Russian analyst Alexander Khramchikhin, Deputy Director of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis, analyzed, in an in-depth article, the state of Russian–Chinese political relations and military cooperation.
In the article, Khramchikhin stressed that, for Moscow and Beijing, relations with Washington have been traditionally more important than relations between each other. For Russia and for China, their alliance serves as a mean to put pressure on the US.
Khramchikhin also explained that Russian-Chinese military cooperation is subject to very serious limitations. "The major issue the deep mutual mistrust between the sides - the mistrust, which may hardly be overcame", Khramchikhin wrote. The Russian analyst further stressed that China has no interest to cause a strain in its relations with European countries, for Russia's sake. By the same token, Russia has no interest in provoking a conflict with Asian states, that oppose Beijing's policies. Thus, the US remains the only mutual adversary for Russia and China, while Japan might be considered an additional adversary.
According to Khramchikhin, Russia and China will have to work out a military cooperation configuration, which will be aimed solely at the US and Japan, but not against other Asian countries. However, it is worth noting that neither Moscow, nor Beijing desire to totally cut their ties with Washington.
Below is Khramchikhin's article:
The First Military Cooperation Agreement Between Russia And China Was Signed In 1993
"The first military cooperation agreement between Russian and Chinese MODs was signed in October 1993 and it is still in force. This agreement includes the following provisions:
- Sharing of information, exchange of experience and holding consultations regarding implementation of national military doctrines.
- Sharing experience in the fields of force building, operational and combat preparations of headquarters, forces command.
- Sharing experience and consultations on balancing human and material resources in the armed forces.
- Cooperation between the headquarters of various branches of the armed forces.
- By agreement between the Russian and Chinese defense ministries, Russian military districts adjacent to Chinese borders will establish direct contacts with their Chinese counterparts.
- Consultations and experience sharing regarding operational, technical and logistical supply to the forces.
- The Air force and Air-defense forces of the Chinese PLA will conduct fire drills in Russian military firing ranges.
- Sharing experience regarding culture, psychological readiness, military law, social and legal defense for the servicemen and their family members and legal services.
- Consultations and sharing experience regarding operational use of weapons and military technology.
- Cooperation in the communication field.
- Coordination, if needed, for the landing of military cargo planes of the parties in respective airfields, their servicing and fueling, based on mutual billing.
- Consultations and experience sharing in the field of automating force control.
- Consultations regarding military economics and finances.
- Working on mutual projects in the framework of scientific research conducted by both militaries.
- Working out mutual measures for the preservation of the existing military equipment, its exploitation, repair, and modernization.
- Coordination and cooperation in organizing all kinds of military shipment/delivery which are in the interest of both armies. Sharing experience in practices and military –scientific questions in this field.
- Cooperation in the field of mapping support for the forces
- Cooperation in the field of meteorological support.
- Information sharing in the field of meteorology and hydrology and mutual research regarding weather forecasting methods.
- Creating ties between high military educational schools, methodological consultations, and experience sharing in the fields of military education.
- Preparation of servicemen and military-educational schools.
- Short course training of technical staff for military equipment used in both armies.
- Cooperation in supplying technical education material and documentation, needed for training technical staff engaged in the exploitation of existing military equipment and for developing other military equipment produced by the armies of the parties.
- Sharing experience in the field of military history and working practices of military mass communication devices.
- Organizing meetings between veterans and mutual visits to memorial sites.
- Sharing experience in the field of managing fires and natural disasters and protection of the environment.
- Cooperation in the military-medical field.
Joint Russian Chinese military drill (Source: 112.ua)
"Interestingly, this list lacks a paragraph regarding cooperation in joint military drill, though here have been dozens of such drills in the last 26 years (especially since 2005). This agreement, when it was drafted, was aimed at military-technical cooperation, which at that time focused on Chinese siphoning of the newest Russian military technology for very modest payment.
"Then, on the annual basis by December 1, the sides approved the cooperation plan for the upcoming year, while gradually expanding the list of cooperation activities, additional protocols have been signed (e.g. an agreement on troop deployment in the respective territory of the sides concluded in 2007). In 2017, Moscow initiated and signed the "road map" for [Russian-Chinese] military cooperation until 2020.
"Yet, until now some cooperation activities, which are taking place de-facto, are not backed by legal procedures (for example, large scale joint drills, strategic consultations, issues of missile defense, joint weapons development and procurement). This discrepancy has not been crucial, since Russian-Chinese military cooperation had to a large extent a propagandistic character and was aimed at blackmailing the United States.
