Military Aspects of the Russo-Chinese Alliance: A View from the United States

Recent official US statements postulate Sino-Russian enmity towards the US.1 Moreover, they rightly highlight an unprecedentedly close alignment of these two states against the US.2  In other words the triangular relationship is now a relationship of two against one. Following the US assessment, this article opposes the reigning academic view, expressed in numerous recent studies concerning Russo-Chinese relations that these two states are not allied against the US.3 Despite the expert consensus that no alliance or no formal alliance between Russia and China exists notwithstanding their visibly growing intimacy, I dispute that finding.4  Instead, there is an increasingly open anti-American alliance taking shape, albeit an informal one. To be sure, Moscow keeps inventing euphemisms to disguise what is going on.  First it was called a comprehensive strategic partnership.5  More recently in November 2018 President Putin called it a “privileged strategic partnership.”6  Both these formulations sound like attempts to deceive foreign observers as to the alliance’s real nature.  Thus, Putin described comprehensive strategic partnership as follows:

As we had never reached this level of relations before, our experts have had trouble defining today’s general state of our common affairs. It turns out that to say we have strategic cooperation is not enough anymore. This is why we have started talking about a comprehensive partnership and strategic collaboration. “Comprehensive” means that we work virtually on all major avenues; “strategic” means that we attach enormous inter‑governmental importance to this work.7

Similarly, Foreign Minister Lavrov has stated,

As regards international issues, we feel – and our Chinese friends share this view – that our cooperation and coordination in the international arena are one of the most important stabilizing factors in the world system. We regularly coordinate our approaches to various conflicts, whether it is in the Middle East, North Africa, or the Korean peninsula. We have regular and frank and confidential consultations.8

It is hard to know how a privileged partnership expands upon a comprehensive one. This alliance is not merely a political relationship but one of active military collaboration.  In addition, leading officials in both countries expect this relationship to deepen, including in its military dimensions, during 2019.9  Indeed, President Xi Jinping told Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu that not only can both militaries deal with “common security threats” but, also, they should increase cooperation and unswervingly deepen their strategic coordination.10 Indeed, this anti-American strategic coordination is occurring right before our eyes in Northeast Asia. For example, on October 9, 2018, following the latest visit of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to North Korea, the deputy foreign ministers of Russia, China, and North Korea — Igor Morgulov, Kong Xuanyou, and Choe Son Hui— gathered for the first time in Moscow to discuss easing sanctions on North Korea.  Summarizing the meetings, Morgulov stated in a TASS interview that “measures” should reflect “reciprocity, and parallel, synchronous and gradual steps” and emphasized that the situation on the Korean Peninsula would be settled in “accordance with the Russian-Chinese roadmap.11

Since then President Xi Jinping has stated that, “the legitimate issues raised by the DPRK are rightful demands and that he fully agrees that the DPRK’s reasonable interests should be justly resolved.”12  Consequently, if China is encouraging North Korea to resist US pressure for denuclearization as President Trump has suggested, Russia is also likely doing so and probably at China’s behest.13  Certainly, both states’ are transparently violating UN resolutions that they previously supported regarding sanctions on North Korea.14  In fact, there is evidence that in 2017-18 despite new UN sanctions on North Korea that China had supported, it increased covert economic aid for “daily life and infrastructure building” as well as “defensive military construction” and “high level military science and technology.”  The weaponry cited here included “more advanced mid- and short-range ballistic missiles, cluster munitions, etc.”15  Increasingly, Russian analyses of the Korean issue follow China in blaming Washington for the DPRK’s continuing nuclearization due to US threats against North Korea.16 Therefore, Russia and China argue, much to Pyongyang’s delight, that Washington must initiate concessions, e.g. formally ending the Korean War, giving security guarantees, and ceasing its threats while deferring the urgent necessity of denuclearization.17  Moscow also showed visible pleasure that the outcome of the Singapore summit in 2018 apparently corresponded to it and Beijing’s proposal (largely a Chinese initiative) of a so-called double freeze or roadmap: North Korea freezing nuclear tests in return for a freeze on US-ROK exercises.18 

Consequently, these three parties’ behavior and their interactive dynamics raise the issue of whether the Northern Alliance and ensuing bipolarity that characterized the Cold War are also returning to Northeast Asia, albeit in altered and looser form.  We see here visible signs of Sino-Russian (and DPRK) anti-American alliance behavior.  Given the current state of Sino-American and Russo-American relations one might be forgiven for believing that bipolarity reminiscent of the Cold War had returned to Asia.

We can already see other practical examples of such coordination in military affairs.  Recently both governments jointly conducted a series of experiments in the atmosphere that not only could alter earthly environments but also apparently disturb electrical connections in the territories below these experiments.19  Thus, these experiments look suspiciously like preliminary efforts to test both ground-based and space-based capabilities to achieve the effects of an EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse) attack on earth against their adversaries.  Indeed, commenting on these tests, the Chinese journal Earth and Planetary Physics observed that the results were satisfactory but also “such international cooperation is very rare for China.”20  Similarly, the Vostok-2018 exercises involving large-scale Russian forces and about 3200 Chinese forces in September -2018 may have originally been intended as an exercise in anticipation of a US attack on North Korea.21

Russian writers like Vasily Kashin claim that the 2001 Russo-Chinese treaty enshrined, at the very least, strategic military and political coordination between both governments.

