In his remarks in October 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Russo-Chinese relations “alliance-like.” For the first time, Putin publicly confirmed that Russia was assisting China in creating an early warning system that should alert the Beijing leadership to missile launches that might be directed at China, thus making sure that no attack against the People’s Republic comes as a complete surprise. Such collaboration suggests new intimacy in the strategic relationship between Russia and China.
Yet in reality, this relationship is still more of an alignment rather than an alliance. True, Russia has been selling arms and military technology to China since 1992. The two militaries have been training together for more than a decade. Military cooperation between Russia and China comes against the background of their increasingly closer cooperation in a growing number of areas.
True again: Since 2014, when Russia’s relations with the United States became confrontational and its ties to Europe soured as a result of the Ukraine crisis, Moscow’s economic and financial reliance on Beijing grew substantially. And since 2017, when the United States designated China, alongside Russia, a strategic rival, Beijing’s interest in advanced Russian defense systems also increased.
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There are voices within each country that favor moving much closer together and forging a formal alliance to push back against the United States. However, so far, these voices have not been heeded by the top leaders in the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai. Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping, while seeing eye to eye on many world issues and enjoying an excellent personal rapport, continue to prefer the “never-against-each-other-but-not always-with-each-other” formula for Sino-Russian ties. This formula conveniently combines reassurance with flexibility, which both great powers need, and eschews the tricky issue of hierarchy.
In this strong but pragmatic relationship, neither side has commitments to defend the other. In fact, Russia and China are engaged in furthering their entente, not building an alliance. Despite Washington’s simultaneous pressure on Moscow and Beijing, these two are not yet forming a military bloc to oppose the United States.
This is good news. As long as things stay this way, hard bipolarity in the world security system can be avoided. Each of the three most consequential, if highly unequal, geopolitical and military players — America, China and Russia — will move independently of one another and can exercise various options. And China developing — with Russian assistance — an early warning system to detect missile launches would allow Beijing to operate with more confidence in its own security, and thus contribute to strategic stability.
Dmitri Trenin is the director of the Moscow Center for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.