This feature is part of a series on China-Russia relations. Click here to see other content in this series.
China’s decision to tacitly side with Russia despite its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine renewed fears of a China-Russia military alliance. The two countries have so far eschewed a formal alliance, but they share deep military ties centering on arms sales and joint military exercises. Russian arms sales to China have been invaluable to China’s efforts to rapidly modernize the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Joint military exercises have likewise aided the PLA and offered Beijing a suite of other benefits.
Yet military ties between Beijing and Moscow are not without considerable hiccups. China’s repeated theft of Russian technology is a major sore spot, and arms sales are becoming a less important focal point of the broader bilateral relationship. With respect to joint exercises, shifting power dynamics between China and Russia are upsetting the status quo with mixed results for China.
Military Aid and Arms Sales
Through the decades, cooperation on military technology has at times been an important and symbolic element of China-Russia relations. Politically, Russian military aid and arms sales have helped undergird the broader diplomatic relationship. Militarily, arms sales have provided the PLA with equipment that it struggled to produce on its own, like advanced aircraft, engines, and air defense systems. However, China has repeatedly stolen Russian technology and know-how, creating friction between Beijing and Moscow. Going forward, arms sales could become a less important area of the relationship or even become a point of contention as China advances and competes with Russia in the global arms industry.
The Ebb and Flow of Russian Military Aid and Arms Sales
Military aid and arms sales played a major role in cementing ties between the newly founded People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union. After entering the Korean War in October 1950, China suffered heavy losses and turned to the Soviets for aid. In October 1951, Moscow agreed to provide massive amounts of equipment and assistance from Soviet experts. Soviet aid included around 700 MiG-15 fighter jets and 150 Tu-2 light bombers and effectively tripled the size of China’s air force fleet. In total, Chinese historical data suggests the Soviets provided the equivalent of $1.5–2 billion worth of aid during the war.
The Soviet Union also abetted China’s nuclear development, for both civilian and military purposes. Soviet aid included training Chinese scientists, supporting China’s weapons-grade uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, and assisting with warhead design and production and missile technologies. The Soviets, however, stopped short of directly providing China with nuclear weapons.
This massive influx of Soviet aid catalyzed China’s indigenous weapons production. Moscow encouraged and assisted Chinese production through licensing and technical support, and by 1956 China was producing the J-4, its first indigenous combat aircraft modeled on the Soviet MiG-17. China likewise leveraged Russian aid to eventually develop its first successful atomic bomb by 1964.
Yet this military cooperation did not last. By 1960, ideological and political differences resulted in the Sino-Soviet Split, which effectively lasted until the normalization of relations in 1989. During this period, the two countries ceased virtually all forms of military aid and arms sales.
Following the resumption of normal relations between Beijing and Moscow in 1989, arms sales again played a major role in strengthening political ties between the two sides. The Soviet Union was one of the only major arms-producing countries willing to sell weapons to China after the deadly crackdown on protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989, which left Beijing an international pariah. The benefits were not one-sided. Chinese arms purchases were a lifeline for Russia’s defense industry in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Russian arms sales to China burgeoned in the 1990s and early 2000s. Some of the most big-ticket purchases were of Russian fighter aircraft. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), between 1990 and 2005 China placed several orders for some 270 Su-27 and Su-30 fighters at a cost of approximately $10-11 billion.1 In the years following the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis—during which China’s navy was outmatched by U.S. naval forces in the region—Beijing ordered eight Russian Kilo-class diesel-powered submarines and four Sovremenny-class destroyers.2 China also bought thousands of missiles and several S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, among other equipment. Altogether, between 1990 and 2005, China purchased more than 83 percent of its arms imports from Russia.
As in the 1950s, this influx of major weapons systems in the 1990s and 2000s significantly aided the PLA by filling modernization gaps. Russia’s willingness to license production rights to China catalyzed the development of China’s own defense industry. By selling China kits of Russian aircraft parts, Chinese engineers gained manufacturing experience, which aided China in developing indigenous designs.