Chapter 9 of the treaty stipulated that “in case there emerges a situation which, by [the] opinion of one of the Participants, can create threats to the peace, violate the peace, or affect the interests of the security of the Participant, and also in case when there is a threat of aggression against one of the Participants, the Participants immediately contact each other and start consultations in order to remove the emerging threat.22

Kashin further notes, “While the treaty did not create any obligations for mutual defense, it clearly required both sides to consider some sort of joint action in the case of a threat from a third party.”23

Thus, even before recent events in the military sphere, we see a well-developed process of shared learning and exchange of operational and strategic concepts to enhance bilateral relations.24  This parallels the wider and extensively developed network of bilateral consultations across many ministries of both governments that are then manifested in practice and thereby reflect an alliance, even if it remains an informal one.25 These postures and operations go considerably beyond the joint exercises and arms sales that others have written about. The point here, as confirmed by many analysts, is the extensive inter-military dialogues that have gone on for over a decade as part of the larger program of inter-governmental exchanges.26  Certainly the joint air and missile defense exercises of 2017 suggest an alliance for in such exercises both sides must put their cards on the table and display their C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance). As Kashin observes, these exercises took the form of a computer simulation where both sides constructed a joint air/missile defense area using long-range SAM systems like the Chinese HQ-9 and the Russian S-300/400 series.27 Likewise, both the preceding and ongoing naval exercises point to deepening collaboration and a vibrant bilateral military dialogue.

As a result of these activities we see the US taking decisive military steps to counter this alliance.  Beyond a buildup of the US Navy and other services we see the US withdrawing from the INF treaty, not least due to Chinese as well as Russian missile building and Russian violations of the treaty.28  Likewise, the US has also announced a full-throated commitment to missile defenses, including exploration of the idea of space-based weapons, in response to Russian and Chinese progress in these fields.29  Third,  Washington and US allies are substantially increasing the number of Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) they conduct in the South China Sea, clearly signaling the will to contest Chinese claims there.30

China’s supremacy in the alliance 

This alliance relationship is the product of a generation-long process beginning in the 1990s and testifies to the importance of both states to each other.  But it also has reached the point of becoming an asymmetric relationship, i.e. Russia needs China more than China needs Russia.  To use Bismarck’s metaphor about alliances, China is the rider and Russia the horse.  It is now clear, for example, that for Russia intimacy with China strengthens its claim to be an Asian great power and, beyond that, a global great power.31  In other words, Russia’s pretensions to global great power status (and Russian elites certainly have global ambitions),32 to a considerable degree rest on Chinese sufferance of those claims.   In practice, therefore, we can argue that one reason for Russia’s aggressiveness in world affairs, which—to be sure—is quite over-determined as to motivations from within Russia, is the need to constantly remind China that it is a great power. Or to phrase it differently, one reason Russia acts so belligerently is the need to prove its great power bona fides to China.

Beyond this contention, we see clear signs of Russia making concessions to China that underlie China’s superiority to it in this relationship.  These concessions occur in defense and economics, and these sectors are not always separated.  For example, Russia’s recent invitation to the US to begin strategic stability talks made no mention of China, repudiating a past principle of Russia’s approach to future arms control.33  Likewise, Russian officials are now attacking US policies, e.g. projected space defense policies, as posing a threat to China.34  Apart from enhanced cooperation and coordination, as cited above, Russian arms sales and technology transfer have always been critical objectives of the Chinese government and armed forces, the latter being a visible champion of this enhanced cooperation.35  Whereas previous exercises were billed as anti-terrorist ones, they actually comprised joint air defense, anti-submarine warfare (ASW), joint missile and artillery strikes, and submarine rescue.36  However, according to Kashin,

Since the Russians are interested in maintaining some kind of positive dynamic in these exercises, it can be expected that they will move into some new, more sensitive areas such as submarine operations, long-range maritime bomber operations, and mine warfare; in these areas, unlike in surface warfare, the Russians still have a certain edge over the Chinese.37 (Emphasis added.)

This transfer of knowhow to China betokens its ability to extract more from this alliance than it gives back to Russia.  In order to obtain Chinese help in repairing the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, Moscow has now apparently had to sell technology to China.38

In economics too, beyond the fact that major Russian energy projects have now had to accept Chinese equity financing, e.g. the Yamal pipeline in the Arctic, we see other concessions that in earlier days would not have been made.  Obviously, both sides benefitted from these deals.  But as Tom Roseth and Christopher Weidacher Hsiung pointed out, Chinese observers not only hailed these deals and urged both governments to find common ground for practical cooperation in the Arctic.  They also claimed that Russia could not develop its Arctic potential; it needed international—in other words, Chinese—cooperation.  The not so hidden message here is that without Chinese investment and support these projects would not materialize.  Thus, Russia needs China more than China needs Russia.  So, while Russia truly does need foreign assistance to develop the Arctic, that tone is not found, for instance, in French or American companies’ deals with Moscow.39

