Cover: Future Scenarios for Sino-Russian Military Cooperation

Future Scenarios for Sino-Russian Military Cooperation

Possibilities, Limitations, and Consequences

Published Jun 18, 2024

by Mark Cozad, Cortez A. Cooper III, Alexis A. Blanc, David Woodworth, Anthony Atler, Kotryna Jukneviciute, Mark Hvizda, Sale Lilly

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Research Questions

  1. Under what possible scenarios and circumstances might Moscow and Beijing agree to participate in a combined military operation with each other?
  2. What roles might Russia and China accept in these future scenarios?

In this report, the authors explore possible future cooperation scenarios in which the Russian Armed Forces and the People's Liberation Army could operate together as coalition partners. The authors examine historical patterns of Russian and Chinese alliance behavior as well as current military-to-military engagements between these two militaries that include exercises, training events, such operational activities as joint maritime and air patrols, and high-level exchanges. Given these military engagement trends, three scenarios that illustrate how Russian and Chinese forces might operate together under different strategic and operational circumstances are then examined. These scenarios are then used to identify the prospects and pitfalls for future Russian and Chinese military cooperation in conflict and to explore implications for U.S. policymakers, commanders, and planners.

Key Findings

  • From Moscow's perspective, partnership with China is a strategic imperative for Russia to maintain its claim to great-power status. China's support has helped Russia withstand some of the most negative consequences of Western sanctions, particularly through China's purchase of record amounts of energy from Russia.
  • The Russia-China partnership is also critical for Beijing. With no alliances of its own, Beijing views Moscow's mutual support as its most important strategic relationship and an effective counterweight to U.S. power. As the de facto senior partner in the relationship, Beijing simultaneously sees a significant opportunity to exploit Russia's weakness, which Beijing has leveraged to gain access to inexpensive energy, advanced military technology, and strategic resources.
  • Strategic cooperation and coordination in the overall military-to-military relationship suggests that expanded cooperation might eventually include some form of combined military operation, but this possibility remains uncertain at best. However, cooperation is not the same as interoperability.
  • The likely costs of direct military confrontation with the United States make the willingness of either country to enter into such an operation — either independently or as a coalition — unlikely, especially from Beijing's perspective.
  • Short of a mutual defense treaty, other forms of military cooperation should be expected to intensify.
  • Deeper integration would likely result in more-complex and more-frequent training and exercises between Russian and Chinese forces — interactions that likely engender expanded technology and skills transfers. Similarly, increased integration could potentially lead both militaries to consider operating in new geographic areas or domains, perhaps with new operational concepts they develop jointly.

Recommendations

  • Efforts to break apart the Sino-Russian relationship are unlikely to succeed and may end up motivating both Russia and China to strengthen their ties. This strategic partnership is vital to Putin and Xi, but its importance preceded them and will extend beyond their tenures.
  • The United States' most effective means for countering the Russia-China strategic partnership is ensuring the health of its own alliances and pursuing ever greater cooperation among its most important allies and partners. This U.S. network of alliances is a significant advantage.
  • Although the possibilities for cooperation in a combined operation appear to be limited now, U.S. planners and policymakers need to consider the circumstances under which Russia and China might pursue cooperation and factor those considerations into planning efforts.
  • Policymakers and planners should avoid overestimating the state of military cooperation and operational integration that exists between Russia and China.
  • Deterrence issues in the context of the Russia-China relationship will become increasingly complicated because of Moscow's and Beijing's differing risk calculations and perspectives on the role of nuclear weapons. The United States should consider such areas of friction as an opportunity to inject doubt into the minds of senior leaders in Russia and China about the costs and risks associated with a conflict involving the United States and its allies.

This research was sponsored by the Russia Strategic Initiative of the United States European Command and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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