Dr. Yury Fedorov*: Military Aspects of the Present Russia-China Relations


Articles

This brief statement will concentrate on a few key aspects of the China-Russia military relationship.

 

Common strategic interests

There are four areas in which Russian and Chinese strategic interests, goals and concerns coincide. Both countries

- use limited cooperation in military affairs to improve their positions vis-à-vis the USA and other Western countries;

- are interested in prevention and suppression of Islamic extremism and terrorism in Central Asia, including possible invasion of armed groups of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which since 2015 has been cooperating with the Islamic State, and other similar organizations;

- share common concerns with deployment of the US Army THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence) missile defence system in South Korea;

- are interested in lack of tension in their "rear areas", that is zones adjacent to the Russian-Chinese border in Siberia and the Far East. The main vector of Chinese strategic interests is directed to south and south-east, while the principal area of the Russian political and military expansion is in Europe including Ukraine, and the Middle East.

 

Moscow’s strategic attitudes towards China

Current Moscow’s principal approach to China in military and strategic areas is essentially controversial. On the one hand, Moscow is persistently seeking China’s support in its aggression against Ukraine and in confrontation with the USA and Europe. In this light, it hopes that the current military-to-military contacts and joint drills may evolve into a full-scale military cooperation and even defence alliance. Albeit this hope is baseless Russian propaganda often portrays those contacts and drills as a first step or stage of an informal military/defence alliance.

At the same time Russian military circles and political analysts are feared that in future China may encroach upon Russia’s territories in the Far East and Siberia with a view to establish its control over natural resources. Also, many in Russia are concerned with demographic disbalance - in the northern provinces of China, they say, there are 20 times more population than in the Russian Far East.

However, Russian concerns about potential China’s expansion in the north in the foreseeable future are groundless. The main strategic and foreign policy interests of Chine are focused is the south and south-east directions. China's economic interest in seizing Russian sources of raw materials and energy resources, as Russian mass media and experts often say, is greatly exaggerated. The overwhelming majority of these sources are in undeveloped territories, their development requires huge investments in the infrastructures etc.

 

Balance of armed forces

The main source of concern for the Russian military is the superiority of Chinese conventional forces deployed in the northern regions over the troops of the Russian Eastern Military District.

 

Balance of the Russian and Chinese Land Forces in the areas along Russia China border (before the 2016 reformation of the Chinese Armed Forces)

 

Russia

China

MD East

Beijing MR

Shenyang MR

Personnel (th men)

60-70 а)

250

237

MBT

865

1745

1467

AFV

1583

2419

1959

Artillery

1424

3287

3231

Attack helicopters

171

182

144

 

 

 

 







a) Motor-rifle, tank, artillery and air-assault brigades only


Balance of the Russian and Chinese Land Forces in the areas along Russia-China border (after the 2016 reformation of the Chinese Armed Forces)

MD East (4 armies)

Northern Theatre Command (3 Group armies)

Motor-rifle brigade

9

Combined Arms brigade

18

Tank brigade

1

Artillery brigade

3

Artillery brigade

4

Special operations brigade

3

Missile brigade

4

Army aviation brigade

3

Air-defence brigade

4

Air defence brigade

3

Air-assault brigade

2

   

 

Russian military are concerned not only with the numerical superiority of Chinese troops stationed in the northern Chinese provinces. Practically along the entire eastern section of the Russian-Chinese border developed territories, including those with relatively diversified road network, occupy a narrow strip of width up to 200 kilometres. This means that in Russia operational depth is really small and ability of moving Russian troops along the border is limited, and that Chinese forces can cut Russian communications by concentrated strikes in the northern direction.

Many in Russia believe that the PLA is so superior to the RF in conventional forces that in the case of armed conflict Russia should immediately use nuclear weapons. However China also has nuclear weapons and may inflict unacceptable damage. And also, despite Russia’s official political position that Russia and China are strategic partners Moscow considers the prospect of armed conflict with China as a practical possibility and reinforces troops in the east. For instance, all Russian missile brigades were recently rearmed with modern nuclear capable Iskander missiles.

 

China isn’t interested in military alliance with Russia

China is not interested in military alliance with Russia not only because such option contradicts its basic strategic attitude but also because Russian military, above all naval might in the Pacific region is far below American, Chinese and Japanese. Meanwhile, naval forces play the key role in strategic balance in the Pacific.

 

 

Main battle ships of the Russian Pacific Fleet, 3-rd и 7-th US Fleet,

Chinese, Japanese and S. Korean Navies

 

Russia

US

China

Japan

S.Korea

Aircraft carrier

-

5-6

1/2

-

1

Cruiser

2/1

12

-

-

-

Destroyer

4

28

26

40

17

Large antisubmarine ship

4

-

-

4

-

Large landing ship

5

16

27

3

-

Frigate

-

12

49

6

26

SSK

8

?