We see after 2014 something of a reversal of the previous status quo.  In late 2013 Lincoln Flake of the US National Intelligence University observed that, “In spite of its recent flurry of circumpolar diplomacy, China’s admission into the Arctic depends primarily upon the goodwill of Russia.  Not only does Moscow have a veto in the Arctic Council, it essentially has a veto on any major Chinese entry into the region.”40  This, of course, stems from Russia’s ability to close the Arctic to China at the Bering Strait and block Chinese transcontinental trade or to declare the Northern Sea Route (NSR) internal waters, rendering Chinese trade prohibitively costly.  Since China’s business ventures with other Arctic countries had largely failed by 2014 it presumably needed Russian technical assistance.41

But by the start of 2015 Arctic publications were already warning that China’s Silk Road Project could challenge or supplant the NSR as a preferred route for transcontinental trade.42  The advent of sanctions combined with the collapse of energy prices now forced Moscow into a dependence upon Chinese investment that it could not evade and opened the way to more large-scale Chinese investments in the Arctic and much greater leverage vis-a-vis Moscow.  Thus, by the start of 2015 Russia had engaged China in talks about sailing oil rigs from the South China Sea to the Arctic to replace departing Western firms and was offering China major equity in Arctic energy fields, including prospecting in the Pechora and Barents seas.43  While China may formally have had to renounce its demands that the Arctic, “like the moon,” belongs to everyone as one Chinese academic put it, experts in China remained wedded to the idea that no one state, e.g. Russia, could wish or declare that the Arctic remain its private preserve and sphere for development.44 
As one recent study of Sino-Russian relations in the Arctic observes,

Beyond the actual gas project and LNG sales (Yamal) China’s state-run shipping conglomerate COSCO has also secured a 50 percent stake in the four LNG shipping carriers serving Yamal.  Chinese engineers and workers have been deployed to the Yamal Peninsula to help construct surrounding infrastructure, which includes a Chinese-produced polar drilling rig.  Moreover, a Chinese oil and gas producer now provides Russia with about 60 percent of its imported oilrig supplies, indicating that China is becoming a dominant player in this sphere.45         

Russia’s economic concessions go beyond the Arctic and ultimately also involve political concessions as well. This alliance is the product of an evolutionary process that began in the 1990s.  But the clear partnership that was in evidence before 2014 has accelerated sharply due to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea and the breakdown of US-Russian relations.  Indeed, Putin has been at war with the US and the West for over a decade.46  Already on January 18, 2005 Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told the Academy of Military Sciences, that,

Let us face it, there is a war against Russia under way, and it has been going on for quite a few years.  No one declared war on us.  There is not one country that would be in a state of war with Russia.  But there are people and organizations in various countries, who take part in hostilities against the Russian Federation.47
Dmitri Trenin subsequently observed that, for some time,” the Kremlin has been de facto operating in a war mode.”48  

Those developments provoked Western sanctions and the collapse of Russo-Western (not just American) relations into a hostile spiral.  But they also obliged Russia to seek greater political and economic support from Beijing as reflected not just in diplomacy but also in Chinese investment in Russian equity energy firms that had previously been taboo and Moscow’s acquiescence to a subordinated role for its EEU to China’s BRI.49  Russian leaders may shout form the housetops that China will not be able to replace business and economic cooperation with European states, the EU, and the US, but in fact Putin’s so called “Greater Eurasian Partnership” dating back to 2015-16 appears to be the dominating impulse in the rhetoric if not actual policy.50  But ultimately such rhetoric and policy entails Russian support for Chinese policies, not necessarily the other way around.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s comments on his recent visit to China showed that Russia is supporting China in its trade war with Washington, even though Moscow, as Putin has said, will try to exploit opportunities to supplant US trade with China.51  Putin’s gambit might work to some degree regarding agricultural exports but it is unlikely that Russia can compete with other suppliers to China in manufactured goods.  Medvedev not only urged China to attend to Russian interests but also stated Russia’s readiness to support Chinese interests in competing for new, open, global markets.52  Nevertheless when Moscow approached Beijing about joining it in a campaign to supplant the dollar with the ruble by ensuring that payments between them were exclusively in national currencies, China turned it down flat, obviously reluctant to confront the US further in economic affairs.53  Furthermore, Chinese banks remain reluctant to challenge US sanctions and lend to Russian banks, and Yuri Zaitsev frankly said, “China is willing to invest in the Russian economy only under certain circumstances”—something that provides China with leverage to “impose its interest on Moscow.”54  Thus, while China keeps harping on the need for ever more comprehensive cooperation in defense, economics, and politics, the reality is that Russia is gradually becoming what Russians feared, namely a raw materials (energy and foodstuffs) supplier to China while progress on actually coordinating the BRI with Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership and the EEU remains largely on paper, mere rhetoric.55

Development of the alliance

From the outset of the Sino-Russian rapprochement of the 1990s to the present, a major if not the major force driving the steady improvement of relations has been the ideological congruence of both states, i.e. their mode of self-representation and fear of liberal democracy and US values in world affairs. This is not merely an axis of convenience but always has been a normatively driven relationship and, therefore, its fuel stems from within the nature of the Russian and Chinese states as such, not from external US policies.56  This argument does not deny the role of US policies in consolidating those ties but it does not ascribe primary force to that factor even if brings both sides together.57  Rather it locates the source of this alliance in the nature of these states and their intrinsic ways of thinking about international affairs.          

