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China and Russia’s military relationship likely to deepen with Ukraine war

Chinese troops march in Moscow's 2020 Victory Day parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat in World War II. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

As a teenager in northwestern China during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, Yu Bin was drafted into the army, where for four years his training focused on how to repel a feared Russian invasion.

In 1969, the height of the Sino-Soviet split, skirmishes between the two nations over an islet in the Ussuri River threatened to escalate into a wider conflict as each side deployed troops and artillery to the border region.

If war had broken out, Yu, now a political scientist at Wittenberg University in Ohio, says he probably would have faced advanced Soviet battle tanks with little more than a machine gun.

His experience shows how far China-Russia military ties have come since that dispute. “If you talk about the military-to-military relationship, it’s not just about arms sales or joint exercises; it’s very comprehensive and gradually developed,” he said.

Ukraine helped build China’s modern military, but when war came, Beijing chose Russia

Regardless of whether China becomes directly involved in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the conflict is shaping up to be an important milestone in the two countries’ military partnership, much like the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Just as Western sanctions that year gave Russia’s military industrial complex new impetus to sell technology to the People’s Liberation Army, the Kremlin’s reliance on China after its Ukraine invasion could accelerate nascent joint technology development and operations.

After decades of China primarily buying arms from Russia, rapid advances in China’s military industry have balanced out the relationship, with some Chinese technologies beginning to surpass Russian counterparts, at a time of growing political alignment between the two nations.

The partnership stops short of a formal military alliance, which Chinese officials say is unnecessary for the two nuclear-armed states. Instead it allows each side to pick and choose when to join in the projection of power — most often in response to shared grievances against the United States — without forcing a stance on each other’s territorial disputes.

Nearly a month in, the war in Ukraine has tested the limits of Beijing’s support, as China ostensibly pursues a policy of neutrality even while refusing to criticize the Kremlin, blaming NATO for the crisis, and promoting Russian disinformation about U.S.-backed biological programs in Ukraine.

Biden warns China’s Xi not to help Russia on Ukraine

According to U.S. officials, Russia asked for Chinese military aid shortly after the invasion began. Moscow and Beijing both deny the reports.

Military analysts say China could aid Russia’s invasion substantially by providing basic supplies, ammunition, communications equipment and weaponry such as drones, but is unlikely to send anything beyond basic provisions or potentially some dual-use items such as trucks.

To do so would be a diplomatically perilous step for Beijing and risk abandoning an often tricky effort to minimize its involvement in a conflict that is increasingly targeting civilians. Advanced equipment would also be difficult to integrate into Russian forces quickly.

These constraints suggest that “supplies are mostly likely in the short term — if Beijing makes the strategic decision to move even closer to Moscow,” said M. Taylor Fravel, director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Also a consideration is China’s relationship with Ukraine, supported in part by the latter’s willingness to provide critical military systems and its long-standing stance of noninterference. As Yu, of Wittenberg University, put it: “When two friends are fighting, are you going to give one of them a knife?”

But if precedent holds, the crisis may ultimately accelerate China-Russia military cooperation.

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, China continued to build ties with the Kremlin, using Russia’s isolation to break through lingering mistrust and fears of intellectual property theft that had held back sales of sensitive military technology.

Before 2012, when Xi Jinping became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the China-Russia military-to-military relationship was in a lull, as bilateral arms sales declined because of Russian concerns that China could reverse-engineer its technologies as well as growing international competition from Chinese arms manufacturers.

China’s attempt to play both sides of the Ukraine crisis is starting to crack

But starting in 2013, Xi spearheaded a pivot to Russia, choosing it for his first overseas trip, and forged a close personal relationship with Putin. For the Chinese military, already unable to buy U.S. arms because of an embargo imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, sanctions imposed on the Russian arms industry over Crimea were a path to securing better deals.

“From that moment, we have seen sales of top-notch, first-rate and state-of-the-art Russian arms technology to China,” said Sarah Kirchberger, a scholar at Kiel University in Germany. “Previously, Russia was only willing to sell things that were older, at least one generation older, than what it would sell to other customers and what it would use itself.”

The shift was sealed with Chinese purchases of Su-35 fighter jets and the S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system. In recent years, the relationship has been furthered with joint naval drills in far-flung international waters and missile defense computer simulations that require a higher level of mutual trust and intelligence-sharing.

A number of joint development projects have also been disclosed, mostly by Russia, including for heavy-lift helicopters, an early-warning system for missile attacks, and nonnuclear submarines.

Little information is publicly available about these initiatives — and some may never materialize — but taken together, the projects suggest a shift from China being purely a customer to being a partner. “Submarine technology is something you do not share with others very easily,” Kirchberger said. “That would really indicate a whole new level of cooperation, if it is actually true.”

While the threat of sanctions may constrain China from providing overt military aid to Russia in Ukraine, an extended rupture with the West will encourage the Kremlin to deliver even more advanced systems and allow more technology transfers to China, according to Paul Schwartz, an analyst at CNA, a research organization in Arlington, Va.

“At the same time, China will conceivably become an important supplier to Russia of underlying military technologies and components as well as systems where China holds a lead — sometimes a substantial lead — over Russia,” Schwartz said, listing drones, shipbuilding and maritime radar systems as areas where advanced Chinese technology could interest Russia.

Space is another area where the two are working closely on technologies and systems with potential military applications, including the integration of the two country’s GPS equivalents: China’s Beidou network and Russia’s GLONASS.

Obstacles to a closer military relationship remain, however. Russia continues to worry about theft of its technology, international competition from Chinese arms manufacturers and even the possibility that a militarily strong China might not always treat Russia as an equal partner.

China may be hesitant to take advantage of the Ukraine war to expand military ties. While Chinese officials say normal trade with Russia will continue, Beijing has adopted a wait-and-see approach to the conflict, in part to minimize its exposure to sanctions and avoid unraveling already frayed relations with Western Europe and the United States.

But Xi’s long-term bet on Russia as a partner in challenging Western security blocs makes a rollback of military ties unlikely. In addition to arms trade and joint exercises, the two powers have increasingly coordinated opposition to security partnerships involving the United States and its allies.

China has lent support to Russian complaints about the expansion of NATO, while Russia has condemned initiatives such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and AUKUS, both of which Beijing blames for stoking tensions in the Pacific.

On Sunday, for example, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng told a forum in Beijing that the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy was provoking trouble and causing a formation of blocs in the region that “is as dangerous as the NATO strategy of eastward expansion in Europe.”

Pei Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.