Since the end of the Cold War, China–Russia relations have progressed from “good neighborliness” in the early 1990s, to “constructive partnership” in 1994, to “strategic partnership” in 1996, to “a comprehensive strategic partnership” in 2001, then to “a comprehensive strategic partnership and coordination” in 2012, and, most recently, to “a comprehensive strategic partnership of equality, mutual trust, mutual support, common prosperity, and long-lasting friendship.”Footnote 33 While these formal “names” indicate an upward trend, How close are China and Russia based on the objective indicators of military cooperation that were discussed above?
Figure 2 chronologically displays the trajectory of post-Cold War China–Russia military cooperation and shows that the ordinal framework presented above largely conforms to reality. While there are chronological overlaps between the indicators, the transition into higher-level cooperation in each stage requires that the previous stage of cooperation has become high.
The early stage: CBMs and regular consultations
Most of the CBMs in China–Russia relations are concentrated in the 1990s. The earliest, low-level CBMs were joint attempts to normalize relations through a series of measures that were aimed to settle the China–Soviet border dispute and demobilize military forces along the 4300-km-long joint border. These were highly contentious and sensitive issues, and their resolution was necessary before there could be progress in the relationship.
On December 18, 1992, Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin signed “The Memorandum of Understanding on the Guiding Principle for the Mutual Reductions of Armed Forces and the Strengthening of Trust in the Border Region,” which intended to create a “common border of trust.”Footnote 34 Negotiations to reduce the border-area military forces and strengthen inter-military trust continued for the next two years and resulted in a visit from Russia’s Chief of General Staff, Mikhail Kolesnikov, to Beijing in April 1994. In July 1994, the two countries signed “The Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities,” with the main goal of further de-securitizing the border and creating procedures for dealing with “accidental border crossings,” which occasionally occurred along the long border. This agreement also established regular information exchanges regarding the movements and activities of the two countries’ border army units.Footnote 35 Two months later, Jiang Zemin visited Russia and the two countries signed two additional important documents: the “Joint Statement on No First Use of Nuclear Weapons against East Other and Not Targeting Strategic Nuclear Weapons at Each Other” and the “Agreement on the Western Part of China–Russia Border,” which successfully settled the western segment of the border.Footnote 36 As a result, the bilateral relations were upgraded from “good neighborliness” to “constructive cooperation.”
On November 10, 1997, at a summit in Beijing, Yeltsin and Jiang signed a new border agreement, which settled the demarcation of the longest eastern sector of the China–Russia border, with the three islands that were in the border rivers being subject to future negotiations. This diplomatic breakthrough indicated that almost the entire China–Russia border had been virtually settled. This was also a turning point that introduced bilateral CBMs of a higher level—which were aimed toward demilitarizing the border and information sharing. In August 1998, the two countries signed the “China–Russia Protocol on Border Defense Information Exchange,” which enhanced the procedures for mutual notifications about military activities that were close to the border. In December 1999, there were agreements for the complete removal of Chinese and Russian operational army units to 100 km away from the border, which created a vast demilitarized area.Footnote 37 The formal and final resolution of the border issues occurred on October 14, 2004, through signing the “Agreement on the Eastern Segment of the China–Russia Border,” which resolved the issue of the two islands—the Bolshoi Ussuriisky Island and Bolshoi Island—and closed the book on territorial disputes in China–Russia relations.
With the border issues resolved, there was a considerable decrease in the number and frequency of bilateral CBMs in China–Russia relations, with the CBMs simultaneously becoming more sophisticated and gaining a broader, non-contentious agenda, thus gradually evolving into regular consultations.Footnote 38 Subsequently, these consultations developed into a comprehensive, routinized mechanism of contacts at all levels. The mechanisms of consultation developed into a multi-level institutionalized infrastructure of contacts that guaranteed regular information exchanges among almost all major government agencies and organizations—from the top decision makers and their administrative apparatuses to the Defense Ministries and their subdivisions as well as regional military districts and border garrisons and military educational institutions. Arguably, there is only one state in addition to Russia with which China has military interactions that are of comparable depth and comprehension: Pakistan.Footnote 39
Formally, China–Russia military consultations began in 1992, when the then-Chinese Defense Minister, Qin Jiwei, visited Moscow and established official relations between the militaries of the two countries. On October 11, 1993, during the Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev’s visit to Beijing, the two countries signed the “Military Cooperation Agreement between the Ministries of Defense of China and Russia,” which laid the formal foundation for bilateral inter-military cooperation.Footnote 40 The mechanisms of regular consultations that were first established were the Regular Meetings Between Defense Ministers of Russia and China, established in 1993, and Annual Strategic Consultations among Chiefs of the General Staff, established in 1997. Both mechanisms are annual meetings that occur in Moscow and Beijing on a rotating basis with regular agendas that range from issues of general strategic orientations and military strategies in the two countries to military-technical cooperation. These mechanisms guarantee a stable flow of information between top military officials and assist in attaining a joint understanding of foreign policy orientations. However, given their relatively broad agenda and the presence of similar consultation practices in China’s and Russia’s interactions with other countries, they do not reflect actual high-level cooperation.