Russia also follows China’s lead on Korean issues, where it plays a much smaller role than does China, as well as on the issues of the South China Sea, and in allowing without protest Chinese economic and commercial primacy in Central Asia.58  Lastly in regard to Russo-Japanese talks, Moscow continues to refuse to make any real concessions to Tokyo, not least because of how that might impact its relationship to Beijing.   Instead it continues to build up military forces in the Kurile Islands.59  Moscow even called in the Japanese ambassador in early 2019 to remonstrate against Japanese remarks that Russia would cede it two, disputed islands.60  And this occurs even though Japan has been chasing after Moscow for six years, not least in order to erode the Russo-Chinese bloc that it acknowledges, but which it believes could be attenuated by a deal with Russia.61

Both militaries, clearly with state authorization, have announced their desire for an alliance.  In November 2014 Shoigu (and his deputy Anatoly Antonov, now ambassador to Washington) contended that both countries not only faced US threats in the Asia-Pacific but also US-orchestrated “color revolutions” and Islamic terrorism.  He advocated enhanced cooperation in response, both bilaterally and within the SCO.62  Shoigu identified “good-neighborly relations” with China as key “to ensuring peace throughout the Eurasian continent and beyond.63  And China’s military leader announced in Moscow in 2018 that he was there to display China’s support for Russia.64

These gambits were not examples of the ministry’s freelancing. Putin and Lavrov have frequently alluded to an alliance even if not a formal one, and Lavrov has talked about informal alliances of a new type.65  Putin even called the two states “natural allies” in 2014.66  Neither was it the only example where Russia solicited an alliance with China.  Putin in 2016 cited the comprehensive strategic partnership phrase cited above,67 and the relationship has only deepened since then with Russia apparently seeking a formal alliance.68 China’s practical response conforms to alliance dynamics even if it formally eschews alliances, often urging Russia to draw closer on issues of Asian security.69  Artem Lukin, Rens Lee, Gilbert Rozman, and Alexander Korolev also believe that the evidence clearly shows an evolving alliance along with bilateral ideological and strategic congruence.70 Indeed, Trenin admits China gets most if not all that it wants from China without a formal alliance.71  An extensive and long-running program of inter-military consultations about current and future operations and contemporary warfare developed over several years clearly points to alliance dynamics. Thus, Shoigu remarked,

Russia’s strategic partner is the People’s Republic of China. Bilateral military cooperation is developing actively. Primarily it is focused on the fight against international terrorism. Joint actions are regularly practiced during the military exercises Naval interaction and Peaceful Mission. The Russian Federation continues to prepare specialists for the People’s Liberation Army of China. In total more than 3,600 Chinese servicemen have been trained in the universities of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation.72

This is too close to advocacy of an alliance to be coincidental. And over the last generation much of what China has sought and obtained from Russia amounts to a de facto alliance.73  But the alliance Moscow seeks need not be formally codified like NATO or pre-World War I alliances.  It can remain a de facto flexible alignment with room for separate, parallel, or convergent, initiatives or even occasional disagreements in keeping with both sides’ views on the contemporary world order.74  Kashin recently wrote that both sides may avoid the term alliance but the relationship already far exceeds “neighborliness” or even “strategic partnership” even though China’s lasting gains in Asia are arguably at Moscow’s, not Washington’s, expense, most obviously in Central Asia.75  As to what is meant by such an alliance, Lavrov stated in 2014,

If we talk about alliances, not in the old sense of the word, not in the sense of tough bloc discipline when NATO was against the Warsaw Pact and everyone knew that this part of the negotiating table would raise their hands and this part would vote against it.  Today such baseline discipline looks humiliating to states that preach democracy, pluralism of thought, and so on. […] Other types of alliances – flexible network alliances – are much more in demand today.76

This conforms to Kashin and Putin’s observations on the relationship’s tendencies.77  Michael Yahuda also observes that Russian elites favor enhanced collaboration.

Moscow believes that bolstering China’s military position in East Asia is very much in Russian interests.  As the official in charge of Russian arms exports stated in April 2015, “if we work in China’s interests, that means we also work in our interests.”  In other words, the US-led economic sanctions on Russia have made Sino-Russian strategic interests more congruent.78

Enhanced military cooperation is visible in the joint exercises since 2014 culminating in Vostok 2018, mutual arms sales to each other, and the signing of new contracts for Russia to sell arms to China.  This solution reflects China’s refusal to join formal alliances and repeated calls upon Moscow to forge ever closer ties and cooperation regarding Asian and international security, support China’s vital national interests, and even build a new world order based on “global strategic stability.”79  It also allows Putin (and Xi Jinping) to pretend that there is not an alliance and that Russia is expanding its ties in Asia.  Yet "Russia and China stick to points of view which are very close to each other or are almost the same in the international arena," Putin said, in 2016.80 

We should not seek refuge in the illusion that Moscow cannot abide by China’s visible dominance in the relationship.  The comforting belief held by many in Washington concerning Russia and China’s “natural non-convergence of interest” is simply not true.81  China’s ambassador to Russia, Li Hui, states “China and Russia are together now like lips and teeth,” a formulation that clearly evokes an alliance relationship.  And even Putin accepts China’s leadership, having said that, “the main struggle, which is now underway, is that for global leadership and we are not going to contest China on this.”82