56+

18

27

Attack nuclear submarines

12

26

5-7

-

-

SSBN

4

8

5

-

-

 

Joint exercises

Since 2003 China and Russia have conducted approximately 25 exercises together. Politically, both countries use these drills to strengthen their positions vis-à-vis the USA. For Russia these drills are a symbol of growing military cooperation. Many in the West also fear that these exercises signify the beginning of the formation of a certain military axis of the two countries. In my view this is a simplified interpretation.

 

Ten of these exercises (Peace mission, since 2005) were held under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) focusing on antiterrorism. Russia is interested in involving China into fighting Islamic terrorism in Central Asia, partly because it would like to shift the burden of suppression of terrorism in this region to the shoulders of China. Moscow understands well that the more it involves into counter-terrorist efforts in Central Asia, the weaker its potential in Europe becomes.

 

For the PLA, these exercises have allowed gaining experience and useful information, gaining experience of operating in unfamiliar environments outside China; addressing linguistic, cultural, and other barriers, to practice battlefield tactics and combat methods; and apply lessons learned to joint operations. They also enable China to collect intelligence on Russia’s military capabilities and defense organization. In addition, China uses the multilateral SCO exercises to boost its influence in Central Asia and develop security cooperation with the states of the region.

As for the naval Joint Sea exercises Russia portrays them, especially the participation of the Chinese Navy in drills in the Mediterranean in 2015 and in the Baltic in 2017, as a signal of Chinese support for Russia’s militant policy in those areas. Yet I think that the Chinese presence in the Baltic Sea instead could be seen as forming part of China’s growing sense of global interests.

 

Arms trade

Arms trade is, in my view, the most important aspect of the Russia-China military relationship. China continued to depend on Russian military technology—particularly aircraft and aircraft components.

 

Volume of Russia-China arms trade, 1992-2016, Mln US $

A sharp drop in Russian arms sales delivered to China in 2006–2010 resulted from:

-Chinese demand for Russian arms diminished as China’s defense industry had become advanced enough to fulfill more PLA requirements domestically.

-the Chinese side expressed concerns about quality control deficiencies and contract disagreements involving the remaining orders.

- Russia was unwilling to sell the higher-end systems that China was beginning to demand likely due to concerns that China’s increasing military capabilities could pose a future threat to Russia.

However, in 2015 because of growing isolation from the West and sanctions caused by aggression against Ukraine Moscow made some essential concessions and agreed to sell most advanced weapons systems. Some believe also, that in return Russia obtains from China microelectronic devices highly needed for its military-industrial complex. In actual fact:

- Russia’s sale of Su-35 fighter jets to China (deliveries of which began in December 2016) will help the PLA to contest U.S. air superiority, provide China with technology that could help accelerate the development of its own advanced fighters.

- The Russian sale of the S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system (four to six S-400 SAM system battalion with deliveries starting in 2018) should help China improve capital air defense and could assist the PLA in achieving increased air superiority over Taiwan if deployed to the Eastern Theater Command. And also could be used to help enforce China’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone.

 

Russia, China and North Korea nuclear/missile crisis

And the last point. Officially Moscow supports Chinese position on the North Korean nuclear / missile crisis. However, the Russian leadership is not interested in resolving the Korean crisis. Moreover, it is very likely that it has made a hand in its unleashing.

In 2017, the DPRK successfully tested a hydrogen bomb and three new missiles: the medium-range Hwasong-12 and the intercontinental Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15. This means that in a year, maximum a year and a half, an impressive technological leap was made in North Korea. Without external assistance, this is simply impossible. The only source of missile and nuclear technology, obtained by North Korea, can only be Russia.

And, secondly, the Kremlin is playing the Korean nuclear card, not having, in fact, any serious trumps. Its ability to press on Pyongyang is extremely limited. Moscow can transfer nuclear and missile technologies to North Korea, but it cannot take them back.

Moscow's motives are understandable. The crisis on the Korean peninsula is diverting US diplomatic, political and military resources from European problems and supporting Ukraine. There is nothing new in this. This is the standard tactic inherited from the Soviet Union. So, in 1950, Stalin ordered Kim Il Sung to invade the southern part of the peninsula, including to draw the US into the war in Northeast Asia, thereby weakening American forces in Europe.

In the 1960s, the Soviet Union provided economic and military assistance to North Vietnam, among other things, diverting the United States from European and Middle Eastern theatres, where Moscow focused its main efforts. Well, and finally, in the Kremlin, it is not without malice to observe how the United States and China, the most powerful powers in the world, have found themselves in a difficult situation.

___________

*Information about the Author:

Yury Fedorov – Dr., Prof., PIR Center, Italy

The article is based on the presentation at the International Conference «Russia and China: current developments and future pe

30.01.2018 08:00:00