For Moscow And Beijing, Relations With Washington Have Been Traditionally More Important Than Relations Between Each Other
"As for Moscow and Beijing's the relations with Washington, they have been traditionally more important than relations between each other. Thus, for Russia (China) a potential alliance with China (Russia) served as the means to put pressure on the US, enabling (even if theoretically) to extract some concessions from Washington on certain issues. With that in mind, both countries, especially China, constantly stressed that the relations between Beijing and Moscow are not a military alliance and were not aimed against any third country.
"In 2014, a harsh military-political confrontation began between Russia and the West, headed by the US. Following that, for Moscow a real interest emerged in forming a real alliance with Beijing. That was one of the reasons why Moscow initiated the aforementioned "road map" for military cooperation. Yet, Beijing has not demonstrated any practical assistance to Moscow during the first three years of Russian-American confrontation and preserved full neutrality in it. Starting from 2017 (after Donald Trump came to power), US–China relations also started to deteriorate rapidly. Only then, did Beijing started to demonstrate detached interest to Moscow's problems and to grant certain assistance in some issues. Thus, certain Chinese interests for a military-political alliance with Moscow started to emerge.
"Thus, the institutionalization of already existing Russian-Chinese military cooperation is inevitable: conducting joint naval and missile defense drills in large military theatre, mutual participation in strategic drills by the sides (meanwhile only the Chinese military participates in Russian drills and there has been no reciprocal precedents), joint military planning in certain (threat) directions, joint patrolling by strategic bombers and, probably, naval vessels. Cooperation in the field of strategic missile defense, developing joint navigational systems and operational standards can't be ruled out either (it might resemble NATO standards, yet not to such extent or depth).
"Having said that, very serious limitations exist to Russian-Chinese military cooperation is subject. The major issue is the deep mutual mistrust between the sides that will be difficult to overcome. Besides, China has no interest at all to tangle with European countries (regardless of its NATO membership status) because of Russia. Russia, on the other hand, is not interested, for the sake of Chinese interests, in getting into a conflict with Asian states, which have disagreements with Beijing (many of those countries are more allies for Russia, than foes). Thus, the only mutual adversary for Russia and China is the US, while Japan might be considered an additional adversary. Russia and China, thus, have to work out a special military cooperation configuration, which will be aimed solely on the US and Japan, but not against other European or Asian countries. Yet, neither Moscow, nor Beijing totally desire to break up with Washington, thus, such a configuration should not be absolute.
"Following that, one of the new cooperation forms is joint air patrolling, which has produced such a buzz in the Far East recently.
"It's totally clear that the joint patrolling by Russian and Chinese bombers and Russian early-warning planes as was conducted in July 2019 above Japan and Eastern Chinese seas has no military logic. Russian TU-95MS bombers and early warning A-50 planes, as well as Chinese H-6K planes, are not able to operate in international waters or potential enemy airspace in case of a real conflict without strong fighter cover since bombers are not suited with self-defense firepower.
"The TU-95MS has powerful electronic warfare tools,that interfere with enemy missiles, but this bomber may be easily downed by fighter jet fire (especially if the engines are targeted). This is the reason why such planes are not intended to perform such kind of patrolling. TU-95MS and H-6K are missile coaches– they are loaded with a number of conventional and nuclear cruise missiles, which are supposed to be launched either from domestic or neutral airspace - far away from a potential enemy's territory and under the cover of fighter jets. For example, if the Russian planes were launching a strike against Japan - the first scenario (domestic airspace) would have been chosen. If the launch was supposed to target Guam or Hawaii - the second one (neutral airspace with fighter jet cover). Yet, no scenario implies using the route, exhibited by Russian and Chinese bombers during their joint patrolling.
Joint Russian–Chinese Patrolling Over The South China Sea Is Theoretically Possible, Yet It's Less Likely To Happen Than A Flight Over Taiwan; Even More Unrealistic Would Be A Joint Russian–Chinese Patrolling Over The Arctic And The Atlantic Oceans
"Thus, the patrolling in question has a political, or to be more exact, propagandistic character. It's still unclear whether the intrusion into the Dokdo Islands – South Korean air defense area – was carried out deliberately or accidentally, yet it's not that important. It can be stated that the propaganda effect was achieved- Japanese and South Korean reactions to what occurred verged on panic. Yet again, it's not clear whether Moscow and Beijing (especially Moscow) really want to create that effect on Seoul. It's also unclear to what extent the desired effect was achieved in terms of impressing Washington (which definitely was the addressee of the demonstration). There was no panic from the other side of the Atlantics.