It is notable that much of this talk of alliance originated on Russia’s, i.e. the demander’s, side and revolves around military and ideological-political cooperation and congruent world-views.  Although Russia and China sometimes find cooperation difficult, their commitment to emphasizing the positives in the relationship, rather than laboring over any differences overrides those disputes. This approach has been facilitated by the steady institutionalization of bilateral ties. This encompasses summits between heads of state; regular meetings of prime ministers and foreign ministers; consultations on strategic stability (at the level of deputy foreign minister), military cooperation (at the level of defense ministers), and broader security issues (between national security advisors).83
Graham Allison observes,

What has emerged is what a former senior Russian national security official described to me as a “functional military alliance.”  Russian and Chinese General Staffs now have candid, detailed discussions about the threat U.S. nuclear modernization and missile defenses pose to each of their strategic deterrents.84

It stands to reason that these militaries also have had, for some time, equally probing discussions on issues of conventional warfare.85 Space considerations preclude a detailed examination of what these conventional discussions might entail.  Nevertheless, shared learning, not least regarding strategic questions, characterizes bilateral military-political ties.  This mutual “learning” has significant military and political consequences. 

The Sea of Okhotsk, Arctic Ocean, and South China Sea

If China can get away with its extensive and essentially unjustified claims to the South China Sea despite legal findings to the contrary by bodies like the International Court of Justice, then Russia will have a functioning precedent for acting equally unilaterally and forcefully in the Arctic and vice versa.86  But even before the Arctic and South China Sea are resolved we already know that Russia’s behavior in the Sea of Okhotsk not only suggests its future intentions in the Arctic but also emulates China’s actions in the South China Sea and vice versa. Lastly, Russia’s current operations in the Sea of Azov visibly resemble Chinese actions in the South China Sea.87

Russia’s activity in the Sea of Okhotsk prefigures its behavior in the Arctic. Like the Arctic, the approximately 52,000 square mile Sea of Okhotsk encompasses what Russia considers to be substantial energy and mineral deposits as well as being a key maritime chokepoint or body of water from a defensive standpoint. In 2008, Russia, as it was also claiming the Arctic, drafted a survey report claiming that the seabed in the center of the Sea of Okhotsk was part of its continental shelf, thereby allowing it, and not Japan, to develop the supposed resources in that shelf.88 In 2014, the UN recognized Moscow’s claims that the continental shelf extended under the entire seabed of that sea under the terms of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). As a result, Moscow closed the formerly open sea to international fishing and exploration and has since begun energy exploration there in the belief that it contains potentially valuable energy deposits as well.89 As Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Sergey Donskoi claimed, this was the first step towards recognition of Russia’s expansive Arctic claims under UNCLOS. Policy here might fairly be described as a precedent in Moscow’s eyes with regard to the Arctic.90 Donskoi undoubtedly reflected the official perspective linking naval defense in the Asia–Pacific to control over the Arctic.  Not surprisingly Russia has steadily militarized the Sea of Okhotsk since this decision, not just to keep out outsiders but also to ensure that it cannot be used by anyone else to get into the Arctic.91  This militarization continues right up to the present.92

Similarly, Russian behavior in the Arctic and Sea of Okhotsk clearly connects to Chinese behavior in the South China Sea as strategic military and legal-political precedent for China’s actions. China’s claims regarding the South China Sea have become entwined with strategic miliary as well as legal disputes with Washington and other coastal staes there over the interpretation of UNCLOS and whatever right China claims to regulate foreign maritimne traffic in the South China Sea.93 Already in 2013 US analysts expected China to continue to rely, as has Russia, on domestic laws enacting China’s particular intetrpreation of UNCLOS to bar foreign commerical, not to mention military (as it defines the latter to include scientific and hydrographic) ships from entering the waters over which China claims sovereignty.94

In the legal domain these two maritime issues relate very much to each other. The 2016  finding by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague denying China’s claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea has potential repercussions in the Arctic where both Russia and Canada have made sweeping claims of sovereignty over territorial waters.

Just as China’s historical claim was challenged by the South China Sea arbitration, so Russia and Canada’s claims (in the Arctic-author) may be correspondingly held under greater scrutiny by the arbitration’s jurisprudential effects.  In the wake of the tribunal’s decision, any claim to maritime jurisdiction that is based in history will be newly evaluated against the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as treaty law.  This new episode in the evolving relationship of history, treaty law for UNCLOS, and customary international law may set the stage for contention in the South China Sea to dredge up historical problems surrounding the politics of international law in the Arctic Ocean.95

Since both Canada and Russia’s arguments amount to claiming that the NSR and the South China Sea waters they claim are “internal waters” that belong to them due to historical rights and practices, foreign states would have to pay some sort of tariff to enter them.  Likewise, the Sea of Azov, according to a Russo-Ukrainian agreement of 2003 was the “internal waters” of both states.  Now Russia, emulating China, and relying on nothing more than force majeure, de facto, if not de jure, contends that the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait tying it to the Black Sea are internal Russian waters where it alone has sovereignty.96  However, the 2016 Court of Arbitration decision against China subjects those claims to question.  As Justin Nankivell writes, the problem facing both Russia and Canada is that recent jurisprudence tilts away from recognizing historical rights towards freedom of navigation and strong flag-state rights at the expense of Ottawa and Moscow’s claims to sovereignty.97  But this decision’s political, economic, and strategic relevance for Asia goes farther.

