From, Aug 30, 2021, Complete text:

The Russian-Chinese strategic exercises called Zapad [West]/Interaction 2021 that were held in August can be viewed as another step toward forging a full-fledged military alliance between the two countries. According to official reports, more than 10,000 service personnel of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Russian Armed Forces participated in the maneuvers at the Qingtongxia training base in China’s Ningxia-Hui Autonomous Region. They used an impressive number of arms and military equipment, including 200 armored vehicles, 90 pieces of artillery, and more than 100 warplanes and helicopters. In addition to motorized infantry subunits, Russia sent Su‑30SM [fighter] jets to the maneuvers.

The exercises instantly drew praise from the two countries’ military leadership. However, that was not enough for Beijing. After a two-week pause, on Aug. 27, the Chinese Defense Ministry made public another comment: According to CDM spokesperson Tan Kefei, the exercises were a “complete success” and “forged a new, high level of bilateral relations.”

By a curious coincidence, the comment was released literally the day after the US intelligence community published a report on COVID‑19 origins. And although the report did not yield a definitive conclusion on whether China was to blame [for the COVID‑19 pandemic], tensions in relations between Beijing and Washington escalated even more. From Beijing’s perspective, it was just the right time to remind Washington about the aggregate military might of the partner countries that [the US] considers its main competitors and opponents in the world arena.

Russian spirit under Chinese command.

The war game scenario involved eliminating a terrorist group. The methods of destroying it included massive air strikes, effective target engagement throughout the defense area, and tactical airborne assault operations behind enemy lines. All of those have become traditional for joint Russian-Chinese maneuvers, which been conducted more or less regularly since 2005.

In recent years, China has been sending more and more contingents to participate in annual strategic maneuvers with the Russian Army. For example, full-fledged Chinese brigades participated in the Vostok [East] 2018 [see Vol. 70, No. 37, pp. 10‑12] and Tsentr [Center] 2019 exercises. However, nothing was said at the time about Chinese combined units being put under the command of Russian generals.

A distinguishing feature of the Zapad/Interaction 2021 exercises was that before they began, a joint “command and control body” was formed, with the joint grouping [of forces] placed under the command of Chinese Gen. Liu Xiaowu, deputy commander of the PLA Western Joint Command [sic; under joint command of Chinese Gen. Liu Xiaowu and Russian Gen. Mikhail Nosulev – Trans.].

Furthermore, according to Chinese Defense Minister Col. Gen. Wei Fenghe, an “integrated command and control information system” was used during the exercises (apparently, this refers to an automated combat command and control system). Again, a Chinese one. And the fact that Russian subunits got to be included in it is certainly a major achievement in integrating the two countries’ Armed Forces.

It is no accident that analysts in many countries have once again started talking about the possibility of a Russian-Chinese military alliance. Experts immediately recalled [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s evasive response to a question from a Chinese professor at last year’s Valdai [International Discussion Club] forum [see Vol. 71, No. 39‑40, pp. 17‑18]: “Is it possible to imagine a military alliance between China and Russia?” “It’s possible to imagine anything. We have always believed that our relations have reached such a level of cooperation and trust that we don’t need it (a military alliance – Ed.). However, theoretically, it’s quite possible to imagine it,” the Russian leader said at the time.

Many started wondering whether Putin’s theory was already being put into practice. People also started to mull the consequences of such an alliance, considering that China is increasingly playing first fiddle in it.

Confrontation with a nuclear flavor.

Immediately after the Zapad/Interaction 2021 maneuvers ended, the Chinese defense minister hastened to avow that they were not directed against third countries, but [were aimed] at enhancing the capability to jointly respond to risks and challenges. The problem, however, is that according to Moscow and Beijing, all of those “risks and challenges” are coming from specific countries. Therefore, [those countries] should be worried about the forms that a Russian-Chinese response may take.

Of course, there is no question of preparing the two countries’ armies for counterterrorism operations. After all, it is highly unlikely that China will hasten to help Russia if the Taliban moves from Afghanistan into Central Asian countries. It is even more unlikely that Beijing will seek Moscow’s assistance in case of a terrorist attack in [China’s] Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where Uighur nationalism and separatism are still strong.

When Russia and China consolidate their military cooperation, they aren’t sending a message to the Taliban. Rather, right now they are both in a state of military confrontation with the US. And the further events progress, the more that confrontation is acquiring a nuclear flavor.

For example, both Moscow and Beijing have an extremely negative attitude toward the US’s attempts to create elements of a global missile defense system. Russia, which has approximately the same nuclear capability as the US, is afraid that by deploying a global missile defense system, Washington intends to destroy strategic stability, i.e., to get the opportunity to launch a first strike with impunity, expecting to intercept the Russian missiles that would be launched in a retaliatory strike.

China’s official stance is that Beijing’s nuclear arsenal is only a fraction of Russia’s and the US’s. So [Beijing argues] the possibility of Chinese missiles being intercepted by a US missile defense system makes China extremely vulnerable.

It is no accident that Moscow and Beijing not only have begun to work intensively on their own defense systems but have expanded cooperation in that area.

Russian-style and Chinese-style missile defense.