"In all likelihood, the next joint patrol will be conducted around Japan (Russian bombers have done that already on multiple occasions). Yet, in this case, the insufficient range of [Chinese] H6K bombers might constitute a problem (the flight range of TU-95MS is 10.3 thousand km in comparison with a 6 thousand km range for the H-6K). Intermediate refueling of Chinese bombers at one of the Russian Far East airfields might not be excluded – this will have a still greater propaganda effect.
"A joint bomber flight in Guam direction is also possible. Theoretically, a joint flight around Taiwan can also not be ruled out, yet there are some tender political issues. Russia, like most other countries including all the Western ones, officially recognizes Taiwan as part of the Chinese People's Republic. Demonstrative flight over Taiwan would be in certain sense meddling into internal Chinese affairs. It's not clear why Moscow would need it, even if China were to invite Russia to participate in such 'interference'.
"Moreover, demonstrative Russian-Chinese military actions are aimed at Washington and secondly at Tokyo, but hardly against any third countries. Moscow does not have official diplomatic relations with Taipei, but it enjoys normal economic relations, and would hardly want to damage them. Having said that, in military terms such a flight over Taiwan would be senseless for the same reasons, mentioned above - it would be conducted in the same conditions as a flight over the Japanese and Eastern Chinese seas. It's possible to safely launch a missile strike against Taiwan from Chinese airspace – without exposing the bombers to Taiwanese F-16s, Ching-Kuo and Mirage-2000.
"Joint Russian –Chinese patrolling over the South China Sea is theoretically possible, yet it's less likely than flight over Taiwan. Such a patrol, in contrast to participation in 'High-sea Cooperation 2016' would mean that Moscow is taking sides in the issue of claiming sovereignty over this naval territory, which Moscow avoided to do until now. There are no doubts that Moscow does not have the slightest interest to get to a conflict with ASEAN member countries, especially with Vietnam.
"Even more unrealistic would be joint Russian–Chinese patrols over the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, including inner seas. Chinese planes, in this case, would lack the ability to fly to the specific range – thus they would have to take off from Russian airfields. There is considerable doubt whether Moscow is ready to go that far in its military cooperation with China unless it's about a planned single action without any further repetition.
"It's even more doubtful, that China will resort to such a measure, because this may put Beijing's relations with the EU in jeopardy. The EU is China's most important trade partner and a terminus for the 'One Belt One Road' project. There are absolutely no reasons to undermine the most important Chinese geopolitical project by senseless military demonstrations along European borders, even if it a single and non-repetitive action.
Joint Patrolling By The Russian And Chinese Navy Is More Likely
"Yet, joint patrolling by the Russian and Chinese navy is more likely – to reiterate: combat duty patrolling and not joint drills. The most suitable area for such patrolling is the Indian Ocean in its Western part. At the moment, the Chinese navy, as well as the Russian one, are conducting constant anti-piracy missions, but they do so separately from each other. Theoretically speaking, nothing impedes China and Russia from altering the combat missions' status to joint action – the fact that the activities of Somali pirates have been substantially lower in recent years, won't change a thing. This is also most convenient in political terms. Patrolling this area may also become a factor of deterrence in case the situation in the Straits of Hormuz gets tenser.
"Besides, joint Russian-Chinese naval and air patrolling is possible in and above the Sea of Japan, South-Chinese sea and European waters. To remind, back in 2015 Russian and Chinese navies held joint drills in the Mediterranean, but afterwise Chinese warships also participated in the same kind of drills with Mediterranean NATO countries. For example, in 2017 the Chinese navy held military exercises in the Mediterranean with Italy, Greece, and Turkey. In 2015 Chinese warships participated in the Russian navy parade in Kronstadt [West of St. Petersburg], but later they anchored in Helsinki and Riga for friendly visits. Having done so, China demonstrated that Beijing would not resort to any kind of joint action with Russia against European countries, while the fact that Chinese –European relations were no worse than Russian-Chinese ones was emphasizing.
"Thus, Russian –Chinese naval and air patrolling is of a purely political nature and not a military one. The decision to hold joint actions will be based on both sides' political calculations. Russian-Chinese interests do not always coincide, which limits the capacity to resort to such joint endeavors.
"It might be assumed that Russian –Chinese military cooperation will get more institutionalized in legal and procedural terms, but it's hardly possible that the sides will get to a principally different mode of cooperation in comparison to the existing one. There is also no doubt that this cooperation as before will be intrinsically propagandistic. Thus, non-recurrent actions, with a major external effect, which do not lead to tangible consequences, are possible. Trying to predict the nature and the shape of such actions is senseless and impossible."
 Nvo.ng.ru, September 20, 2019.