China has denounced the court’s decision.  Meanwhile, it continues building its man-made islands and fortifying its military capabilities in the South China Sea with apparent impunity.98  Indeed, according to American commanders, China now dominates those waters in all contingencies short of actual war (presumably with the US).99  China’s accomplishments here also resemble Russia’s actions in the Sea of Azov, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Arctic.  If China continues to prevail without meaningful opposition in its campaign to overturn international law, Russia may well be similarly emboldened to implement its Arctic and now Ukrainian claims (see below) by resolute policy and operations, as it already is apparently doing.  Indeed, immediately after the Sea of Azov incident Moscow decreed that no foreign warships may enter the Arctic Ocean in peacetime unless accompanied by Russian ships.100 Much like China declaring the South China Sea a no-go zone or trying to force foreign energy companies to evacuate their platforms there, Moscow has made similar decrees trying to bar foreign commercial vessels from the NSR in advance of the UNCLOS decision on the Arctic.101  Given the increasingly overt Russo-Chinese alliance, the opportunity for them to emulate each other and forge a common legal-strategic position is very strong.  As Nankivell writes,

In order to preserve its claim against jurisprudence and global pressure, Russia will need to undertake continuous demonstrations of its rights, ideally aided by an international partner. […] As an active and willing partner in substantiating the validity of history in international maritime law, China will provide an obvious opportunity for Russia.  And critically, the feeling will no doubt be mutual.  China too will need a reliable partner to underpin its legal position with respect to the rights of coastal states to regulate transiting historically defined areas.  The opportunity for China and Russia to engage in in issue-linkage politics will be clear, particularly when either state’s historical legal claim is directly challenged.102

Strategically, this means a joint challenge to the entire concept of freedom of navigation, a concept that has been the foundation of both US policy and international law for centuries.  Nankivell further spells out the consequences of such an alliance regarding these points.

If the existence of historic title, either in principle or in specific application becomes a contentious issue for international politics, we may expect the formation of communities of interest among like-minded states to take shape as coordinated policy or operations.  These juxtaposed communities of interest might tenaciously bind claimants to the Arctic and China, their counterpart in the South China Sea.  The United State, EU, Japan, South Korea, and India are likely to oppose this grouping, given that history has been legally upended and the scope of navigational freedoms curtailed.  In this way the South China Sea Arbitration may have potentially reconfigured international relations with respect to maritime law and policy.103


Analysts have long chronicled the political, economic, and ideological manifestations of the evolving Sino-Russian partnership.  But the steadfast denials of a military alliance dynamic here are not based on the evidence of arms sales, technology transfer, joint exercises, conventional and nuclear coordination, and long-term strategic dialogues.  Inasmuch as the US has singled out China and Russia as its adversaries, misreading the true nature of their relations gravely undermines the chances for successful American strategy and policy and not only in Asia.104  It is long since time that analysts and policymakers acknowledge the reality that is evolving right before their eyes and stopped taking refuge in clichés and wishful thinking.  Only on the basis of realism can we move forward to deal with this alliance and the challenge of either defeating or disassembling it in exclusively peaceful ways.  Invariably when governments fail to recognize strategic reality that reality punishes them and imposes even higher costs upon them.  The strategic reality of a Sino-Russian alliance dominated by China that incites Russia to aggressive behavior is plainly visible, and failure to grasp that reality can only lead to repeated strategic failures and these higher costs until we disenthrall ourselves from our earlier illusions.

1. National Intelligence Strategy of the United States of America, 2019,, 2019; National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 2017,; Summary of the National Defense Strategy Of the United States Of America, 2018,; Nuclear Posture Review, 2018;; Missile Defense Review, 2019;; Office Of the Director of National Intelligence, Remarks as prepared for delivery by The Honorable Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence Annual Threat Assessment Opening Statement Tuesday, January 29, 2019,; Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, January 29, 2019,—SSCI.pdf

2. Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community.

3. To give three of many examples, Marcin Kaczmarski, Mark N. Katz, and Teija Tillikaiinen, The Sino-Russian and US-Russian Relationships: Current Developments and Future Trends, (Helsinki: Finnish Institute of International Affairs, 2018),; Richard J. Ellings and Robert Sutter, eds., Axis of Authoritarians: Implications of China-Russia Cooperation (Seattle, WA: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2018); Jo Inge Bekkevold and Bobo Lo, eds., Sino-Russian Relations in the 21st Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

4. Ibid.

5. “Interview to the Xinhua News Agency of China,” June 23, 2016.

6. Alla Hurska, “Flawed ‘Strategic Partnership’: Putin’s Optimism on China Faces Harsh Reality,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, December 12, 2018.

7. “Interview to the Xinhua News Agency of China.”

8. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, “Statement and Answers to Questions from the Media by Russian Foreign Minister S.V. Lavrov at the Press Conference on the Results of Russia’s Chairmanship of the UN Security Council,” New York, October 1, 2015,” BBC Monitoring.

9. “Russia, China to Bolster Ties in 2019: Envoy,” TASS, December 27, 2018,; “China, Russia Agree to Boost Military Ties, Xinhua, December 21, 2018.

10. “China: Xi Meets Russia Defence Minister,” Xinhua, October 20, 2018.

11. Mercy A. Kuo, “China, Russia, and US Sanctions On North Korea,” The Diplomat, November 13, 2018.

12. “Kim Jong-un Leaves China With ‘Backing for Second Trump Summit,’” BBC, January 10, 2019.