Problems in the China-Russia Arms Trade Relationship
After a flurry of orders, Chinese arms purchases from Russia slowed to a trickle in the late 2000s. China’s overall arms imports were down 30 percent during the 2007-2021 period compared to 1992-2006. Declining orders from Russia drove much of this fall. China has procured around 71 percent of its arms imports from Russia since 2007—a notable drop from 84 percent during the previous 15-year period.
This decline is partly the result of growing frustration with China’s repeated theft of Russian military technology and intellectual property through espionage and hacks. According to ChinaPower analysis, there have been at least 17 cases of Chinese espionage and hacking to steal Russian military technology during the last two decades. China has most heavily targeted Russian aerospace technologies. In 2004 alone, three court cases saw seven Russians convicted of providing China with information on Russian airplane and satellite technologies.
Espionage and hacks are only part of the story. China has frequently breached agreements with Russian arms suppliers by reverse-engineering Russian equipment to produce its own. China copied Russian Su-27 fighters to develop its J-11 fighter and it reverse-engineered S-300 SAM systems to produce its HQ-9 SAM systems. This has not gone unnoticed in Moscow. In 2019, Russian state-owned defense firm Rostec claimed that there had been 500 cases of unauthorized copying of its equipment in the preceding 17 years. In a rare move, the company publicly criticized China, stating that “‘China alone has copied aircraft engines, Sukhoi planes, deck jets, air defense systems, portable air defense missiles, and analogs of the Pantsir medium-range surface-to-air systems.’"
The relative decline in Russian arms sales to China is also largely due to China’s shrinking reliance on foreign-made equipment. Decades of growing defense spending and intensive efforts to modernize its defense industry have rendered China increasingly capable of producing its own advanced fighter jets, naval vessels, and other equipment.
China does notably still depend on Russian-made engines for many PLA aircraft. Over the last five years (2017-2021), aircraft engines accounted for more than 54 percent of China’s arms imports (by value), with the overwhelming majority coming from Russia. Some of China’s Chengdu J-20 stealth fighters are equipped with Russian Saturn AL-31 engines and versions of China’s developmental Shenyang J-35/FC-31 jet fighter have used Russian RD-93 engines.3
However, China appears to be making headway toward replacing Russian engines. A domestically built WS-10C engine is reportedly being used in variants of the J-20, and new variants of the J-35/FC-31 are likely to be outfitted with Chinese WS-13E engines. Over the next decade, both planes are expected to feature more advanced Chinese-made engines, including the WS-15 and WS-19. China also aims to phase out the Russian Soloviev D-30KP-2 currently powering China’s Y-20 large transport aircraft and H-6K bombers and replace them with Chinese WS-18 engines.
The Future of Russian Arms Sales to China
Going forward, several factors could render arms trade a source of contention and competition, rather than a platform for cooperation. The Chinese defense industry’s continued efforts toward self-reliance could result in the evaporation of Chinese arms purchases from Russia altogether. There has already been a marked slowdown in recent years. China last purchased military equipment (two orders of Mi-17 transport helicopters) from Russia in 2019—a far cry from earlier years when China placed more than a dozen orders in a single year.
Even if China does continue to purchase certain items, Russia may face challenges in supplying them. In 2020, Russia delayed delivery of its highly advanced S-400 SAM system to China, citing the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse. However, the move was seen by some as a diplomatic move by Moscow to avoid angering India—Russia’s top arms buyer—amid heightened tensions and border skirmishes between China and India.
Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine could further inhibit Russia from delivering orders to China. After Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, international sanctions on Russia disrupted Russia’s ability to deliver certain equipment to Vietnam, one of Russia’s top arm export markets. The severe sanctions placed on Russia in response to its 2022 invasion of Ukraine could further disrupt the Russian defense industry and limit its ability to fulfill large orders to China or other customers.
