Recent joint naval exercises conducted by Russia and China in the Baltic Sea caused considerable alarm to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But despite all the hype around the alleged expansion of military cooperation between Beijing and Moscow, there is no sign the Sino-Russian comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination – the highest level of diplomatic relationships for the Asian giant – is evolving into a full-blown formal alliance.
As Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments senior fellow Toshi Yoshihara put it, speaking to Asia Times: “Sino-Russian military drills are mostly about political signaling, even though Chinese naval reach will increase as Beijing maintains a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean.”
During a visit to Finland on July 27, which coincided with the end of the drills in the Baltic waters, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sino-Russian military exercises were not aimed at any third country, noting that Moscow and Beijing did not establish military blocks or military alliances.
Putin was right, though some might be tempted to think that he simply offered platitudes. China and Russia are not allied, and the most striking evidence of this comes from Moscow’s arms sales to rivals of Beijing in Asia.
The South China Sea’s defense market
A number of countries that have overlapping claims with Beijing in the South China Sea are important customers for Russian defense manufacturers. Among them, Vietnam is by far the largest buyer of weapons produced in Russia.
Last January, the Vietnamese navy completed the induction of six Russian-built Kilo-class submarines designed to operate in “green” (shallow) waters against enemy surface and underwater vessels. Hanoi has also shown that it could deploy its Russian-made K-300P Bastion-P coastal defense system on some of the larger islands it controls in the disputed Spratly chain.
As well, Russia is expected to deliver two more Gepard-class frigates to Vietnam by the end of the year. It has already supplied the Vietnamese naval forces with high-speed Svetlyak-class frigates and Tarantul-class missile corvettes.
Further, Hanoi ordered 64 Russian T-90 main battle tanks last month, is discussing with Moscow the acquisition of four S-400 Triumf missile defense systems, and was offered MiG-35 fighter jets to replace its retired fleet of MiG-21 aircraft.
Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia are intensifying defense ties with Russia too. In July, Moscow signed a deal with Kuala Lumpur to modernize Russian-produced MiG-29 fighters in service with the Malaysian air force.
For its part, the Philippines is not currently a recipient of Russian arms systems, but it is seeking a loan from the Kremlin to buy them in the near future. In May, during a trip to Moscow by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the Russian government appeared ready to meet Manila’s demand and urged its Southeast Asian counterpart to submit a weapons wish list, according to media reports.
In contrast to Malaysia and the Philippines, Indonesia has generally maintained a low profile in the South China Sea. However, Chinese claims to waters around the Indonesian archipelago of Natuna, and related fishing rights in the area, are a source of concern to Jakarta, which is turning in part to Russia to improve its defense capabilities. In particular, the Southeast Asian nation will buy 11 Sukhoi Su-35 fighters and could acquire the Varshavyanka-class diesel-electric submarine.
India remains the top destination of Russian-manufactured weapons amid continued tensions between New Delhi and Beijing in the Himalayan region. The two Asian powers are currently skirmishing along the border dividing the Indian state of Sikkim and the Donglang (or Doklam) Plateau, an area controlled by China but claimed by Bhutan.
India started negotiations to buy five S-400 batteries last year. New Delhi is also in an advanced stage of discussions with Moscow for the purchase of four Grigorovich-class stealth frigates and will jointly produce Kamov-226T light helicopters with the Russians.
Last July, at the MAKS air show in the Moscow region, the chief executive of Russia’s Rostec Corporation, Sergey Chemezov, told Indian media that cooperation between India and the Russian government on the T-50 PAK FA fifth-generation fighter jet was moving forward – the two parties still disagree on key components such as the aircraft’s engine.
In addition, Russia is poised to lease a second Akula-class nuclear-powered submarine to India after the INS Chakra and is negotiating the sale of 48 Mi-17 military transport helicopters to the Indian Air Force.
Indo-Russian defense cooperation is also focused on joint development of advanced arms systems like the BrahMos anti-ship and land-attack supersonic cruise missile. New Delhi is now developing an air-launched version of the BrahMos (the BrahMos-A), which is designed to be mounted on to its Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighters.
It is said Russia and India might start marketing and selling BrahMos cruise missiles in third countries, with Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore being indicated as potential purchasers in Southeast Asia.
Common aversion to the US for its meddling in what Russia and China view as their own geopolitical domains – the former Soviet space for Moscow and the China Seas for Beijing – keeps the Sino-Russian strategic partnership going.
China is making the best out of a bad situation. It probably believes Russia’s arms sales to India and Southeast Asian nations are not changing the military balance in the Himalayas and the South China Sea at the moment. The Kremlin in essence uses the same argument to justify its transfer of weapons to countries that are at odds with Beijing.
Thus tactical contingency is prevailing in China against strategic calculus. However, this could be a mistake by Beijing. Relations between Moscow and Washington have plunged to a perilous low, but in their competition to place arms orders with India and Southeast Asian countries the two powers are separately contributing to the weakening of China’s position in the Indo-Pacific region.
Paradoxically, the US and Russia have become “brothers-in-arms sellers” to Beijing’s potential enemies. And Malaysia’s recent adaptation of its Sukhoi Su-30 combat aircraft to drop US laser-guided bombs gives the best snapshot of this accidental Russian-US collaboration.