After curbing arms transfers and cooling military ties more than a decade ago, China and Russia are increasing joint exercises and stepping up sales of advanced weaponry to counter the US.
The most recent military maneuvers took place in the South China Sea in September. Ten Chinese warships and two submarines joined three Russian vessels in large-scale exercises that included drills in capturing islands.
The maneuvers coincided with an international court ruling that challenged Beijing’s vast maritime claim over 90% of the strategic waterway. It was the first time China has conducted naval exercises in the sea with a foreign military.
The growing ties are outlined in a US congressional report made public March 20 that notes recent sales of advanced Russian air defense missiles and fighter jets to China.
“As Beijing and Moscow increasingly share overlapping interests and maintain a shared resistance to US leadership in the Asia Pacific, the two countries appear likely to further deepen defense relations in the coming years,” the report said.
“In particular, Russian arms sales to China and military-technical cooperation could have significant consequences for the United States, challenging US air superiority and posing problems for US, allied, and partner assets in the region,” it said.
Policy differences and mutual distrust, however, make it unlikely China and Russia could conclude an accord requiring mutual defense against third-party military attack anytime soon, it said.
China has few defense alliances — North Korea is an exception — and primarily seeks regional dominance and influence while trying to drive the US out of Asia. Russia under Vladimir Putin has been seeking a revival of Soviet-style power and influence.
The missile defense cooperation appears aimed at confounding US military planning for the defense of allies in Asia
Two recent arms deals will boost China’s regional military clout, the report said. They include the sale of 24 Russian Su-35 fighters, delivery of which began in December, and upcoming transfers of advanced missile defenses.
Russian and Chinese military exercises are also becoming more complex and involving strategically significant areas.
One example was a major computer-simulated missile defense exercise held in May. The missile defense cooperation appears aimed at confounding US military planning for the defense of allies in Asia. Washington has security commitments with Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and South Korea.
“Beijing and Moscow appear to be seeking to reduce the effectiveness of US-led missile defense systems through advanced missile development and other coordination,” the report said.
The missile defense exercise took place shortly after the US began talks on deploying THAAD — as the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense platform is better known — in South Korea.
Both Beijing and Moscow have vigorously opposed US deployment of missile defenses over concerns the systems could be stitched together and joined to warship-based Aegis missile defenses to nullify their offensive missile capabilities.
The first elements of THAAD batteries began arriving earlier this month, sparking Beijing to issue economic threats against Seoul.
Russia and China both said their missile drills were not directed at any third country. However, Yue Gang, a Chinese military commentator and retired PLA colonel, told state media that THAAD poses “a common threat to both China and Russia.”
“This [bilateral] exercise will serve as a warning to the US and also spark the beginning of the two countries’ military cooperation following their diplomatic consensus [over the missile system],” Yue said.
The five-day missile drill was held in Moscow and its scenario involved defense of territory against what the Russian Defense Ministry called “accidental and provocative ballistic and cruise missile strikes.” It also helped improve the interoperability between Russian and Chinese missile and air defense units.
The drill represented a new level of trust between the two nations’ forces because it involved sharing sensitive information on offensive and defensive missiles and launch warning systems.
“Since the exercise, some Russian and Chinese experts have discussed the possibility of eventually deploying a coordinated missile defense system,” the report said, noting additional missile defense exercises are planned for 2017.
The joint opposition to US missile defenses also comes as Russia finally agreed to sell China advanced S-400 air and missile defense systems, after several years of requests from Beijing. The first deliveries are expected next year.
The S-400s will help the Chinese gain air superiority over the 180-kilometer Taiwan Strait. Under a 1979 law, the US is obligated to defend Taiwan from any Chinese military strike.
The growing China-Russia ties mark a significant warming after Moscow sharply curtailed arms transfers and cooperation around 2005 over Chinese reverse engineering of weapons systems, especially aircraft engines and components.
Since 2012, military cooperation has been increasing, reflecting a resolution of differences between the two states.
“Military-technical cooperation similarly shows significant progress in recent years, highlighted by a major uptick in the technical capability of Russian arms sales to China, wide-ranging strategic industrial partnerships in key defense sectors, and joint production deals and other cooperation on advanced military and dual-use systems,” the congressional report said.
The staff report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission concluded that Beijing and Moscow are growing closer in response to the United States.
“China and Russia appear drawn together by similar concerns about what they consider explicit US-led efforts to contain them, particularly through the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia policy and Nato expansion,” the report said.