Finally, if China pushes to establish itself as a more dominant player in the global arms market, it could put significant pressure on the broader China-Russia relationship. Russia’s prominence in the global arms market has already declined steeply. In 2021, Russian arms exports plunged to 11 percent of the global total—the lowest point in decades and a steep fall from a high of 32 percent in 2002. So far, China has not made major gains in capturing global market share due to steep competition from more established actors, including the United States and Russia. Nevertheless, China may be able to use Russia’s war in Ukraine to make marginal gains in regions like the Middle East and North Africa. In the long-term, Beijing could become a more attractive arms supplier as developing countries look to diversify their suppliers away from just Russia.
For now, arms sales will likely remain a slightly diminished but positive element of the relationship. As China’s capabilities and influence grow, however, this could change and may ultimately become a thorny issue in the bilateral relationship.
Joint Military Exercises
Unlike military aid and arms sales, which have waxed and waned over the years, joint exercises are a relatively new and thriving element of China-Russia military ties and a driver behind the strengthening of China-Russia relations in recent years. Joint military exercises provide China and the PLA with myriad benefits, such as operational experience and opportunities for deterrent signaling. These benefits could evolve or diminish, however, as China’s power grows and as Russia stagnates.
The Evolving Nature of China-Russia Joint Exercises
China and Russia first participated in a military exercise together in 2003. The multilateral exercise, dubbed Coalition 2003, featured a series of counter-terrorism drills and brought together 1,300 troops from China, Russia, and three other members of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Two years later, China and Russia held their first bilateral military exercise, known as Peace Mission 2005, which began in the Russian far eastern city of Vladivostok and moved to China’s Shandong Peninsula. The exercise was a major undertaking involving 8,000 Chinese troops and 2,000 Russian troops conducting both land and amphibious maneuvers. Exercises such as these, consisting of large ground or multi-domain operations, were the norm during the early years of China-Russia joint exercises.
However, as China and Russia strengthened ties, they dramatically scaled up the number and type of exercises. In 2007, they conducted their first joint paramilitary exercise Cooperation 2007, focused on anti-terrorism drills, and in 2009 they held their first joint naval drills in the Gulf of Aden. Starting in 2014, China and Russia began to participate in large-scale competitions such as the Aviadarts air force competition and Tank Biathlon, both of which are now annual exercises. Since then, the two have further widened the aperture of their cooperation by participating in computer-based simulations and by conducting joint aerial patrols. Altogether, China and Russia participated in at least 78 joint military exercises between 2003 and mid-2022, with more than half of these taking place since 2016.
China-Russia joint exercises have also expanded in terms of geographic reach. Early exercises largely took place in the rugged terrains of western China and Central Asia, but more recent naval exercises saw the two operate in the distant waters of the South African coast, the Mediterranean Sea, and even as far as the Baltic Sea. Joint aerial patrols have likewise seen the two flying across broad swaths of the Western Pacific Ocean.
Mapping China-Russia Joint Military Exercises
This interactive map visualizes China-Russia joint military exercises that took place between 2003 and mid-2022. Bubbles indicate the approximate location of exercises and are colored based on exercise type. Exercises that took place in two locations have bubbles for both locations.4 View the full dataset that drives this map here.
Please view the map on a desktop computer for best results.
How China Benefits from Joint Exercises with Russia
China reaps many benefits from joint exercises with Russia. First and foremost, joint exercises have allowed the PLA to gain valuable experience operating with the far more experienced Russian military and afforded the PLA opportunities to practice maneuvering in a variety of geographies and climates far from China’s borders. These experiences are invaluable to the PLA, which has not engaged in large-scale military conflict in several decades.
Joint exercises provide additional benefits to China (and Russia) as a tool for sending political signals and deterring perceived adversaries. Chinese officials have long claimed that joint exercises do not target “third parties”; however, the 2020 edition of Science of Military Strategy—an authoritative textbook published by China’s National Defense University—states that an exercise “not only demonstrates the Chinese army’s combat capabilities to adversaries, but also causes doubts, making them uncertain about our intentions.”
