If war had broken out, Yu, now a political scientist at the University of Wittenberg in Ohio, says he probably would have faced advanced Soviet battle tanks with nothing more than a machine gun.
His experience shows how far China-Russia military ties have progressed since that dispute. “When you talk about the military-military relationship, it’s not just about arms sales or joint exercises; it is very extensive and developed gradually,” he said.
Whether or not China becomes directly involved in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the conflict will be an important milestone in the two countries’ military partnership, much like the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Just as Western sanctions that year gave Russia’s military-industrial complex a new impetus to sell technology to the People’s Liberation Army, the Kremlin’s reliance on China after the invasion of Ukraine could accelerate nascent joint technology development and operations.
After decades in which China mainly bought weapons from Russia, rapid advances in China’s military industry have balanced the relationship, with some Chinese technologies beginning to outperform Russian counterparts, at a time of growing political alignment between the two nations.
The partnership ends with a formal military alliance, which Chinese officials say is unnecessary for the two nuclear-armed states. Instead, it allows each side to choose when to join the projection of power — usually in response to shared grievances against the United States — without forcing a stance on each other’s territorial disputes.
Nearly a month later, the war in Ukraine has tested the limits of Beijing’s support as China ostensibly pursues a policy of neutrality even as it refuses to criticize the Kremlin, blames NATO for the crisis and Russia’s disinformation about US-backed organic programs in Ukraine.
According to US officials, Russia requested Chinese military aid shortly after the invasion began. Moscow and Beijing both deny the reports.
Military analysts say China could significantly aid the Russian invasion by providing basic supplies, ammunition, communications equipment and weapons such as drones, but are unlikely to send anything but basic supplies or possibly some dual-use items such as trucks.
This would be a diplomatically dangerous move for Beijing and risk an often vexatious attempt to minimize its involvement in a conflict that increasingly targets civilians. Advanced equipment would also be difficult to integrate quickly into the Russian armed forces.
These restrictions suggest that “deliveries are usually likely in the near term — if Beijing makes the strategic decision to move even closer to Moscow,” said M. Taylor Fravel, director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Also a consideration is China’s relationship with Ukraine, supported in part by the latter’s willingness to provide critical military systems and its long-standing stance of non-interference. As Yu, of the University of Wittenberg, put it: “When two friends fight, are you going to give one of them a knife?”
But if the precedent holds, the crisis could eventually accelerate military cooperation between China and Russia.
After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, China continued to build ties with the Kremlin, using Russia’s isolation to overcome the lingering mistrust and fear of intellectual property theft that had held back the sale of sensitive military technology.
Before 2012, when Xi Jinping became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, military-to-military relations between China and Russia were in a slump as bilateral arms sales plummeted amid Russian concerns that China could reverse engineer its technologies and growing international competition from Chinese arms manufacturers.
But as of 2013, Xi led a pivot to Russia, opting for his first overseas trip and forging a close personal relationship with Putin. For the Chinese military, already unable to buy US weapons due to an embargo imposed after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, sanctions against Russia’s arms industry across Crimea were a way to get better deals. to close.
“From that moment on, we have seen the sale of top-notch, first-class, and state-of-the-art Russian weapons technology to China,” said Sarah Kirchberger, a scientist at Kiel University in Germany. “Previously, Russia was only willing to sell things that were older, at least one generation older, than what it would sell to other customers and what it would use itself.”
The shift was sealed with Chinese purchases of Su-35 fighter jets and the S-400 surface-to-air missile system. In recent years, the relationship has been strengthened with joint naval exercises in distant international waters and computer simulations for missile defense that require a higher level of mutual trust and intelligence sharing.
A number of joint development projects have also been announced, mainly by Russia, including for heavy helicopters, a missile strike early warning system and non-nuclear submarines.
There is little public information about these initiatives – and some may never materialize – but together, the projects suggest a shift from China that is purely a customer to a partner. “Undersea technology is not so easy to share with others,” Kirchberger said. “That would really indicate a whole new level of collaboration, if it’s really true.”
While the threat of sanctions may deter China from providing overt military aid to Russia in Ukraine, a protracted break with the West will encourage the Kremlin to provide even more sophisticated systems and allow for more technology transfers to China, said Paul Schwartz, a senior executive. analyst at CNA, a research organization in Arlington, Virginia.
“At the same time, China may become a major supplier to Russia of underlying military technologies and components, as well as systems where China has an edge — sometimes a significant lead — over Russia,” said Schwartz, listing drones, shipbuilding and maritime radar systems as areas where advanced Chinese technology might interest Russia.
Space is another area where the two are closely collaborating on technologies and systems with potential military applications, including integrating the two countries’ GPS equivalents: China’s Beidou Network and Russia’s GLONASS.
However, obstacles to a closer military relationship remain. Russia continues to worry about theft of its technology, international competition from Chinese arms manufacturers, and even the possibility that a militarily strong China may not always treat Russia as an equal partner.
China may hesitate to take advantage of the war in Ukraine to expand military ties. While Chinese officials say normal trade with Russia will continue, Beijing has taken a wait-and-see approach to the conflict, in part to minimize exposure to sanctions and avoid damaging already shaky relations with Western Europe and the United States. unraveled.
But Xi’s long-term bet on Russia as a partner in challenging Western security blocs makes a rollback of military ties unlikely. In addition to arms trade and joint exercises, the two powers have increasingly coordinated opposition to security partnerships between the United States and its allies.
China has supported Russian complaints about NATO expansion, while Russia has condemned initiatives such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and AUKUS, both of which Beijing blamed for fueling tensions in the Pacific.
For example, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng told a forum in Beijing on Sunday that the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy was causing problems and creating blocs in the region that are “as dangerous as NATO’s expansion strategy.” to the east. in Europe.”
Pei Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan contributed to this report.