A shift to the high level of cooperation in terms of military consultations began in the early 2000s (after the CBMs resolved contentious border issues) and manifested in creating more focused mechanisms that China and Russia do not have with many foreign states. An important step in this direction was establishing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001, which significantly expanded and institutionalized the interface of China–Russia military consultations. It introduced multiple platforms for regular interactions between Defense Ministers and other military officials of different levels and generated what can be called the Mechanism of Inter-Military Consultations within the Functioning Structure of the SCO. This mechanism includes the SCO’s Annual Summits, which have been held each year in one of the member states’ capital cities since the day that the SCO was established, the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structures (RATS), which were established as a permanent body within the SCO in June 2004,Footnote 41 the Meetings of Heads of Ministries and Departments, which provide an extra platform for consultations between the two countries’ Defense Ministers, and the traditional bilateral military consultations “on the sidelines” of the SCO—which are similar to the already routinized special “Putin-Xi forums” that regularly occur during multilateral meetings to demonstrate the special relationship between the two leaders.Footnote 42
Additional progress occurred with the establishment of a new mechanism focusing on China’s and Russia immediate national interests in October 2004—Russia–China Consultations on National Security Issues.Footnote 43 This mechanism operates at the level of Heads of the Security Council (on the Russian side) and State Council representatives (on the Chinese side) and became a format that China only has with Russia. According to China’s State Council representative, Tang Jiaxuan, the new mechanism is “the first precedent in which China creates an interstate mechanism of consultations on its national security issues with a foreign state.”Footnote 44 This indicates the “convergence of Russia’s and China’s positions on major global and regional security issues” and “the transition of bilateral security cooperation into a new quality.”Footnote 45 According to the documents, both countries intend to use the new communication channel to jointly react to the new challenges and protect their national security interests.Footnote 46 On December 8, 2009, at the fourth annual consultation in this format, the Secretary of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, and Chinese State Council member Dai Bingguo announced that this bilateral security dialogue should occur no less than four times a year.Footnote 47
The breadth and depth of China–Russia security consultations continued to increase, in response to the contingencies of the international environment in the Asia Pacific. The case in point is the China–Russia Northeast Asia Security Dialogue—a new platform for regional security consultations, which was launched in April 2015 and aimed to “create effective security mechanisms in Northeast Asia.”Footnote 48 This is the most tightly scheduled format, with the frequency of meetings varying based on the urgency of regional issues, and, at times, having a bimonthly schedule, which immediately occurred after the US decision to launch the THADD missile shield in South Korea.
Since the early 1990s, China and Russia have been launching new or enhancing existing consultation mechanisms every 3–4 years. Currently, all the mechanisms combined generate a frequency of 20–30 high-level security-related consultations per year; this number excludes the entire body of regional cooperation formats that occur between provinces and cities, educational exchanges, and military exercises. Thus, a high-level inter-military contact between China and Russia occurs almost every two weeks. Most of these end with a joint statement or declaration that reflects the two countries’ shared view on the issues of international politics. These mechanisms have been consistently operating since the date of the establishment, and none have ceased to function.
Moderate cooperation: MTC and regular military exercises
While episodic military-technical exchanges between China and Russia began to occur in the 1990s, MTC fully flourished in the late-2000s, after bilateral consultations were already institutionalized. Around this time, regular joint military exercises began to be launched.
In the early 1990s, when Russia was experiencing severe economic hardships, China–Russia military-technical exchanges contained some barely legal practices, which created a large and hard-to-assess “gray area” in their bilateral relations. In addition, tragically comic cases are well known in Russia, such as bartering the Russian civilian jet airliner Tupolev Tu-154 for two freight cars of Chinese cucumbers.Footnote 49 Those were years of chaotic exchanges between China and Russia, and their actual impact on MTC remains unknown.
