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Growing opportunities for Sino-Russian military cooperation poses major challenges: RAND Corporation

People's Liberation Army-Navy guided missile destroyer alongside Leningrad Naval Base outside Saint Petersburg, Russia (Adobe Stock Images)

The Sino-Russian relationship has only gone from strength to strength since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and while history may be against it, growing Western concerns about the partnership is now prompting further and much-needed analysis.

The Sino-Russian relationship has only gone from strength to strength since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and while history may be against it, growing Western concerns about the partnership is now prompting further and much-needed analysis.

Across the West, it is becoming clear that few, if any of our policymakers – both elected and bureaucratic – have little to no understanding of history and the lessons it can provide.

The famed German statesman, Otto von Bismarck, instituted a policy of dividing Germany’s two great potential continental adversaries, in this case France and Russia, from uniting to hinder Germany’s ambition on the continent.


Successive German chancellors, military leaders, and kaisers up until Wilhelm II, sought to maintain this strategy of division to prevent the industrial and military powerhouse from being forced to fight a costly and devastating two-front war.

Now why did I start this analysis like this? Well because the precedent established by Bismarck holds true to this day, albeit in a different geographic environment.

In the modern context, this predicament is very much the case that the United States, as the world hegemon, finds itself in as Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s People’s Republic of China continue to consolidate their relationship, unified by a single goal: replace the US-led world order.

It is easy to forget that in many ways, the United States has put itself in this position as a direct result of the Nixon administration’s opening up of China as a hedge against the Soviet Union’s manpower advantages in Europe.

These efforts to offset Russian advantages in the European theatre were provided by China’s own advantages on the Soviet’s eastern borders following years of territorial disputes and outright conflict between the two communist powers, forcing a more “balanced” approach by the Soviets to avoid “encirclement”.

Today it is the United States and, to a lesser extent, its allies that face the challenges of “encirclement” of a resurgent Russia and rising China who have spent the last three decades (at least) positioning themselves to challenge and usurp the post-Second World War economic, political, and strategic order established and maintained by the United States.

Highlighting this growing partnership is RAND Corporation’s Mark Cozad, Cortez A. Cooper III, Alexis A. Blanc, David Woodworth, Anthony Atler, Kotryna Jukneviciute, Mark Hvizda, and Sale Lilly in a report titled Future Scenarios for Sino-Russian Military Cooperation: Possibilities, Limitations, and Consequences which detailed the challenges and opportunities presented by this partnership.

‘Imperfect partners’ united by a common adversary

While much of the recent history of China and Russia has been characterised by varying grades of enmity, the current relationship is far more complex, increasingly integrated and focused, posing a major challenge to the US-led world order, but it isn’t without its fault lines.

Highlighting this, the RAND report stated, “Today’s Russia-China relationship may be best characterised as a marriage of two imperfect partners who share a deeply cynical view of the current US-led international order but hold often divergent visions of the order that they believe should replace it.”

Equally, one must consider the historic roles both nations have played and the ways in which their respective status and position in the broader global power hierarchy will influence the relationship, as where Russia was the world’s premier revisionist power, now it is the People’s Republic of China, buoyed by its immense economic, industrial, and political capacity as well as its growing strategic might.

Meanwhile, Russia, who’s economy has bounced back and expanded rapidly despite the ongoing war in Ukraine, is still only a shadow of its Chinese counterpart and the once-feared Russian military is but a shadow of its former might, instead depending on its vast strategic nuclear arsenal to do most of the proverbial heavy lifting for its “great power” status.

Unpacking the implications of this further, RAND report stated, “In this same vein, these imperfect partners realise that some level of shared, albeit unequal, dependency is necessary while simultaneously harboring deep suspicions about whether they can trust or rely on the other. Ultimately, the backdrop and motivation for any future military cooperation – particularly in terms of an operational partnership – is based much more on dissatisfaction with the US-led order and a common dislike for the United States than it is on a shared strategic vision and common values.”

However, while debate continues to rage on about who is the “senior” and “junior” partner and the “division of labour” between the two powers, these differences seem to have been put aside in order to strengthen the “no limits” partnership, resulting in closer economic ties, political collaboration via organs like the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and military-to-military cooperation.

The RAND report stated, “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. Their continued engagement at the highest levels of their respective governments also signals China’s intent to maintain its relationship with Russia despite international pressure.”

Meanwhile, from Beijing’s perspective, the Sino-Russian relationship provides an important avenue for it to circumvent and break what it sees as an attempt by the United States and its regional partners, namely Japan and Australia, to encircle and contain it, putting in place the pieces for a blockade to cut off the Chinese economy from access to critical raw resources and energy supply in the event of hostilities.

Equally, this partnership is seen by Beijing as a path to enhance and expand its dominance of key dual use and military technology without having to expose itself to the threat of Western sanction regimes or legal proceedings, not that such measures have worked well thus far!

Recognising this, the RAND report stated, “The Russia-China partnership is 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 US power. As the de facto ‘senior partner’ in the relationship, Beijing simultaneously sees a significant opportunity to exploit Russia’s weakness, which it has leveraged to gain access to inexpensive energy, advanced military technology, and strategic resources.”

While at first glance the relationship appears to be almost entirely transactional in character, the West does have to be careful not to entice further collaboration, cooperation, and integration between the two nations, lest we face two superpowers with immense industrial production capacity, almost unrivalled access to raw resources and energy, and an ambition to topple the world order.

