Since the establishment of bilateral relations between post-Soviet Russia and China,both sides have made considerable efforts to enhance strategic trust and establish an institutional infrastructure to deepen their cooperation in the military and general security fields. Both sides have similar views on the general international situation, and recently the progress of their military-to-military interactions sped up as their relations with the US sharply deteriorated.
The latest major development in military cooperation was Chinese participation in the Russian strategic-level exercise Vostok-2018 (East-2018). Previously,only the closest partners of Russia in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) had been invited to participate in such activities. Holding joint strategic-level exercises is now expected to be a regular practice and in 2019 the Russian troops are likely to take part in a similar exercise in China.
Currently, Russia and China are each other`s closest partners in the defence and security field among the major countries. The frequency of their joint military activities recalls the relationship between these formal allies. However, both sides are still denying any intention to form an alliance and are maintaining strategic autonomy on a wide range of regional and global policy issues.
The two sides have significantly influenced each other`s strategic cultures in the past, and this mutual influence is still strong. China's military policies were heavily modelled after the Soviet Union's in the 1950s and in the early period of Reform and Openness in the 1980s when the Chinese military was returning to more professional practices after the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.
Both sides have a fairly good level of strategic trust in each other. It is based on careful analysis of the Cold War experience in Asia with the Soviet-Chinese split of 1960-1980s being currently considered a major strategic disaster for both sides. In the 1990s Russia and China implemented a number of trust-building measures which culminated in 1997 in the agreement on mutual troop reductions in the border areas between China and four post-Soviet states (Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan). The agreement established ceilings for the numbers of troops and weapons systems and established inspection mechanisms.
Generally, Russia and China do not expect each other to become direct security threats under the current political regimes. Some military planning against each other is apparently being conducted, but the conflict is considered a low probability scenario possible only in the case of very dramatic political changes in one of the countries.
The Chinese remain diligent students of Russian military reforms and Chinese military contacts readily recognise that the large-scale military reform started by Xi Jinping in 2015 was partly based on Chinese assessments of the results of the Russian military reforms of 2009-2012 (the so-called Serdyukov reforms). Continuing exports of Russian defence technology to China (more than $3bn in 2016 alone) also contributes to this exchange of ideas.
The Chinese took note of some of the recent Russian strategic innovations such as the non-nuclear strategic deterrence concept as well as Russian approaches to strategic stability. The emerging structure of the Chinese nuclear forces that underwent a period of significant quantitative and qualitative growth is reminiscent of the Russian nuclear forces with a central role of the ground-based ICBM force relying on a mix of heavy liquid fuel and mobile systems.
The Chinese are known to closely study the Russian experience in military conflicts across the former USSR and Syria, including extensive interviews with the actual participants in these hostilities.
At the same time,the Russians have closely studied the Chinese experience in reforming the defence industry in the 1990s and 2000s by organising the companies into ten large corporations. That influenced the formation of Russia's vertically integrated corporations such as Rostek and Almaz-Antei.
The constant flow of ideas and practices between the two militaries is reinforced by continual training of Chinese military personnel in Russia. Until late 2016, according to the Russian Defense Minister, Sergey Shoigu, Russians had trained more than 3600 Chinese officers in their military academies and training centres.
Russian and Chinese general staffs hold regular strategic consultations, usually on the level of deputy chiefs of general staffs. They discuss strategic issues and the development of military-to-military relations between the two countries. The latest (20th)round of such consultations took place in May 2018. That contributes to the formation of relatively common views of problems.
Although the two countries have close positions on a number of global and regional security issues, closely interact in the political and military fields and study each other`s experience in military and defence industry reforms, their vision of their future militaries is quite different. That difference is based on the different scale and nature of both countries’ political and economic interests.
China as an emerging superpower with extensive economic interests around the globe is essentially building a ‘global’ military force with very strong expeditionary capabilities, including carriers, a fleet of advanced destroyers with long-range air defence systems, a large amphibious force and powerful strategic airlift capability.
On the other hand, Russia is more concerned with maintaining and developing its strategic nuclear capabilities and upgrading the aerospace force and ground force ability to operate in Russia’s ‘near abroad’ (the former Soviet republics on Russian borders). That means a degree of mutual complementarity between the two militaries if Russian combat experience and advanced strategic weapon and ground combat capabilities are coupled with Chinese sea power.
Although the trend toward even closer military cooperation is obvious, both sides continue to deny any intention to form an alliance. Officially both China and Russia consider great power military alliances to be ‘a thing of the past’, criticising the US for maintaining and expanding the American system of alliances. However, with the ongoing deterioration of both countries’ relations with Washington, this approach may change, possibly as early as the next year.