Putin and Xi’s Buddy Act Could Blow Up East Asia

A tense aerial standoff is the latest sign of growing Chinese-Russian military ties.

Russian Su-25 jet fighters fly during the parade of the Russian fleet as part of the Navy Day celebration, in Saint Petersburg, on July 28, 2019.
Russian Su-25 jet fighters fly during the parade of the Russian fleet as part of the Navy Day celebration, in Saint Petersburg, on July 28, 2019. Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images

First came the long-range bombers. Flying in formation, four Chinese and Russian nuclear-capable aircraft appeared in the skies between South Korea and Japan on the morning of July 23, prompting both nations to scramble fighter jets. Then a separate Russian military surveillance plane headed for a small group of islands claimed by both Seoul and Tokyo.

What happened next is disputed, but it ended with South Korean pilots firing hundreds of machine gun rounds in warning shots toward the Russian aircraft, Japan accusing both Russia and China of breaching its airspace, and the two countries denying they had done anything wrong, with Moscow accusing Seoul of “aerial hooliganism.”

It’s not hard to see how this could have escalated—how a midair confrontation between two of the United States’ allies and its adversaries could have spiraled into a much larger conflagration. And that matters, because beyond drawing attention to the region’s long-simmering and deeply entrenched territorial disputes, the wider significance of this incident is what it reveals about the emerging Chinese-Russian military relationship, and the chances of this happening again.

This was Moscow and Beijing’s first long-range patrol together in Northeast Asia—intended, according to Russia’s Defense Ministry, to deepen “Russian-Chinese relations” and perfect their “capabilities to carry out joint actions.” The flight path and aircraft involved make this look like an attempt to probe South Korean and Japanese air defenses, which the Russian A-50 surveillance plane, with its long-range radar, would have been perfectly positioned to record. Adding the disputed Dokdo or Takeshima islands to the itinerary, which both Seoul and Tokyo view as sovereign territory, may have also been intended to stoke tensions between the two.

Either way, the sight of Chinese and Russian bombers flying together toward the airspace of two U.S. allies, on the same day U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton landed in the South Korean capital, cannot have gone unnoticed in Washington. And that was probably the point.

There will be more to come. A new agreement expected to be signed soon will make these joint patrols a regular feature. And the war games will not be confined to the skies. Earlier this year, in May, Russian and Chinese naval forces conducted their first joint live-fire missile drills at sea, while Chinese troops took part in Russia’s vast land-based Vostok (“East”) exercises for the first time in September 2018.

This increasing cooperation goes beyond combined military drills. As their relations with the United States have soured, the leaders of Russia and China have declared ties between their two countries to be at an “unprecedentedly high level,” signed up to a joint statement on “Strategic Interaction Entering a New Era,” and promised ambitious economic projects in energy, investment, aerospace, and aviation. Bilateral trade has shot up from $69.6 billion in 2016 to $107.1 billion last year, with Russia becoming China’s largest supplier of crude oil and the Chinese company Huawei commissioned to develop Russia’s 5G network. With an economy still stifled by sanctions imposed after his annexation of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised to integrate his Eurasian Economic Union with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative to form a “greater Eurasian partnership.”

All of which sounds as impressive as the burgeoning authoritarian friendship it accompanies. Less than a year apart in age, with a shared interest in personalizing power, both managing unwieldy inherited bureaucracies, and facing the challenges of autocratic leadership succession, Putin and Xi appear to have a genuinely warm relationship. Xi has called Putin his “best, most intimate friend,” while Putin surprised Xi with ice cream, cake, and champagne on his 66th birthday in June. This was not their first birthday party together—the Russian president has reminisced about how they “had a shot of vodka and sliced some sausage” while they shared family stories together as he turned 61 during an Asia-Pacific leaders’ summit in 2013.

Yet despite the leaders’ personal chemistry and the proclaimed new era, the relationship between these two countries is inevitably more complex than the list of planned cooperative ventures currently suggests. They share a 2,600-mile border, a long history of mutual suspicion between their respective predecessors, and a “history with geography,” all of which have been presented as impediments to a real alliance, along with the disparity in the size of their economies, populations, and military power.

It is also true that some of the evidence marshaled as proof of their strengthening ties is weaker than it seems. Those Vostok military exercises, for instance, which Chinese troops attended for the first time in 2018, were described by one analyst as a “well-organized PR coup for the Kremlin”—signaling to the West that Russia was not isolated, while signaling to Beijing that the far-eastern war games were not aimed at China, rather than genuinely preparing their land forces to fight alongside one another.

As for Putin’s commitment to form a greater Eurasian partnership with Xi’s Belt and Road, while the Russian president may well see another opportunity to “catch the ‘Chinese wind’” in his country’s faltering economic sails, doing so risks ceding influence in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and being relegated to “second-tier status” in what he considers to be his own backyard.

And while Xi might really see Putin as his best, most intimate pal, that doesn’t mean he has any intention of joining him on his next military adventure abroad. Friends are nice to have and can be useful in defusing bilateral tensions, but the leaders of great powers, which both men consider their countries to be, have national interests to consider first.

So consider the televised displays of bonhomie in perspective. But even if fears of a rising Chinese-Russian alliance are overblown, that doesn’t mean there is not still plenty for the United States and its allies to fear.

Outgoing U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned this year that, “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s,” while the White House National Security Strategy in late 2017 listed both nations as top threats to the United States, describing them as revisionist powers attempting to erode U.S. security and prosperity.

Just working together in the areas where their interests are shared—say on undermining U.S. influence and alliances in the Asia-Pacific, for one—leaves plenty they can agree upon, and more than enough room to make their presence felt. Add to that Syria, Venezuela, and Iran, as well as North Korea, which recently resumed testing short-range missiles.

There will still be a rivalry between Beijing and Moscow, of course, but there will also be what Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and a former Russian army colonel, calls an entente—“a basic agreement about the fundamentals of world order supported by a strong body of common interest.” This means more joint patrols, more close calls between U.S. allies and adversaries — and an ever-diminishing margin for error.

Katie Stallard-Blanchette is a History and Public Policy Program and Asia Program fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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