13. Cristina Maza, “Donald Trump Blames China for North Korea’s Failure to Denuclearize, Beijing Slams President’s ‘Irresponsible and Absurd Logic’”, Newsweek, August 30, 2018,

14. “U.S. Warns Russia, China and Others On Enforcing North Korea Sanctions,” CBS, August 4, 2018,

15. Bill Gertz, “Secret Document Reveals China Covertly Offering Missiles, Increased Aid To North Korea,” Freebeacon, January 2, 2018.

16. “Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s Remarks At the UN Security Council Ministerial Meeting On North Korea Settlement Efforts, New York, September 27, 2018,”

17. “Putin Says North Korea Needs More Encouragement,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, September 12, 2018; “Putin Says North Korea Doing a Lot To Disarm But Washington Not Responding,” Reuters, September 12, 2018.

18. “Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s Statement and Answers To Media Questions At a Joint News Conference By BRICS Foreign Ministers Following Their Meeting, Pretoria,” June 4, 2018,

19. “China, Russia Test Controversial Technology Above Europe-Paper,” South China Morning Post, December 17, 2018.

20. Ibid.

21. Brian G. Carlson, “Vostok-2018: Another Sign Of Strengthening Russia-China Ties,” SWP Comment, No. 47, November, 2018,,

22. Vasily Kashin, “The Current State of Russian-Chinese Defense Cooperation,” Center for Naval Analyses, 2018, 14

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Marcin Kaczmarski, “An Asian Alternative? Russia’s Chances of Making Asia an Alternative to Relations with the West (Warsaw: Centre for Eastern Studies, 2008), 35-36.

26. Kaczmarski, pp. 35-36; Jacob Kipp, “From Strategic Partnership to De facto Military Alliance: Sino-Soviet Mil-Mil Contacts in the Modern Era, 1945-2018,” Presented to the NPEC Conference, Washington. DC, July 12, 2018.

27. Kashin, 20. 

28. Mercy A. Kuo, “US Withdrawal from INF Treaty: Impact On China; Insights From Mariusz Rukat,” The Diplomat, November 6, 2018.

29. Missile Defense Review.

30. Marco Giannangeli, ”South China Sea Navy Aims To Ramp Up China Fight,” Express, February 10, 2019,; Geoff Ziezulewicz, “New In 2018: Showdown In the South china Sea?” Navy Times, January 2, 2018,

31. Elizabeth Wishnick, “The Sino-Russian Partnership and the East Asian Order,” Asian Perspective, XLII, No. 3, July-September, 2018, 358-359.

32. Alexander Baunov, “What Drives the Russian State?” Carnegie Moscow Center, November 22, 2018,

33. Maggie Tennis, “Russia Suggests Revised Arms Talks,” Arms Control Association, May 2017,; Russia and US Beginning Strategic Stability Dialogue — Diplomat, TASS, July 20, 2017,

34. “US Aims for Space Superiority Pose Potential Threats to China-Ambassador,” Space War, December 27, 2018.

35. Kashin, 7.

36. Ibid, 18.

37. Ibid, 19.

38. “Russia Forced to Sell Technology to China in Exchange for Repairing Ill-Fated Admiral Kuznetsov Aircraft Carrier,” Unian, January 9, 2019,

39. Tom Roseth and Christopher Weidacher Hsiung, “Sino-Russian Relations in the Arctic-From Cold Shoulders to Cooperation,” Paper Presented to the Conference “New Perspectives on Sino-Russian Relations,” Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, Oslo, September 22-23, 2014, 9.

40. Lincoln E. Flake, “Russia and China in the Arctic: A Team of Rivals,” Strategic Analysis 37, no. 6 (November-December 2013), 681-687.

41. Ibid.

42. “Blog China’s Silk Road Plans Could Challenge Northern Sea Route,” Barents Observer, January 6, 2015.

43. Andreas Kuersten, “Russian Sanctions, China and the Arctic,” The Diplomat, January 3, 2015.

44. Ibid.

45. Paul Stronski and Nicole Ng, Cooperation and Competition: Russia and China in Central Asia, the Russian Far East, and the Arctic, 2018,, 29

46. “Putin’s Revenge,”

47. M.A. Gareyev, Srazheniya na Voenno-Istoricheskom Fronte (Moscow: ISAN Press, 2010), 729. Cited in MG I.N. Vorob’ev (Ret) and Col. V.A. Kisel’ev (Ret), “Strategies of Destruction and Attrition,” Military Thought, no. 1 (2014).

48. Trenin quoted in Ivo H. Daalder, “Responding to Russia’s Resurgence Not Quiet on the Eastern Front,” Foreign Affairs 96, no. 6 (November/December 2017),

49. Stephen Blank, ”Russia’s Pivot to Asia: The Multilateral Dimension,” National Bureau of Asian Research, June 28, 2017; Marcin Kaczmarski, “Russia, China and a New Eurasian Order?” Aleksanteri Insight,no. 2, August 21, 2017,

50. Ibid; Sergey Sukhankin, “From ‘Turn to the East’ to ‘Greater Eurasia’: Russia’s Abortive Search for a Far Eastern Strategy,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, December 14, 2018.

51. “Putin Says Russia Will Supply Soy Beans, Poultry Meat to China,” Reuters, November 28, 2018.

