Russia, once a thorn in China’s side, is backing Beijing in its disputes with third countries, including a maritime sovereignty flap in Southeast Asia, to counter Washington’s influence in Asia, scholars believe.
With the world’s second strongest military, after the United States, Russia holds occasional military exercises with China – with at least four events publicized to date -- sells arms to its giant neighbor to the south and joins it in criticizing the West.
Officials in Moscow are trying now to boost Beijing’s claim to the contested South China Sea without overtly taking its side over five other Asian governments that vie with Chinese sovereignty in the same waterway, said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.
China and Russia need each other to show the United States – former Cold War foe of both – along with its allies that neither is “alone,” he said.
U.S. Navy ships regularly sail the South China Sea to keep Beijing in check. At least eight other Western-allied countries have indicated since late July plans to send navy vessels into the resource-rich South China Sea, which stretches from Hong Kong to Borneo Island, in support of keeping it open internationally rather than ceding it to Chinese control.
“Basically, it’s more about a challenge to global U.S. power rather than Russia siding with China in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea,” Vuving said.
Russia and China held five days of military exercises in a remote region of central China last week, drawing more than 10,000 service personnel, aircraft, artillery and armored vehicles, Chinese news broadcaster CGTN reported on its website. Three years ago, the two militaries trained in Russia for the Russian Vostok-2018 exercise and China sent 3,200 troops.
The Chinese armed forces still use Russian equipment and expertise, said Collin Koh, a maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Russia agreed in 2015 to sell China 24 combat aircraft and four S-400 surface-to-air missile systems for about $7 billion.
“The fact that they would actually share a joint portal for command and control actually means something,” Koh said. “They actually wanted to promote further interoperability.”
In March, as both powers faced pressure from the West, they panned the United States in a joint statement after talks between their foreign ministers. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a March news conference that U.S. intentions had a "destructive nature" that were "relying on the military-political alliances of the Cold War era."
Scholars say Sino-Russian cooperation has its limits, however. As major powers, neither side wants the other to grow too powerful, said Wang Wei-chieh, South Korea-based politics analyst and co-founder of the FBC2E International Affairs Facebook page.
“Russia and China, they are also worried about each other,” Wang said. “They don’t want any side to be the superior country.”
Previously strong Sino-Russian relations faded in the 1960s when the two Communist parties split over ideology and border conflicts ensued. They call their military events today “interaction” rather than any kind of alliance, Koh noted.
Russia maintains crucial political and economic ties with Vietnam, a rival to Beijing in the South China Sea dispute, and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute called Russia the top arms supplier to Southeast Asia between 2010 and 2017 with combined sales of $6.6 billion. China fumed in 2013 when Russian oil company Rosneft was drilling, on behalf of Vietnam, in waters claimed by Beijing. Russia officially advocates neutrality in Southeast Asia, Vuving said.
Russia could tell Vietnam today, if pressed, that its ties with China are just “symbolic,” Koh said.
Russia does not claim any part of the sea, which is prized for fisheries and undersea fossil fuel reserves. China disputes maritime sovereignty instead with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. China has irked the other claimants by landfilling islets for military installations and sending vessels into the exclusive economic zones of its rivals.
China hopes Russia avoids sailing through the sea, where it Russia held a stronghold on the coast of Vietnam during the Cold War, at the risk of violating China’s claim to 90% of the waterway, Koh said.
The latest joint military exercises may be aimed at deterring any threat from nearby Central Asia, Wang said. China has sought to clarify borders with Central Asian nations since the fall of the Soviet Union to promote peace in its own restive Xinjiang region, the Indian policy formulation group Observer Research Foundation said.
Exercises last week, called Zapad/Interaction 2021, targeted terrorists by “seizing the high ground and trench[es] followed by “penetrating the enemy in depth,” the official Chinese Military Online website said August 5.
The 2018 exercises sent “a message to the rest of the world and, in particular the United States” that the two countries were growing closer, the Swedish research and policy organization Institute for Security and Development wrote at the time.
Future Sino-Russian military exercises will occur in places aimed at warning specific third countries with which China has disputes, Wang forecast.