / Getty Images
August 4, 2021

Russia is joining China in a series of military exercises in August, a sign of growing coordination between the two countries that experts say threatens American security.

The Chinese propaganda newspaper Global Times reported that Moscow will dispatch Russian forces—including aircraft and artillery—to the Chinese province of Ningxia. The Times specifically sets the exercises in the context of "mutual trust" between the two militaries, which they say form a "backbone" against the United States in the region. This exercise is the first in which Russian troops trained on Chinese land, as opposed to earlier exercises in the Russian Far East or maritime demonstrations.

According to retired Air Force general Dave Stilwell, a former State Department official, the exercises warrant a closer study of China's interest in working with the regime of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

"It's worth assessing why China is suddenly more serious about increasing cooperation with Russia," Stilwell told the Washington Free Beacon. "The more Beijing can get Moscow to soak up U.S. attention and U.S. forces, the less Beijing will have to deal with in the Pacific."

The exercise is only the latest instance of Russian and Chinese cooperation on military projects. The two American adversaries have repeatedly worked together to field advanced weapons systems, such as submarines and missile warning systems, while also inking an agreement to work together to counter American interests in space. And Russian defense technology has empowered the Chinese Navy.

Richard Weitz, the director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Political-Military Analysis, said cooperation between Moscow and Beijing poses a major problem for U.S. defense planners. American resources could be stretched thin as the United States attempts to confront two rising hostile powers.

"Even if it's not a formal military alliance, it causes a lot of problems for us—particularly in military technology—and that could increase," Weitz said. "There's still perhaps insufficient attention to the combined effect of the partnership. The Russians and Chinese will never challenge each other. It gives the other comfort and tacitly encourages the other. The Russians would like it if the U.S. is distracted by China and vice versa."

Recent Chinese efforts to close ranks with Russia build on a longstanding common interest between the two countries: undermining American leadership in global politics. Russia and China made a 2001 compact affirming "good neighborliness." Russia recognizes democratic and free Taiwan as a Chinese territory. The Chinese are likewise committed to various forms of cooperation to guarantee regional stability. Beijing refused to join Western powers in condemning Russia's incursions into Georgia and Ukraine. Chinese president Xi Jinping has called Putin a "best friend" of China, and the two countries often come to one another's aid at forums such as the United Nations.

Ivana Stradner, a Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that Russian cooperation with China should be especially alarming in cyberspace. In the early months of the Biden administration, China and Russia attacked vital American cyber infrastructure with great success but little rebuke from the White House. A June accord between Moscow and Beijing says they have the right to regulate the internet and repress dissent within their borders.

"[Cyberspace] is the arena where both countries have mutual goals," Stradner said. "Both countries want political cover to censor the internet and to claim cyber sovereignty. With Chinese support, a Russian-led U.N. cybercrime resolution (under the guise of fighting crime) will likely serve as an instrument that undermines human rights, internet freedom, and restricts the freedom of expression."