China and Russia are in a bad marriage that the West shouldn't try to break up

  • China and Russia have good reasons for their partnership beyond just driving America crazy.

  • But there are plenty of issues that could derail this alliance.

  • Successful alliances like NATO require partners to subordinate their interests for the common good.

During the darkest days of the Cold War, in the 1950s, the West worried that the Soviet Union and China had joined forces to form a massive communist bloc.

But those fears proved overblown, as Beijing and Moscow soon went from allies to bitter enemies that clashed over their long border. Fast-forward to today, and growing military ties have again raised the specter of a Sino-Russian alliance that unites two of the most powerful nations in the world.

But this partnership is not a solid alliance like NATO that's built on mutual defense and interoperability of its forces. "The Sino-Russian relationship is probably best characterized as a marriage of two imperfect partners who share a deeply cynical view of the U.S.-led international order but often hold divergent visions of the order that they believe should replace it," a report on Sino-Russian cooperation by the RAND Corp. think tank said.

"These two imperfect partners realize some level of shared, albeit unequal, dependency while simultaneously harboring deep suspicions about whether they can trust or rely on the other," the study said.

This may be scant comfort to Western leaders who fear a scenario where Russian aggression in Europe is simultaneous with a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, which would overstretch US resources and allow America's allies to be overwhelmed.

Already, Russia's military and China's People's Liberation Army have held about 25 joint exercises since 2005, involving ships, aircraft, and ground troops. Beijing and Moscow have teamed up to fly joint patrols, including a 2023 incident where they flew near South Korean airspace.

Equally important is that China has become a key enabler of Russia's war in Ukraine. With Western sanctions depriving Russia of key components such as electronics, China and its vast manufacturing base have emerged as a major supplier of microelectronics, drone parts, and other components.

But these don't equate to the sort of integrated operations practiced by the US and Britain in World War II, where American troops served under British commanders and vice versa, or by NATO today.

"Policymakers and planners should avoid overestimating the state of military cooperation and operational integration that exists between Russia and China," RAND said.

China sent only a few thousand troops to Russia's massive 2018 war game of an estimated 300,000 participants.
China sent only a few thousand troops to Russia's massive 2018 war game of an estimated 300,000 participants.Mladen Antonov/Getty Images

Exercises involving Russian and Chinese forces have been "described as more 'parallel' than 'joint,' meaning that Russia's military and the PLA are given set tasks and timelines, perform them in synchronized yet independent fashion, and overall have limited interaction in such areas as planning and C2," RAND said, referring to command and control. "For this reason, these exercises have in reality done relatively little to promote interoperability at either the operational or the tactical level."

The result is military cooperation that is more symbolic than practical. "China's commitment to the exercises is relatively low," RAND said. "The PLA sent around 3,200 soldiers to Russia's 300,000-strong Vostok 2018 exercise and just 1,600 to Russia's Tsentr-2019 exercise (in which the Russian side fielded almost 130,000 soldiers). It appears that the PLA is more interested in learning from Russia than in sharing insights into its own military capabilities or training as equal partners, whereas, for Russia, the goal is to present an image of joint cooperation with China to the West to counter an impression that Moscow is isolated and vulnerable."

Mark Cozad, who coauthored the RAND study, contrasted these arrangements with NATO or US-South Korean military integration. "NATO and the US-South Korea plan to fight as alliances, which means that training needs to develop and train combined command and control, targeting, ISR, logistics, and operations among other areas," Cozad told Business Insider, referring to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. "Also, there is a much more rigorous approach to training in these alliances, meaning the training is generally much more realistic than what we see out of the Russians and Chinese."

Despite boasting of their military ties, Russia and China don't have much faith in each other's military prowess. After Russia's dismal combat performance in Ukraine, the question is "whether China would view the Russian military as a capable and useful coalition partner," the RAND report said. On the other hand, given China's lack of recent combat experience, "Moscow may view the PLA as a well-resourced but questionable partner," it added.

Some alliances are tighter than others. America and Britain were part of the Grand Alliance with the Soviet Union, in which Russia and the Western Allies waged parallel and mostly uncoordinated campaigns in an atmosphere of mutual distrust. Capitalists and communists could agree on the need to defeat Hitler but not much else.

In their 2001 friendship treaty, China and Russia did agree to consult with each other should either nation be attacked. But they didn't promise to fight on each other's behalf. "Notably, this agreement does not include a mutual defense clause," the RAND study pointed out.

Successful alliances require partners to subordinate their interests for the good of the alliance, and that's a huge problem for Russia and China. Both nations have a tradition of being the dominant partner in alliances and of bullying their allies, whether it was the Soviet Union bossing around its Eastern European satellites, or China treating neighbors such as Vietnam and Korea as vassals.

"Neither China nor Russia has a recent history of an interoperable military alliance with any other country, much less any history of joint C2 structures or devolving authority to field commanders to innovate and partner to solve operational challenges," the report said.

Besides the pleasure of driving America crazy, military cooperation between China and Russia does offer tangible benefits. China, which has not fought a war since invading Vietnam in 1979, can learn from Russian combat experience in Syria and Ukraine. Russia gets access to Chinese products that are under sanction in the West. Good relations mean the 2,600-mile Russia-China border can be demilitarized, allowing forces to be concentrated in Ukraine or for an invasion of Taiwan.

Yet there are plenty of issues that could derail this alliance. One is the immense amount of historical baggage weighing down their relations. "The Russians and Chinese have had a mixed relationship for over 75 years at this point that has included both strategic partnership and intense hostility," Cozad said.

China hasn't forgotten that czarist Russia annexed 350,000 square miles of Chinese territory in the 1850s. In 1969, Chinese and Russian troops fought border clashes along the Ussuri River (at one point, the Soviets considered a nuclear strike on China). Today, there's competition over Central Asia, Chinese unease over Russia's war in Ukraine, and the fact that Russia is inexorably becoming the junior partner as Chinese economic and military power grows.

That raises the question: Can the West exploit these divisions to break up the Sino-Russian alliance? RAND emphatically warned against trying. "We advocate not trying to undermine the Russia-China partnership because we don't have many tools or incentives that either of those two partners sees as more valuable than their partnership," Cozad said. While the Chinese may want things from the US, "they are skeptical that in five or 10 years that incentive can again be taken away and then they have damaged their relationship with Russia while losing that incentive," he added.

Instead, RAND suggested that the best response would be for the US and its allies to ally more closely. "The most effective way for the United States to counter the Russia-China strategic partnership is by ensuring the health of its own alliances and pursuing ever greater cooperation with its most important allies and partners," the report said.

In the end, successful alliances are a mixture not just of national self-interest but also of shared values. That may be the real difference between an alliance like NATO, most of whose members share a belief in democracy, individual rights, and free trade, versus a Sino-Russian friendship based on the question of "what's in it for me."

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a Master of Arts in political science from Rutgers University. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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