Report: China, Russia Deepening Defense Partnership

Expert says Sino-Russian relationship a growing concern for the U.S.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping / Getty Images
May 14, 2019

China and Russia have developed an increasingly close security relationship that poses new and difficult challenges to the United States, according to a new report.

Dr. Richard Weitz, a senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, explains in the report that the Sino-Russian defense partnership is based on arms sales, military exercises, and "other forms of interactions such as meetings, declarations, and exchanges."

"Moscow has supported Beijing's military ambitions by providing sophisticated weapons platforms to the People's Liberation Army (PLA)," Weitz writes. "These weapons transfers have bolstered China's air defense, anti-ship, and other critical capabilities in significant ways. In particular, they have enhanced the PLA's capability to threaten foreign navies and air forces in the waters and airspace near China."

"Most recently," the report continues, "the S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries and Su-35 fighter planes that Russia sold to the PLA could target drones, jets, and ballistic missiles over much of the western Pacific. Meanwhile, the joint drills and other Sino-Russian military engagements have allowed the PLA to learn valuable skills from the more combat-experienced Russian armed forces."

This military cooperation will only become stronger with time, according to Weitz, who notes that both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin want a closer defense partnership. And that partnership may extend beyond arms sales, military exercises, and high-level meetings.

"Chinese-Russian military action may come in the form of a combined effort to suppress an Islamist insurgency in a Central Asian country, using a sectoral approach of concurrent but separate military operations," the report states.

Despite the trajectory of the Sino-Russian relationship, the report notes that the partnership is limited for important reasons.

"Beijing and Moscow do not fully endorse each other's recent military moves to advance their contested territorial claims," Weitz writes. "Beijing has not overtly endorsed Moscow's annexation of Crimea or creation of separation regimes on Georgian territory, while China's expansive claims in the South and East China Seas have not received formal Russian diplomatic support. Both countries are concerned by the risk of becoming entangled in each other's military conflicts with third parties."

Still, greater defense collaboration between Eurasia's two great powers "would make the two countries more formidable military rivals of the United States and its allies." To prepare for this scenario, Weitz says the United States and its allies must plan for "future military contingencies in which China or Russia could exploit U.S. conflicts with one of them to achieve gains at U.S. expense." For example, if Russia and NATO go to war in Europe, China could pursue "opportunistic aggression" in Asia, while the converse would apply in the case of a Sino-American conflict. U.S. allies in Europe and Asia should therefore prepare for such aggression accordingly, the report says.

To conclude the report, Weitz proposes several policy recommendations. The United States, he writes, should pressure the European Union to maintain its arms embargo on China to disrupt Beijing from purchasing Russian military technologies. Other recommendations include dedicating more resources to tracking arms sales and military exchanges between China and Russia, crafting sanctions to disrupt their ability to share military technology, and unifying policies with allies to prevent Beijing and Moscow from exploiting differences in American-led alliances.