The system will provide advance information on potential incoming missiles’ trajectory, speed, time-to-target and other critical information necessary for an effective interception. The integration of China and Russia’s missile attack early warning systems is predicted to make China–Russia military integration and interdependence match the level of the advanced alliance relationships the United States has developed with countries such as France and the United Kingdom.
On 3 October 2019, during the 16th annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, Russia, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was helping China to build its missile attack early warning system. Putin added that, ‘I don’t think I will reveal a big secret here. It will become known anyway’, but also acknowledged that this ‘will fundamentally enhance the defence capability of China because currently only the United States and Russia have such a system’.
Subsequently, China and Russia were reported to have signed contracts worth US$60 million to develop software for the new system. Sergei Boev, the chief designer of the missile attack early warning system and the General Director of the Russian Vimpel Interstate Corporation involved in the software project, later stated that cooperation with China in this area was ‘ongoing’ and that ‘we cannot provide more details since it has to do with confidential agreements’.
Cooperation between China and Russia in the area of strategic arms is not a ‘big secret’ but an outcome of the consistent and incremental consolidation of China–Russia strategic alignment since the end of the Cold War. In the area of missile attack early warning systems, cooperation can be traced back to at least May 2016, when China and Russia launched a new joint regular military exercise, Aerospace Security, which took place in the Central Research Institution of the Russian Armed Forces and became the first China–Russa computer-simulated missile defence drill.
The second joint drills of this type, Aerospace Security 2017, happened in Beijing in December 2017. According to China’s National Defense Ministry, these drills were meant to bolster bilateral cooperation and secure strategic balance in the Asia Pacific. The main task was ‘to work out joint planning of combat operations when organising air missile defences, operation and mutual fire support’.
The third such drill, Aerospace Security 2019, took place in Russia in 2019 with the main tasks being responding to potential ballistic and cruise missile strikes over the two countries’ territories. In this context, the announcement that Russia was helping China to build a missile attack early warning system is an indication of China–Russia long-term strategic cooperation entering a new, more advanced, but entirely expected stage.
Nevertheless, Russia sharing missile attack early warning capabilities with China is significant from both military–technical and geopolitical standpoints. It enhances China’s defence capabilities immensely because China obtains a powerful tool to protect itself from a hypothetical disarming first strike from the United States. Moreover, it opens avenues for the integration of China and Russia’s early warning systems. When warning stations in Russia and China are merged into a single complex, this increases the speed with which the two countries can be warned of and intercept a potential missile attack.
According to a retired deputy commander of Russia’s air force, Alexander Luzan, Russia will also benefit from such a merger because the creation of a unified information space and data exchange with Chinese radars will mean that ‘the security of our country [Russia] from the east will be better ensured’. Some Moscow-based defence analysts argue that integration of the two countries’ early warning systems facilitates further convergence of Russia and China’s defence strategies — resulting in the formation of a common defence policy.
Equally significant are the geopolitical implications. Strategic arms — and specifically missile attack early warning systems — are the most critical and sensitive aspect of any country’s defence capabilities. China and Russia extending their cooperation into this area is a significant leap in terms of bilateral trust.
While both countries emphasise that their cooperation is not directed against third countries, it unfolds in the context of the simultaneous deterioration of both US–China and US–Russia relations, which generates an external compulsion that removes any political barriers constraining China and Russia from entering a de-facto alliance relationship.
Refraining from using the word ‘alliance’ does not mean that an alliance is not possible. Rather, delaying the official announcements, or not making an announcement at all, may be beneficial to both China and Russia. The United States may find itself in a position where it is no longer capable of tackling the growing capabilities of a China–Russia alliance, whether formal or tacit.
Given the current international circumstances, for the United States to be able to reverse China–Russia strategic cooperation will be difficult and will have to involve decisions that require a considerable amount of political will.
Alexander Korolev is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.