An attempt to regularize the China–Russia MTC occurred in 1992, with the signing of the “Military-Technical Cooperation Agreement” and establishing the “Russia–China Mixed Intergovernmental Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation,” which became a formal platform for discussions of arms sales to China and contributed to the overall normalization and regulation of the bilateral MTC.Footnote 50 By 1996, the two sides agreed on the Su-27 project—hitherto, the largest agreement for defense technology transfers from Russia to China, according to which China’s Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) procured a license to assemble 200 Russian supermaneuverable Su-27 jet fighters. The acquired technology has subsequently been exploited for developing the Chinese Shenyang J-11 B fighter.Footnote 51 These were signs of significant progress. However, these were sporadic episodes of MTC.
Vladimir Putin’s accession to power in 2000 put a start to a complete overhaul of Russia’s arms export agencies and supervisory bodies. The Russian Federation Committee for Military-Technical Cooperation with the Foreign States was established and empowered with broad control and supervisory functions.Footnote 52 This measure allowed for an increase in the volume of arms exports and improved quality controls. In addition, it set the stage for more advanced forms of MTC. As a result, by the mid-2000s, technology transfers and joint ventures amounted to 30% of the overall transfer and sales of Russian military equipment to China.Footnote 53 In 2006, Russia’s former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov emphasized that in the sphere of MTC, China is Russia’s “privileged partner” and the MTC constitutes the backbone of the China–Russia strategic partnership, which elevates the entire spectrum of the bilateral relations.Footnote 54
An important turning point was on December 11, 2008, during the 13th meeting of the Mixed Intergovernmental Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation in Beijing, for the signing of the “Agreement of Intellectual Property in Military-Technical Cooperation,” which significantly alleviated Russia’s concerns about the Chinese replicating its weapon systems and facilitated exports of more advanced arms and technologies to China.Footnote 55
Since then, the China–Russia MTC has transitioned to a high level, as actual military technology transfer and long-term cooperation projects constitute the bulk of the cooperation. The list of China–Russia long-term MTC projects is long and growing. According to Rosoboronexport (Russia’s sole state intermediary agency for military exports and imports), the largest China–Russia MTC programs are currently related to aircraft engines and anti-aircraft weapons, which constituted 90% of Russia’s arms-related exports to China in 2012. The Chernyshev Moscow Machine-Building Enterprise and the China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation are performing a joint program to modernize the Russian Klimov RD-33 turbofan jet engine for a lightweight fighter jet that has become the primary engine for the Chinese CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder lightweight multirole combat aircraft. In 2011, the Russian Military Industrial Company launched the assembly of GAZ “Tigr” (Tiger) multipurpose, all-terrain infantry mobility vehicles in China.Footnote 56 In August 2015, the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, Dmitry Rogozin, named the four primary joint projects in the China–Russia MTC.Footnote 57 The first addresses the space program and includes building a joint base on the moon, producing Russian rocket engines in China, and joint projects in satellite navigation, remote earth sensing, producing electronic components and space equipment, human spaceflight, and others.Footnote 58 The second project is the joint construction of a large military helicopter, which was signed into an agreement by Xi Jinping and Putin in May 2015, when Xi was attending the May 9th Victory Parade. According to the Chairman of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, Lin Zuoming, who visited the “Russian Helicopters” company to meet with its General Director, Alexander Miheev, in 2015, the two parties agreed to accelerate the process and specified the tasks.Footnote 59 The third project addresses the two countries’ agreement for jointly designing and producing a wide-body aircraft, which was signed into an agreement during Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Moscow in 2014. Additionally, the fourth project is exports to China and maintaining Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft weapon system. Given Ivanov’s reference to China as a “privileged partner,” China became the first foreign purchaser of the previous generation of these systems—the S-300. This is also the case with the S-400 deal. In addition, according to officials from Rosoboronexport, the J-31 Chinese fifth-generation aircraft, which is considered an export program for competing with the USA on regional markets, will be powered by Russian RD-93 engines.Footnote 60
It is important to emphasize Russia’s changing attitude toward comprehensive military-technical cooperation with China, specifically the disappearing caution about relying on China in this area. When meeting with the Chinese Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xu Qiliang, the Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoygu, stated that “The level of our relations demonstrates that we do not have unsolvable problems. Our work will be aimed at the realization of our MTC projects.”Footnote 61 In turn, Sergei Kornev from Rosoboronexport stated that the forefront of the China–Russia MTC is increasingly represented by the joint production of weapons in Chinese territory.Footnote 62 According to the chief editor of the Moscow Defense Brief, Vasili Kashin, “if previously Russia was constrained by political factors in its MTC with China, now those factors have disappeared. We are now too interlinked with the Chinese.” Moreover, China currently has much to offer, for example, electronic components, including those for the space program, composite materials, drone technologies, and engines for warships.