Back in 2016, [Russia and China] conducted the first joint missile defense exercises with the use of computer modeling. It was the first step toward building a joint missile defense system. Some commentators even started saying that the next stage could see the simulation of a joint interception of a ballistic target. For example, at the Ashuluk test range in Astrakhan Province – especially since the PLA has created a degree of missile defense potential thanks to purchases from Russia.

At present, the Chinese have two battalions of S‑300PMU antiaircraft missile systems, two S-300PMU 1 regiments (four battalions each) and four S‑300PMU‑2 [Favorit] regiments.

Furthermore, in recent years China has taken delivery of two regimental sets of S‑400s, Russia’s most advanced surface-to air missile (SAM) systems that manufacturers say can intercept ballistic missiles.

In January 2019, Russian media reported that China had test-fired an S‑400 missile, shooting down a ballistic target 250 kilometers away and flying at a speed of 3 km per second. It is important to bear in mind that the capability of these missile defense systems to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) is highly questionable. As for the interception of strategic missiles, so far Russia and China are going their separate ways. Moscow has placed a bet on developing the A‑135 system, reportedly involving missile interceptors with nuclear warheads that would be detonated in outer space as enemy missiles approached Moscow. For obvious reasons, Russia is unlikely to share such technology with China.

As for the Chinese, they apparently chose to follow in the footsteps of the US, developing systems based on the kinetic interception of enemy warheads.

For example, according to foreign media reports, that is the principle used in the HQ‑29 SAM system, which is believed to be an equivalent to the US MIM‑104F (PAC‑3) Patriot SAM system with the ERINT extended range interceptor that destroys a ballistic missile warhead on direct contact.

According to US data, the HQ‑19 missile interceptor could enter service later this year. The HQ‑19 system is designed to intercept medium-range operational-tactical and ballistic missiles, as well as low earth orbit satellites. China describes this system as an analogue to the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. If that is the case, the PLA will soon have an antimissile system that can intercept ballistic missiles at a range of up to 3,000 km with a high probability of kill.

China demonstrated its space interception capabilities in 2007, when a missile interceptor kinetically destroyed an aging Chinese weather satellite at an altitude of 865 km.

At the same time, Russia and China are cooperating in what is perhaps the most secretive area of defense. Two years ago, Vladimir Putin caused a real sensation when he said: “We are currently helping our Chinese partners create a missile attack early warning system (MAEWS) [see Vol. 71, No. 41, pp. 6‑8]. This is very important and will enormously, dramatically enhance China’s defense capability. Because only the US and Russia have such a system now.”

Vympel for the Celestial Kingdom.

In Russia, this kind of system includes a space-based echelon with four Tundra satellites continuously monitoring the launch sites of US ICBMs, as well as a network of ground-based tracking stations. This is China’s second attempt to create its own MAEWS. The first attempt, made in the 1980s, failed. And even the second attempt to develop its own MAEWS is clearly experiencing difficulties. Now, according to the Vedomosti newspaper, Russia is working on a $60 million contract to develop software for [China’s] MAEWS.

Specialists at the Vympel interstate corporation, which develops missile and space defense systems, are working on a model of China’s national MAEWS, Vympel general director Sergei Boyev told [the] TASS [news agency].

It is important to note here that in the case of Russia and China, the MAEWS is not only and not so much an element of missile defense.

There is no missile defense system in the world today that can intercept a large number of ICBMs. Experts believe that even the most advanced strategic missile defense system that exists in the US can intercept about two dozen enemy warheads at the very best.

The MAEWS has another, far more important role in the strategic gambit. By warning a country’s leadership that a potential adversary has launched a missile strike, [the MAEWS] enables it to launch its own missiles, prevent their destruction in silos and retaliate. All of that is called a launch-on-warning strike.

In helping China build its MAEWS, Russia would inevitably make its partner privy to its most important state secret – specifically, the algorithm for decision-making on a retaliatory nuclear strike.

Sergei Boyev claimed that the Chinese will not obtain that algorithm, but he did not explain why.

The nuclear missile project of the century?

When Putin made his statement to Valdai Club members a year ago, it was believed that China had a rather modest nuclear arsenal. It was estimated at just 230 warheads. It followed that even with a modern MAEWS, China would not play a decisive role in the US-Russian nuclear balance.

However, after analyzing commercial satellite imagery between May and August 2021, US-based researchers discovered three vast missile silo fields with hundreds of ICBM silos under construction. Around 340 Dongfeng‑41 (DF‑41) advanced ICBMs could be deployed there, each capable of carrying 10 warheads.

This means China may acquire a [nuclear] arsenal almost three times larger than Moscow’s and Washington’s.

Thus, China, which only recently seemed to be the odd man out at strategic arms talks, is emerging as more than a major player. Only recently, Russia, which lagged behind Beijing in all areas – not only the economy but also, for example, conventional weapons – had unquestionable nuclear superiority. That was precisely why Washington negotiated with [Russia] as the only country in the world that could destroy the US. Incidentally, that gave Moscow certain leverage in dealing with the Chinese leaders.

If Beijing were to make a phenomenal breakthrough in building up offensive nuclear weapons, Moscow would lose that leverage. By helping China create its MAEWS, Russia will only accelerate its own transformation into the Celestial Kingdom’s junior partner.