In recent years, China and Russia have increasingly exploited joint exercises to signal to the United States and its allies. In September 2016, just two months after the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that invalidated China’s claims over much of the South China Sea, China and Russia launched Joint Sea 2016, which featured island seizure operations in the South China Sea. It was their first and only naval exercise held there, sending a clear signal that it was a response to the tribunal’s ruling. More recently, in May 2022, China and Russia conducted a joint aerial patrol over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea that coincided with a summit of the leaders of the Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue (also known as the Quad) in Tokyo. The move was widely seen as a direct response and intentional provocation in protest of the summit.
Beijing also aims to use the exercises to positively signal to friends and neighbors. More than half of China-Russia exercises are multilateral. SCO members states and other neighbors participate in the lion’s share of these. These exercises help to both level up the military capabilities of these countries while also helping to assure them that China and Russia have the capability and will to aid them in addressing regional security threats. They also aim to ease worries in neighboring countries about Beijing’s own intentions, making the exercises an important element of China’s peripheral diplomacy.
Finally, joint military exercises help to strengthen the broader bilateral relationship by facilitating exchanges at multiple levels. The recent Zapad/Interaction 2021 exercises were viewed by Chinese experts as being unique in that the two sides not only jointly conducted the exercise but also collaborated in planning and commanding the exercises. More broadly, exercises have provided opportunities for Chinese military leaders—including vice chairs of China’s Central Military Commission and defense ministers—to meet with their Russian counterparts.
On top of this, exercises increase mutual trust and transparency by revealing to each other their respective capabilities. At Zapad/Interaction 2021, more than 80 percent of China’s equipment used in the exercise was new—including the PLA’s KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft, J-20 and J-16 fighters, Y-20 transport planes, and surveillance and combat drones—giving Russia a look at some of China’s most advanced systems.
The Shifting Dynamics of China-Russia Joint Exercises
The benefits that China gains from joint exercises with Russia are changing as China-Russia power dynamics shifts. Chinese analysts increasingly emphasize China’s military capabilities are catching up with, or surpassing, Russia’s. One expert argues, for example, that Chinese battalion groups have surpassed their Russian counterparts in terms of weapons and equipment and that Russian battalion tactical groups “are only suitable for the kind of battlefield in East Ukraine… and are easily defeated on high-intensity battlefields by advanced adversaries like the U.S. military.”
China has even started to lead some exercises while Russia participating from a more junior position. Official Chinese media described the Zapad/Interaction 2021 exercises as the first in which the PLA led, as well as the first joint exercises held entirely in China using mostly Chinese weaponry. Li Shuyin, a researcher at the Academy of Military Sciences, emphasized the uniqueness of Zapad/Interaction 2021 describing it as “a change of roles” and a chance to create a joint exercise “brand” centered on the PLA.
This emerging dynamic is likely to be cemented as China’s power grows and Russia stagnates. Russia’s war in Ukraine may accelerate this trend. The Russian military has surprised many by how poorly it has performed in Ukraine, and the conflict has proven costly and deadly for Russia. If Russia becomes deeply weakened and overstretched by the war, it may scale back some large-scale exercises. This may lead China to pivot toward smaller-scale exercises that are focused less on operational benefits and more on political signaling. The two sides could also continue with frequent exercises but with China more consistently leading as the senior partner.
Alternately, if Beijing concludes that Russia’s performance in Ukraine has been bad enough and the costs of a closer relationship with Russia outweighs the benefits, it is possible that China could rethink the value of participating in joint exercises with Russia. However, a major deterioration of the China-Russia military relationship would be dependent on a Chinese reassessment that the overall value of strategic ties with Russia has declined—an outcome that does not yet seem likely.
Brian Hart, Bonny Lin, Matthew P. Funaiole, Samantha Lu, Hannah Price, Nicholas Kaufman, Gavril Torrijos