China and Russia have begun collaborating on technology to rival the United States' GPS and European Galileo satellite navigation systems, as the two countries pursue closer military and strategic ties.
Earlier this year, China agreed to host ground monitoring stations for Russia’s GLONASS positioning system on its soil, which improves global range and accuracy but can pose a security risk. In turn, Russia agreed to host ground stations for China’s BeiDou system.
The reciprocal agreement indicates a growing level of trust and cooperation between Moscow and Beijing, says analyst Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow and chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“Russia’s schism with the West and deepening confrontation and competition between China and the U.S. as two superpowers is definitely contributing to rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing. There is a natural economic complementarity where Russia has (an) abundance of natural resources, and China has capital and technology to develop those resources. And finally, both are authoritarian states, so they don’t have this allergy when talking domestic political setup, or the poisoning of (Russian opposition leader) Alexi Navalny, or issues like Hong Kong or human rights in Xinjiang,” Gabuev told VOA.
It will take some time for the collaboration on satellite navigation systems to be felt on the ground.
“So far, we have yet to see important results, because in Russia, Russia still relies increasingly on GLONASS but also on GPS. We don’t have major BeiDou-linked projects,” Gabuev added.
Satellites are seen as a crucial component of 21st century military power. Last month, Russia tested a missile against one of its own satellites. The U.S. said the resulting debris threatened astronauts on the International Space Station.
“What's most troubling about that is the danger that it creates for the international community. It undermines strategic stability,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters Nov. 17.
Russia, China and the U.S. are among several nations developing hypersonic missiles, which travel through the upper atmosphere at up to five times the speed of sound.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the U.S. had failed to engage on a joint Russian-Chinese space treaty.
“They have ignored for many years the initiative of Russia and China to prepare a treaty to prevent an arms race in space. They simply ignore it, insisting instead on developing some sort of universal rules,” Lavrov said.
In an interview June 11 with U.S. broadcaster NBC, Russian President Vladimir Putin said cooperation with Beijing was deepening.
“We have been working and will continue to work with China, which applies to all kinds of programs, including exploring deep space. And I think there is nothing but positive information here. Frankly, I don't see any contradictions here,” Putin said.
There are limits to Russian and Chinese cooperation, Gabuev said.
“Both Russia and China are religious about their strategic autonomy. There is deep-seated nationalism, there is some level of mistrust and some level of competition in many of those areas where there is seeming complementarity, like space programs. I think that these advances in military technology is happening mostly in parallel, but not jointly.”
Gabuev notes that Russia has worked more closely with India than China, including on the development of the joint BrahMos cruise missile system since the 1990s.
“Russia felt secure enough to develop BrahMos missiles together with Indian colleagues. So, this military cooperation between Russia and China is deepening, it’s definitely causing a significant challenge to the West, particularly because it helps the PLA (China’s People’s Liberation Army) to become a really 21st century fighting power and a global military power. But at the same time, we don’t see the depth that exists between, for example, the U.S. and America’s allies,” Gabuev said.
India has also purchased Russia’s S-400 missile defense system, an attempt to counter China’s military might that also risks angering Delhi’s ally, the United States, and an indication of the complexity of strategic relations in a changing world order.