1 August 2019

Joint Bomber Patrol Over the Pacific: The Russo-Chinese Military Alliance in Action

By: Stephen Blank

On July 24, 2019, Russian and Chinese military planes flying together invaded Japanese and South Korean airspace only to encounter Korean fighters that shot at the Russian aircraft. The Russian contribution to this joint air patrol included an A-50 Beriev airborne radar, which can track and coordinate multiple aircraft, as well as Tu-95 strategic bombers. China’s contingent of assets similarly included strategic bombers along with an airborne early warning and control (AEW&C or, more commonly, “AWACS”) jet. In other words, the Chinese and Russian planes were flying a joint “reconnaissance mission in force” (razvedka boem; a.k.a., “reconnaissance by fire”), a warfare tactic whereby military forces may target expected enemy positions in order to prompt a reaction and thus reveal the enemy’s presence. Indeed, the bilateral Russian-Chinese air patrol over the Sea of Japan and inside the Republic of Korea’s (ROK—South Korea) Air Defense Identification Zone (KADIZ) was driven off by ROK fighters, which fired multiple rounds of warning shots (Kommersant, July 24). Though media and expert analysis has closely examined the details of this Sino-Russian mission (see EDM, July 25), thus far less has been written on what this joint bomber patrol says about the continued crystallization of a Sino-Russian military alliance—whether formal or not—directed against the United States and its Asia-Pacific allies, Japan and South Korea.

Moscow and Beijing’s bilateral relationship has evolved greatly since then–Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev led an effort to forge a rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1982—his last major initiative before his death. But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the relationship with China has accelerated and deepened, increasingly taking the form of a de facto, albeit not de jure, alliance. Recently, the Russian government issued a directive indicating the conduct of negotiations with Beijing about preparing a new agreement on military cooperation. Notably, this agreement is to contain proposals from the Russian Ministry of Defense—a known proponent of this nascent alliance with China. That revelation coincided with the two sides’ first joint air patrol over Northeast Asia (see above), strongly suggesting that the air patrols are connected with this plan. Indeed, a 2017 Russian initiative created the legal basis for the expansion of the volume of Sino-Russian military cooperation through 2020 (Carnegie.ru, July 25).

The above-mentioned accords are clearly components of a larger military partnership. Russian arms sales to China; ever larger, more sophisticated, and wide-ranging bilateral military exercises; staff talks; and the education of 3,600 Chinese students in Russian military academies are already widely known about (Ispionline.it, December 21, 2018; see EDM, March 30, 2016 and September 13, 2018; see Jamestown.org, September 13, 2016). But all of these programs are clearly set to expand. Thus, the July 24 joint air patrol is not some sudden eruption or fluke; rather, it should properly be seen as part of a long-planned and constantly lengthening chain of examples of military cooperation that now embraces not only reconnaissance but potential conflict scenarios in Northeast Asia.

As political scientist Graham Allison has noted, “Russian and Chinese General Staffs have candid, detailed discussions about the threat U.S. nuclear modernization and missile defenses pose to each of their strategic deterrents. It therefore stands to reason that these militaries also conduct equally probing discussions concerning conventional warfare and Korean issues” (Cited in Alexander Korolev, “On the Verge of an Alliance: Contemporary China-Russia Military Cooperation,” Asian Security, April 30, 2018). A number of Russian experts have also confided to this author that Moscow and China have conducted and are conducting talks on strategic stability, “and we know how many nuclear missiles China has” (Author’s interview, July 16, 2019) Be that as it may, it seems clear from the recent joint air patrol—not to mention Russian-Chinese joint exercises during last autumn’s Vostok 2018 drills and all other manifestations of cooperation—that, as Russia and China have agreed, the military relationship is set to further deepen.

Illustratively, Moscow is now offering China high-performance fighter aircraft. Russia recently announced that it was willing to sell China a second batch of its advanced Su-35 (TASS, June 26). Furthermore, according to Chinese media sources, Moscow announced it was selling the (ostensibly) fifth-generation stealth Su-57 to China—not only because Beijing wants it but also probably to recoup the heavy expenses incurred in its production (Global Times, March 31; The Diplomat, April 2). In addition, China and Russia are already jointly building heavy-lift helicopters, whose benefit for power projection is obvious (Chinamil.com.cn, March 18).

But beyond these high-value arms sales and newly provocative joint air patrols, there are signs of other potentially dangerous implications of the Russo-Chinese alliance. Russian military expert Alexander Shirokorad vehemently dismisses all domestic skepticism regarding moving forward on a potential Russo-Chinese alliance. Building on earlier Russo-Chinese missile- and air-defense cooperation that necessarily involved the transmission of highly classified information between them (South China Morning Post, December 27, 2018), he openly advocates for joint Russo-Chinese air- and missile-defense infrastructure in the Arctic. Unexpectedly, however, he also advances an entirely new concept of allowing Chinese nuclear-armed submarines to gain critical support from Russian Arctic ports (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, May 17). It is difficult to gauge to what degree Shirokorad’s article was meant to have been a justificatory trial balloon. But the piece clearly takes on additional significance when looked at in the context of the Pentagon’s annual report on China, which explicitly warns that Beijing may eventually start deploying nuclear submarines in the Arctic (Defense.gov, May 2).

Thus, last week’s incident over Japanese and Korean territories was no accident or one-off event. More such episodes, including ones involving joint Russian-Chinese forces with even greater capability (as well as more audacity if not recklessness) should be expected. Further sustained probes against US, Japanese and ROK assets and interests are certain to materialize in the coming months.

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