Sino-Russian Military Cooperation: An Overblown Affair

By Charles Sedore

Vladimir Putin greets Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan at a 2017 BRICS Summit
Photo: Fred Dufour/AFP

Russia and China engaging in recent joint military drills seems insignificant compared to the news of the Afghan government’s collapse and the botched American evacuation that has dominated headlines.

However, this does not mean that the military drills are going unnoticed. Different media sources not only reported on the drills but also on the implications that these drills have for the US.

These observations of Sino-Russian military drills, expansion of technological cooperation, and related threats to the US are reoccurring themes in the public discourse over the last few years. The principal concern over military drills and expanded cooperation is what these developments mean for American security.

On the surface, Sino-Russian cooperation speaks to some level of improving relations and expanding capabilities. But what does that mean for the US? 

For writers and administration officials, this improved capability is a direct threat to US interests and should raise the alarm. For example, Kris Osborn at the National Interest believes that increased military cooperation could lead to the possibility of the Chinese Navy entering the Black Sea to support Russian annexations in Eastern Europe. Earlier this summer, Biden administration officials told Politico that “this [Sino-Russian cooperation] operates as almost a quasi-alliance.”

Are any of these concerns for US safety justified?

Despite attempts to highlight the dangers associated with such cooperation, these concerns are overblown. The US should not feel threatened by the current cooperation between China and Russia for three key reasons.

The first reason is also the most obvious for why the US should not feel concerned about these current developments. The US can still rely upon nuclear deterrence for its ultimate protection. Russian and Chinese improvements in conventional capability will do little to overcome this deterrence and affect the security of the US.

The core position for US security interests should be to protect the nation and ensure its survival. With this goal in mind, nuclear deterrence can provide the ultimate tool to achieve this goal. The US maintains one of the largest nuclear arsenals in the world. The size of the arsenal, combined with a nuclear strategy that prioritizes deterring large-scale aggression and having a second-strike capability, ensures an effective and credible tool for survival.

Even if China and Russia were to form an alliance and combine their capabilities, it is highly unlikely that they could overcome the second-strike capability of the US and threaten the survival of the nation.

Image Credit: Arms Control Association

 
The second reason the US does not need to feel threatened is the disparity between the American and Sino-Russian militaries. Ignoring the unlikely ability for Russia and China to threaten the survival of the US because of nuclear deterrence, those countries would then need to overcome the US military in fighting capability. This would be a rather arduous task considering that the US spent about $778 billion in 2020 on its military, compared to the approximate $252 billion in defense spending by China and $61.7 billion by Russia.

Overcoming this spending deficit would be difficult, both in terms of costs and visibility. Improved cooperation between countries may improve capabilities to an extent, but only through increased spending could both countries make significant enough gains to pose a threat. However, not only would this require the diverting of funds from other parts of the government to the military but would also attract the attention of the US.

The US would not just sit on the sidelines as these countries improved their capabilities and would respond as necessary. This shows that until such time, the US should not worry about meager advancements, nor treat them as grave threats to the security of the country. 

Finally, the United States should not jump to conclusions about what military cooperation could mean for relations between China and Russia. While strategic interests appear to align for both countries now, this does not mean that this will always be the case. Looking at the historical record, it is easy to see instances where states went from engaging in some form of cooperation to open conflict in a relatively short period.

For example, the Soviet Union and Germany cooperated militarily in the interwar period, which led to the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. If history ended there, one could conclude that there is a possibility for China and Russia to sign their own pact and formalize their military relations. This Pact could then serve as a rival to the US. However, Nazi Germany eventually turned on the Soviet Union with its invasion in 1941, bringing a complete end to their cooperation.

This example shows the lesson that relations can change rather quickly, and that nothing is necessarily permanent. For the US, a Sino-Russian alliance would not threaten the security of the US. Rather, it could be a short-term arrangement that falls apart the moment conflicts of interest arise between the two nations. Therefore, the US should avoid jumping to conclusions about the possibility of an alliance between Russia and China.

China and Russia may continue their military cooperation and expansion of relations for the time being. However, the US should not perceive this as a major threat and the sounding of the alarm is premature. The US nuclear arsenal provides deterrence and its current position in military capability shows the US can protect its security. At the same time, history has shown that relations between states can be ephemeral.

The US should instead focus on just observing developments and setting clear markers for what makes up a legitimate threat to the survival of the US. Getting caught up on the fact that China’s Navy “is already larger than the U.S. Navy in terms of sheer numbers” does not accurately reflect the level of threat to US security.

These sensationalist observations are unproductive to an honest assessment of what threatens the security of the US and are best avoided. 

Charles Sedore is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He is particularly focused on Russia and its effects on American foreign policy.

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