The following is the 10th and final installment of an extended report on one of the most important geopolitical developments of the 21st century: the increasingly comprehensive alliance between China and Russia and its implications for Eurasian and regional powers across the planet. The whole series can be found here.
The strategic import of Russia’s transfer of advanced missile early-warning knowhow to China needs to be properly understood. It implies a virtual military alliance.
The transfer of the Missile Attack Warning System (known by its Russian initials SPRN) coincided with a massive Russian military exercise, dubbed Center-2019 (Tsentr-2019), held from September 16 to 21 last year in western Russia.
To that exercise, the People’s Liberation Army’s Western Theater Command dispatched an undisclosed number of Type 96A main battle tanks, H-6K strategic bombers, JH-7A fighter bombers, J-11 fighter jets, Il-76 and Y-9 transport aircraft, and Z-10 attack helicopters.
On the Russian side, the exercise reportedly involved 128,000 servicemen, more than 20,000 pieces of hardware including 15 warships, 600 aircraft, 250 tanks, about 450 infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers, and up to 200 artillery systems and multiple launch rocket systems.
The Russian Defense Ministry stated that the main objective of the strategic command post exercise was to verify readiness levels of its military and to improve interoperability.
As far back as May 2016, Russia and China had begun their first simulated computer anti-missile defense exercises. An announcement in Moscow at that time described it as “the first joint Russian-Chinese computer-enabled command-staff anti-missile defense exercises,” which was held at the scientific research center of Russian Aerospace Defense Forces.
The Russian Defense Ministry explained that the exercises’ main goal was to drill “joint maneuvers and operations of rapid reaction anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense units of Russia and China in a bid to defend the territory from occasional and provocative strikes by ballistic and cruise missiles.”
It said, “The Russian and Chinese sides will use the results of the exercises to discuss proposals on Russian-Chinese military cooperation in the field of anti-missile defense.”
Therefore, suffice to say the transfer of the SPRN was far from a “standalone” event. In plain terms, this is about Russia providing China with exclusive know-how to counter US missile strikes as well as to develop “second-strike capability” that is crucial to the maintenance of strategic balance.
The SPRN consists of powerful long-range radars with the capability to detect incoming ballistic missiles and warheads.
If Beijing buys the more powerful and longer-range S-500 anti-missile system (which Russia is beginning to produce and deploy) in addition to the S-400s, Russia will be in a position to help China build and influence the architecture of a future integrated PLA-SPRN missile-defense capability.
For China, that will represent a strategic stabilizing factor vis-a-vis the US, providing reliable information on potential American missile launches and the ability to calculate their possible impact points.
Plainly put, the Russian system can guarantee for the leadership in Beijing tens of minutes of reliable early warning of an imminent enemy missile strike before impact, allowing for appropriate decisions on launching China’s nuclear missiles in a reply salvo.
Clearly, this is a prelude to Russia’s deeper cooperation with China on creating an integrated missile defense system. Importantly, it signifies that Russia is creating a military alliance with China and raising the stakes should the US decide to attack either country.
A Moscow-based foreign-affairs analyst, Vladimir Frolov, told CBS News last year, “If the Chinese missile attack warning system will be integrated with Russia’s, we will get increased detection range for the US ballistic missiles launched from submarines in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, where we have problems with fast detection.”
To be sure, the Russia-China alliance is far more nuanced than it first appears. In a rare display of warm personal relations, President Xi Jinping said in an interview with Russian media ahead of his trip to Russia in June last year, “I have had closer interactions with President Putin than with any other foreign colleague. He is my best and bosom friend. I cherish dearly our deep friendship.”
At a ceremony in the Kremlin during the visit, marking the 70th anniversary of Russian-Chinese diplomatic ties, Xi told his counterpart Vladimir Putin that China was “ready to go hand in hand with you.”
Xi said, “The Russian-Chinese relations, which are entering a new stage, are based on solid mutual trust and strategic bilateral support. We need to cherish the precious mutual trust.
