At the Valdai forum in 2019 Vladimir Putin officially confirmed that Moscow is helping China develop a missile attack warning system that only Russia and the United States have at this point. This new level of Russian-Chinese military cooperation will have important implications.
Relations with China occupy a special place in Russia’s strategy. Metaphorically, these countries stand back to back, looking in opposite directions: Russia toward Europe and China toward the Pacific. This is only natural since 75 percent of Russia’s GDP and population are located in its European part and about 80 percent of China’s GDP and population are in a broad band along the Pacific. Their efforts may face opposite directions but this community of strategic cultures explains the absence of the key irritant in their own relations – the security frontier. Russia and China are not competing for Kazakhstan or Mongolia like Russia competes with the West for Ukraine, where every political cycle ends with an international crisis. This is partly due to the fact that the Russia-China border is located in peripheral territories whereas China’s most advanced areas are far from the Russian border and its demographic pressure in the north is minimal. Compared to its relations with the West, Russia and China maintain much more harmonious ties. The Chinese are careful in the areas where the interests of the two countries could clash. In the final analysis Russia would like to have such relations with its Western partners, by offering a European security treaty, consideration for mutual interests and renunciation of the bloc principle in ensuring European security.
The Russia-China entente is based on the realistic understanding that military power is a component of international relations and that stability in Central Eurasia can only be guaranteed by consensus between the militarily strongest countries. Russia considers this type of relationship to be a prototype for establishing stable security along the perimeter of its borders and the rest of the continent. The Russian peace initiative for the Middle East, the security proposal for the Asia-Pacific Region and the European security treaty bear this out.
Moscow’s decision to establish a missile warning system in China is strategic in nature. It is aimed at consolidating China’s sovereignty and its ability to resist US pressure. Russia is trying to oppose US pressure because it runs counter to its international and domestic interests. Moscow believes that a system based on checks and balances is more stable and democratic. The road to this system lies through the consolidation of the sovereignty and power of those countries that want to play an independent role in the world arena.
Against the backdrop of Washington-Beijing confrontation, Moscow is striving to play an independent role and avoid creating a tough bipolar system. At this point it does not want to strike a military alliance with Beijing, although many of its steps could be interpreted that way. Russia wants to pursue an independent policy in Eurasia and its resources make this possible.
US pressure on China is not the best approach for many reasons, mainly because it compels Beijing to make a choice. This is exactly what China is trying to avoid. China’s world order metaphor is consonant with the concepts of its philosophy in which a benevolent ruler should not be noticed. China is not after confrontation and considers globalization a major ally. Moreover, Beijing does not have the record of expansion comparable to the colonial empires of the European powers, including Russia. China will have to acquire this strategic experience before we will be able to describe how its power politics look like. But for now, China is avoiding confrontation.
Today, US pressure on China is unjustified and is pushing it into a corner. Washington’s alarmism may lead to a situation where Beijing will have no alternative and will have to break decades-long ties at a moment’s notice. This would lead to a new reconfiguration of the international order and leave Russia with difficult issues.
However, this scenario is not the only alternative. Judging by Russia’s assistance in developing a missile warning system, Russian leaders believe that Beijing needs a shield to contain a US onslaught.