Russia’s tendency to consider China as not only a market but also as an indispensable MTC partner strengthened after the Ukraine crisis and the deterioration of Russian–Western cooperation. The China–Russia MTC has increasingly become a reciprocal “two-way street.” Given the current dynamics, even if Russia–Western political relations stabilize at some point, Russia has already passed the point of no return in its MTC with China.Footnote 63 Moreover, according to Russian officials, the Kremlin trusts China and is going to consistently work to enhance bilateral MTC, disregarding Western provocations in the form of reconstructing “China’s threat for Russia.”Footnote 64 An example of this perspective was the Russian Foreign Minister Serge Lavrov’s speech about the development of Russia’s comprehensive partnership with China on November 22, 2014, in which he noted that: “We can now even talk about the emerging technological alliance between the two countries.”Footnote 65
The development of military personnel exchanges paralleled the development of the MTC and evolved from short-term visits for technical training to longer-term military education programs. Russia was the first foreign destination for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers’ military education. The official statistics on the number of personnel who are involved in military educational exchanges are classified, mostly at China’s request.Footnote 66 However, the existing open sources suggest that bilateral military personnel exchanges have been considerably increasing. Moreover, interviews show that China does not have similar types of military personnel exchanges with any other major power. Although short-term exchanges and visits by PLA officers to different countries, including the USA, are very common, long-term educational programs in which officers are methodically trained to later join the PLA’s commanding staff only exist in China’s relations with Russia. It is not likely that military cadres that have extensive exposure to Western education will smoothly move to top-ranked commanding positions. This is because China does not trust the USA and its Western allies in military relations.Footnote 67
There are a few military educational institutions that are the primary destinations for Chinese PLA officers. Top-ranking officers typically go to the General Staff Academy of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, which provides general programs in strategic and tactical aspects of warfare and, according to some estimates, accepts up to 20 high-ranking PLA officers every year.Footnote 68 Other important institutions are the Combined Arms Academy of the Armed Forces, the Gagarin Air Force Academy, and the Military Academy of Rear Services and Transportation. They provide 2- to 3-year programs, and each accepts 40–60 PLA officers every semester (mostly mid-career-level commanding officers and General Staff officers who are between 35 and 45 years of age).Footnote 69 Although the Chinese officers typically attend classes separately from their Russian peers, the actual content of the curriculum is similar to what is taught to Russian officers.
Education in Russia has helped many PLA officers make significant career leaps. For example, Lu Chuangang, a Senior Colonel, studied at the Russian General Staff Academy and became the Head of the PLA’s Command Group for the 2008 “Peaceful Mission” China–Russia joint military exercises. Xu Linping was promoted to Major General of the PLA in 2007 and served as a Commander of the 38th Army Group of the Beijing Military Area of the PLA during 2011–2014, also studied in Russia. In January 2014, he became the Vice-Commander of the PLA’s Lanzhou Military Region. Chen Zhaohai became the Director of the Military Training and Arms Department of the PLA General Staff Headquarters. Remarkably, China’s Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan (2003–2008) studied in Russia for six years and became the primary facilitator of China’s purchases of Russian arms.
Transitioning to the next substage in the moderate stage of strategic cooperation occurred by introducing joint military exercise. On December 13, 2004, the two countries announced a decision to conduct the first large-scale joint military exercise, which were named the “Peace Mission.” The first exercise—“Peace Mission 2005”—occurred on August 19–25, 2005, in China’s Shandong Peninsula and Russia’s Vladivostok, and engaged 10,000 soldiers and officers (8000 Chinese and 2000 Russians). The official reason for the new exercises was counter-terrorism. However, the large scale and the use of heavy firepower, including long-range bombers, as well as practicing air and naval blockades, amphibious assaults, and occupying region demonstrate that the actual goals must have been more broad.
“Peace Mission”-type large-scale joint military exercises became a regular practice, and now occur every one or two years. Some were held within the SCO format, and most included strategies and tactics for resisting the danger of “color revolutions” and curbing political turmoil in Central Asia. It is important to note the “Peace Mission-2009,” which occurred in China and after which the first Chinese calls to abandon the “non-alignment strategy” could be heard.Footnote 70 “Peace Mission-2010” was the longest exercise and lasted 17 days, from September 9 to September 25, 2010, and included approximately 5000 servicemen, more than 300 military vehicles, and an excess of 50 aircraft and helicopters.Footnote 71 During the subsequent “Peace Mission-2012” and “Peace Mission-2014,” the militaries from the two countries further practiced cooperation and interoperability and solidified the mechanism of joint military exercises.