“We need to boost bilateral support in matters that are critically important to us, to firmly maintain the strategic direction of Russian-Chinese relations despite all kinds of interference and sabotage. The Russian-Chinese relations, which are entering a new era, serve as a reliable guarantee of peace and stability on the globe.”
The US National Security Strategy (NSS) document dated December 2017, the first of its kind in Donald Trump’s presidency, characterized Russia and China as “revisionist” powers. The concept of revisionism is flexible enough to hold various meanings that typically distinguish between states that accept the status quo distribution of power in the international system and those that seek to alter it to their advantage.
Quintessentially, Russia and China contest a set of neoliberal practices that have evolved in the post-World War II international order validating selective use of human rights as a universal value to legitimize Western intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states.
On the other hand, they also accept and continuously affirm their commitment to a number of fundamental precepts of the international order – in particular, the primacy of state sovereignty and territorial integrity, the importance of international law, and the centrality of the United Nations and the key role of the Security Council.
Critically, Russia and China have acted as rule takers rather than challengers in their participation in the global financial institutions. China is a leading exponent of globalization and free trade. In sum, Russia’s and China’s view of the operation of the international system conforms in a large part to Westphalian precepts.
In geopolitical terms, nonetheless, the NSS document says, “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.… China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region.…
“Russia aims to weaken US influence in the world and divide us from our allies and partners.… Russia is investing in new military capabilities, including nuclear systems that remain the most significant existential threat to the United States.”
Clearly, the previous “model alliance” between Russia and China has evolved into a “real alliance” today. The internal dynamics of China-Russia relations have become increasingly strong and exceed any influences from the external international environment.
The expanding strategic partnership has already brought comprehensive benefits to both countries and has become a common strategic asset. At the same time, it strengthens their respective status on the international stage and provides basic support for the diplomacy of both countries.
The heart of the matter is that the Russia-China alliance does not conform to the norms of a classic alliance system. For want of a better way of characterizing it, one may call it a “plug-in” alliance. In normal life, it can perform a range of “customizable options” while also providing support for any specific functionality that may arise. It enjoys a great deal of flexibility.
The Russia-China alliance has no intention to confront the US militarily. But its posturing is geared to deter a US attack on either, or both. Simply put, a race of attrition is on. And it is going to be more and more frustrating for the US, as Russia has lately moved in to challenge the so-called “Indo-Pacific strategy.”
Russian criticism of the “Indo-Pacific strategy” has become strident. This is happening at a time when tensions are rising in the Taiwan Strait.
On September 17, the Kremlin expressed alarm that “the military activities of non-regional powers” (read the US and its allies) were causing tensions and the Eastern Military District based in Khabarovsk, one of Russia’s four strategic commands, was being reinforced with a mixed aviation division command unit and an air defense brigade.
The US cannot win this contestation by its very nature. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is useless, since three of its four members – Australia, Japan and India – have no reason to regard Russia as a revisionist power or to be hostile toward it.
Some American pundits say the answer lies in the US reverting to its trans-Atlantic ties, which Trump neglected, and if Joe Biden becomes president he can energize Euro-Atlanticism in Europe overnight. But that is not as simple as it sounds.
The point is, as former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer once wrote, the growing trans-Atlantic “rift” is borne out of an alienation – a mix of disagreements, lack of mutual trust and respect, and divergent priorities – that dates back to the pre-Trump era, and it will not end even if a new incumbent enters the White House. Besides, there are many European states that do not share the United States’ hostility toward Russia and China.
The paradox of the Sino-Soviet alliance lies here. The US cannot overwhelm that alliance unless it defeats both China and Russia together, simultaneously. The alliance, meanwhile, also happens to be on the right side of history. Time works in its favor, as the decline of the US in relative comprehensive national power and global influence keeps advancing and the world gets used to the “post-American century.”
Clearly, the leaderships in Moscow and Beijing weaned on dialectical materialism have done their homework while building their alliance attuned to the 21st century.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.