Major implications for the US-led world order

It is not hyperbolic to state that the Russian-Sino partnership at the core of a larger shift towards multipolarity represents, perhaps, the most significant challenge to the post-Second World War order, surpassing even the threat posed by the Soviet Union.

RAND recognised this, identifying a number of implications for the US-led world order, however, by far, the most important is a recognition that any attempts to cleave Russia from China and vice versa, is likely to prove unsuccessful and may, in many ways, result in a strengthening of the relationship between the two nations.

The RAND report stated that even where tensions or friction may exist, the established centres of power in both countries will seek to sand over them in an effort to consolidate the centre of power, “This strategic partnership is vital to Putin and Xi, but its importance preceded them and will extend beyond their tenures. Elites in Russia and China have viewed and will continue to view this relationship as vitally important to both countries’ interests in spite of the many disagreements and areas of friction that may exist.”

In recognising this, it becomes important to appropriately consider and plan for a world where the Sino-Russian relationship continues to strengthen and coalesce into a highly competitive and capable economic, political, and strategic bloc capable of actively and assertively pushing back against the US-led world order in a manner and at a scale we have not seen before.

The RAND report stated, “While the possibilities for cooperation in a combined operation appear to be limited, US planners and policymakers need to consider the circumstances under which Russia and China might pursue cooperation and factor those considerations into planning efforts. The limitations that exist now may not exist in the future, depending on whether Putin and Xi perceive a significant degradation in the international security environment that would require enhanced cooperation. Accordingly, policymakers and planners need to consider how Russian and Chinese combined operations would alter the United States’ strategy and posture.”

One must point out that we cannot discount the possibility of tighter cooperation and collaboration between the two great powers across a host of pathways, ranging from resource exploitation, industrial collaboration and modernisation (think China overhauling and expanding Russia’s industrial base) and joint development of advanced military capabilities and technologies.

We must also consider the possibility of the two powers fighting “back to back” as it were, with equally capable fighting forces facing east and west, backed by an immense industrial machine and economies that have been systematically hardened over the past two decades (at least) to resist and indeed thrive in the face of US and Western sanction regimes, financial pressures and attempts to constrain supply lines.

What this does is present the United States with its global responsibilities, two competing fronts that it cannot possibly marshal its full might against without compromising the other, placing greater strain on the US as the world’s hegemon and strategic guarantor for many nations.

In effect, this approach inverts Bismarck’s strategy and effectively ends the era of US global dominance without firing a shot directly, preferring to let smaller, more expendable tools slowly bleed the United States and its allies day by day, week by week, year by year until the public in those nations become tired of the costs in both “blood” and “treasure” becoming too high.

To respond to this, the US and its allies need to cooperate at an even higher degree to build aggregated mass that serves as a functional and credible deterrent to hostility by either Russia or China towards Europe or the Indo-Pacific and must do so against an assumption that the limitations existing today between the two powers may not necessarily exist in the future.

Highlighting this, the RAND report stated, “The most effective way for the United States to counter the Russia-China strategic partnership is by ensuring the health of its own alliances and pursuing ever greater cooperation among its most important allies and partners. Strategically, the success of the United States network of allies and partners has led to Russia’s and China’s desire to pursue strategic cooperation. This US network of alliances is a significant advantage...

“The limitations that exist now may not exist in the future, depending on whether Putin and Xi perceive a significant degradation in the international security environment that would require enhanced cooperation. Accordingly, policymakers and planners need to consider how Russian and Chinese combined operations would alter the United States’ strategy and posture,” the RAND report stated.

But what does this all mean for Australia?

What does this mean for us?

It is clear that our global and regional adversaries have been playing the long game for some time now, all the while the West collectively, but Australia, in particular, have been content to continue along on the post-Cold War paradigm and belief that we were living through the “End of History”.

This naivety has left Australia dangerously exposed and woefully unprepared to face the shifting balance of global and regional power, despite repeated reminders by our policymakers, since at least 2016, that we were living in “the most dangerous strategic period since the Second World War” at a time when we can least afford it.

Yet despite this, we continue to drag our feet when it comes to preparing the nation and the Australian public to confront the challenges presented by a shift in the global balance of power and embrace the opportunities presented by the epochal shift.

Ultimately, if Australia can’t get its house in order, it will be a suboptimal ally, capable of offering little value either economically, politically or strategically in the event of hostilities (as we have seen in the case of confronting the Houthis in the Red Sea) and even in terms of broader global competition.

If we continue upon our tried-and-true path of “she’ll be right mate”, we will quickly discover that “she won’t be right mate” and we will be at the mercy of the existing and emerging powers who don’t share our values and investment in the “rules-based order”.

Final thoughts

If Australia is going to survive and thrive in this new era, Australia’s policymakers and the public are going to have to accept that while the world is increasingly becoming “multipolar”, the Indo-Pacific, in particular, is rapidly becoming the most hotly contested region in the world.

All of this is underpinned by the emerging economic, political, and strategic might of powers like China, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the established and re-emerging capability of both South Korea and Japan in particular, are serving to create a hotbed of competition on our doorstep.

Recognising this array of challenges and opportunities, both the Australian public and its policymakers urgently need to look beyond the myopic lens that has traditionally dominated our diplomatic, strategic, and economic policymaking since Federation.

Ultimately, we need to see Australia begin to play the long game to fully capitalise on the opportunities transforming the Indo-Pacific.

The most important question now becomes, when will we see a more detailed analysis and response to the challenges and opportunities facing Australia and when will we see both a narrative and strategy that better helps industry and the Australian public understand the challenges faced and opportunities we have presented before us?

As events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political, and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power, or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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