52. Dmitry Mosyakov, “The New Reality in Russian-Chinese Relations,” Valdai Club, November 8, 2018.

53. “Kitai Ne Risknul Svyazivaetsia s Rublem,” Kommersant, December 27, 2018.

54. Hurska; Wishnick, 355-358.

55. Blank; Kaczmarski, “Russia, China and a New Eurasian Order”; Catherine Putz, “Can Russia and China ‘Synergize the Eurasian Economic Union and the Belt and Road Initiative’?” The Diplomat, November 9, 2018.

56. Gilbert Rozman, The Sino-Russian Challenge to the World Order: National identities, Bilateral Relations, and East Versus West in the 2010s (Washington, D.C. Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2014); Elizabeth Wishnick, “In Search of the ‘Other’ In Asia: Russia-China Relations Revisited,” The Pacific Review 28, no. 2 (July 2016), 1-5; “Yeltsin Okays Russian Foreign Policy Concept," Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press 45, no. 17, May 26, 1993, p. 15; Yuri S. Tsyganov, "Russia and China: What is in the Pipeline?" in Gennady Chufrin, ed., Russia and Asia: The Emerging Security Agenda (Oxford: Oxford University Press for SIPRI, 1999), 301-303.

57. Hurska; Wishnick, “The Sino-Russian Partnership and the East Asian Order,” pp. 355-358

58. Stephen Blank, “Paradoxes Abounding: Russia and the South China Sea Issue,” in Anders Corr, ed., Great Powers Grand Strategies: The New Game in the South China Sea (Annapolis, MD. Naval Institute Press, 2018), 248-272; Stephen Blank, “Russia and the Korean Peace Process,” International Journal of Korean Unification 27, no. 2 (2018), 23-66; Blank, ”Russia’s Pivot To Asia: The Multilateral Dimension.”

59. “Russia Planning to Boost Missile Defence Capabilities On Disputed Isles-Kyodo,” Kyodo, December 30, 2018.

60. “Russia Summons Japanese Ambassador due to Statements about the Kuril Islands,” UAWire, January 10, 2019.

81. This quote is by former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, cited in Graham T. Allison, “China and Russia: A Strategic Alliance in the Making,” National Interest, December 14, 2018.

82. Ibid. He brings other quotes to buttress his argument that we are seeing an alliance.

83. Marcin Kaczmarski, Asian Alternative? Russia’s Chances of Making Asia an alternative to Relations with the West (Centre for Eastern Studies, 2008) 35-36.

84. Ibid.

85. Jacob Kipp, “From Strategic Partnership to De Facto Military Alliance: Sino-Soviet Mil-Mil Contacts in the Modern Era, 1945-2018,” Presented to the NPEC Conference, Washington DC, July 12, 2018.

86. Tom Phillips, Oliver Holmes, and Owen Boscott, “Beijing Rejects Tribunal’s Ruling in South China Sea Case,” The Guardian, July 12, 2016,

87. James R. Holmes, “Goodbye Grotius: Hello Putin,” Foreign Policy, November 29, 2018,

88. Tokyo, Sankei Shimbun Online, September 15, 2008; FBIS SOV, September 15, 2008.

89. Sergey Krivosheyev, “Far East Bonanza: Resource-Rich Sea of Okhotsk all Russian, UN Confirms,” RIA Novosti, March 15, 2014; Paul Goble, “Moscow Closes Okhotsk Sea to Outsiders,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, April 29, 2014; and Miklosz Reterski, “Russia’s Grasp on Okhotsk Will Intensify South China Sea Tensions,” NYU Jordan Center, November 10, 2014,

90. Ibid.

91. Ajay Kamalakaran, “Why Russia Will Not Return the Southern Kuriles to Japan,” Russia Beyond the Headlines, June 11, 2015,; Sarah Lohscheider, “Why Russia and Japan Can’t Solve the Kuril Islands Dispute,” The Diplomat, June 30, 2016.

92. Ibid;“Russia Planning to Boost Missile Defence Capabilities on Disputed Isles-Kyodo.”

93. Kimberly Hsu and Craig Murray, “China’s Expanding Military Operations in Foreign Exclusive Economic Zones,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission: Staff Research Backgrounder, June 19, 2013.

94. Ibid, 2-3.

95. Justin D. Nankivell, “The Role of History and Law in the South China Sea and the Arctic Ocean,” Maritime Awareness Project, August 7, 2017,

96. Holmes.

97. Nankivell, 2.

98. Eleanor Ross, “How and Why China is Building Islands in the South China Sea,” Newsweek, March 29, 2017,; Seth Robson, “China Island-Building Continues in South China Sea,” Stars and Stripes, December 16, 2017,; Bill Hayton, “The Week Donald Trump Lost the South China Sea,” Foreign Policy, July 31, 2017,

99. “Advance Policy Questions for Admiral Philip Davidson, USN
Expected Nominee for Commander, U.S. Pacific Command,”

100. “Russia Will Restrict Foreign Warships in Arctic Ocean, Defense Official Says,” The Moscow Times, November 30, 2018,

101. Andrei A. Todorov, “The Russia-USA Legal Dispute Over the Straits of the Northern Sea Route and Similar Case of the Northwest Passage,” Arctic and North, no. 29. 2017, 62-75.

102. Nankivell, 14.

103. Ibid, 15.

104. White House, “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” December 2017,