In 2012, another type of regular China–Russia military exercises—“Joint Sea”—was introduced. While the “Peace Mission” is predominantly ground and air exercises, the “Joint Sea” aims to achieve better coordination between the two countries’ navies. The first “Joint Sea” occurred on April 22–27, 2012, in the Yellow Sea and included practicing convoying, anti-aircraft and anti-submarine warfare, anti-piracy and rescue activities, and naval logistics. The “Joint Sea” naval exercises occur every year in different locations. “Joint Sea-2015” was a geopolitical game changer, as it became the largest naval exercise undertaken by the PLA Navy with a foreign navy and, occurring in the post-Ukraine context, the second stage of it was located in the Mediterranean, which is considered the heart of NATO. Before heading out with Russian ships to the Mediterranean, Chinese military vessels entered the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. This military visit was also the first in the history of China–Russia relations and was symbolically connected to Xi Jinping’s attendance at the Victory Parade in Moscow on May 9, 2015. During the drills, the two navies demonstrated a high level of coordination in foreign waters.Footnote 72 In turn, “Joint Sea-2016,” which occurred on September 12–19, 2016, included surface ships, submarines, fixed-winged aircraft, helicopters, and amphibious vehicles and became the first major exercise of its type that included China and a second country in the disputed South China Sea after the Hague-based tribunal overruled China’s claims on the waters under its nine-dash line claim.Footnote 73 Combined, the “Peace Mission” and “Joint Sea” exercises guarantee that, every year, China and Russia have one to two large-scale joint military exercises, which include thousands of servicemen and hundreds of military vehicles, aircraft, helicopters, and naval ships.
In May 2016, China and Russia launched a new joint military exercise, “Airspace Security 2016,” which took place in the Central Research Institute of the Russian Armed Forces and became the first Russia–China computer-simulated missile defense drill. “Aerospace Security—2017” was located in Beijing in December 2017. According to China’s Defence Ministry, the main task of the exercise is “to work out joint planning of combat operations when organizing air missile defenses, operation, and mutual fire support.”Footnote 74 While both countries emphasize that the drills are not directed against third countries, they occur in the context of China–Russia joint opposition against the American global defense system and seek to strengthen bilateral military interoperability.
Around the same time, China and Russia began to conduct another joint exercise—regular exercises for internal security troops, which includes Russia’s National Guards and China’s police units.Footnote 75 The inclusion of these activities increases the number of Chinese–Russian joint military drills to 5–6 per year.
Advanced cooperation: the growing interoperability of military forces
The problem with assessing advanced levels of military cooperation is the lack of data. One way to address this situation is to more carefully examine the details of joint military activities. Although there is no current evidence of either military base exchanges (indicator 6) or a common defense policy (indicator 7), the increasing comprehensiveness and regularity of China–Russia military exercises reveal certain elements of episodic military interoperability and an integrated military command (indicator 5).
According to some assessments, there is a modest degree of compatibility and interoperability between Chinese and Russian forces.Footnote 76 Thus, during the above-mentioned “Peace Mission-2005,” a new system of command codes was introduced to allow for the transmission of orders and communication between Russian and Chinese pilots. “Peace Mission-2009” was also characterized by the improved coordination of military forces with elements of a joint defense simulation. More elements of interoperability and integrated command were observed during “Peace Mission-2010,” in which two Russian Mig-29s and three Chinese H-6 jet bombers were merged into one squadron and performed joint tasks to practice joint command codes and interoperability.Footnote 77 It is also worth emphasizing that all China–Russia joint tasks during the drills operate in the Russian language.Footnote 78
During “Joint Sea-2014,” the exercises included the joint defense of warships in anchorage, convoying and rescuing captured naval ships, elements of anti-aircraft warfare, and several rescue operations. All operations were coordinated from a joint command center. “Joint Sea-2015” marked a step forward because it included the joint command of warships in the foreign waters of the Mediterranean Sea. For that purpose, a joint command center was established in the Divnomorskoye Coordination Center of the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.Footnote 79 According to the Chinese Defense Ministry, one of the aims of the exercise was “to increase our navies’ ability to jointly address maritime security threats.”Footnote 80 During the post-Hague tribunal, “Joint Sea-2016,” which occurred in the South China Sea, the Chinese and Russian navies engaged in a range of activities, including search and rescue drills, anti-submarine warfare, and, remarkably, “joint island-seizing missions,” which appear to be a new addition to the “Joint Sea”-type drills.
The above analysis demonstrates that, since 1991, China and Russia have constructed comprehensive mechanisms of inter-military cooperation that have started to move into the initial stages of advanced cooperation, as defined in the present framework (Fig. 2).