(Bloomberg) – President Xi Jinping has resisted crossing Washington’s red lines regarding arming the Russian war machine in Ukraine. But that hasn’t stopped China from approaching Moscow’s military in another way: direct engagement.
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China and Vladimir Putin’s armed forces conducted six joint military exercises together last year, with most of the data dating back two decades.
That accounted for two-thirds of all Chinese exercises with foreign militaries in 2022, according to data compiled by the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the United States National Defense University.
Five of the drills took place after Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, the data shows. Four of them were bilateral, while two were with US adversaries, including Iran and Syria.
“Xi has every reason to preserve and strengthen China’s strategic alignment with Russia,” said Alexander Korolev, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “It’s the most effective way to counterbalance American power.”
As China steps up pressure on Taiwan, the self-governing island Xi has vowed to one day claim, the United States has expanded its military presence in Asia. It recently signed a defense pact with the Philippines and opened another base in Guam. China’s concerns over US military encirclement come as Russia protests North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces closing in on its borders.
In this context, Xi refused to condemn Putin’s war. Instead, China has provided economic and diplomatic shelter for Moscow by buying its products cheaply and through political engagement. The Chinese leader’s only trip abroad this year so far was to Moscow.
At the same time, China has frozen high-level military dialogue with the United States over sanctions it imposed on Defense Minister Li Shangfu for a Russian arms purchase in 2018. The United States and China have not held joint exercises since 2020, and those involved in disaster response. The risky interactions between their armies have raised fears that an accident could lead to a confrontation.
China and Russia have a tumultuous defense history that is marred by suspicion and includes a months-long conflict along their long border in the 1960s. The recent improvement in confidence came in 2015, after the United States United and Europe imposed sanctions on Russia for seizing Crimea the previous year.
These moves, along with US criticism of Beijing’s military expansionism in the South China Sea, have prompted both sides to seek alternative defense partners. This has caused some U.S. policymakers to express concern. China and Russia now have a de facto alliance, according to a February report to Congress.
Russia and China have conducted at least 36 exercises together following Putin’s annexation of Crimea, according to the NDU and a tally by Bloomberg News. That compares to just ten exercises in the decade to 2014.
Putin’s 2019 announcement that Russia would help China build a system to warn of ballistic missile launches was “unprecedented,” Korolev said, and signaled a new degree of defense cooperation. Such systems require both ground radars and space satellites.
“Putin and Xi have managed to mitigate, if not eliminate, the existing psychological and political barriers to closer cooperation,” he added.
Exercises between Russia and China are generally smaller than those between the United States and its allies. The United States and the Philippines recently held their largest-ever exercises with more than 17,000 troops.
But China’s exercises with Russia are often loaded with political significance.
Their annual drills around Japan, for example, aggravate a democracy with which the two countries have a territorial dispute. In 2019, the air forces of both countries staged their first long-range bomber air patrols in the Indo-Pacific. Japan dispatched planes in response, while South Korea said the drills had entered its air defense identification zone. Both countries are key security partners for the United States.
On Saturday, China said Russia would soon send its naval and air forces to take part in an annual joint exercise taking place in the middle of the Sea of Japan. The People’s Liberation Army said the exercise aimed to enhance strategic coordination between the two armies, as well as their abilities to maintain regional peace and stability and respond to various security issues.
“These exercises will become more frequent, more politically charged and will have a lot of political signaling value,” said Andrew Taffer, a researcher at the NDU’s Center for the Study of China Military Affairs. “It suggests the possibility that they could work together in ways that the United States and its allies find distasteful, even offensive.”
While Russia and China have not conducted joint exercises around Taiwan, last month two Russian warships cruised along the island’s east coast in a rare transit, before passing the Japanese island of Okinawa where there is a large American base. The ships were en route to a stopover in Shanghai.
Yet Putin’s war in Ukraine has exposed Moscow’s limitations as a potential military partner. That’s unlikely to deter long-term ties because Xi doesn’t have a good replacement, according to Elizabeth Wishnick, a political science professor at Montclair State University.
“If there were to be a crisis or a conflict in Asia,” she said, “there is a chance that China and Russia will help each other.”
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