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Chinese Defense Minister and Russian Naval Chief Meet for Military Talks  

Kirov-class Battlecruiser. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Kirov-class Battlecruiser. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

An unholy alliance just became even more unholy, this time taking on a maritime element. 

The ever-warming buddy-buddy relationship between Communist China’s thug-in-chief Xi Jinping and Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin represents a sharp 180 degree turnaround from many decades of animosity between China and Russia.

The previous animosity was at its height during the Cold War, which is more than a tad ironic considering that at that time both countries (as opposed to just China nowadays) were Communist and therefore “fraternal socialist allies” on-paper.

This animosity manifested itself in the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s, and led to America playing the so-called “China Card,” starting with Richard Nixon’s rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China in 1972, followed by Jimmy Carter’s diplomatic recognition of the PRC in 1978, Ronald Reagan’s visit to China in 1984, and George H.W. Bush’s continued friendship with China even after the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989. 

Those “China Card” days are long over. If anything, it’s now Moscow and Beijing playing “The America Card” (so to speak), as most recently demonstrated by a recent meeting between the Chinese Defense Minister and the Russian naval chief.

The Basics 

The meeting took place this past Monday, 3 July 2023. The primary source of information was a story titled “China’s defense minister, Russia’s naval chief meet for military talks,” written by an unspecified Associated Press reporter and published in Defense News. To wit: 

“China’s defense minister reaffirmed the country’s military relations with Russia during a meeting Monday with the head of Russia’s Navy, the first formal military talks between the friendly neighbors since a short-lived mutiny by Russian mercenary group Wagner…Minister of National Defense Li Shangfu told Russian Adm. Nikolai Yevmenov that China hoped for increased exchanges, joint exercises and other forms of cooperation that would take defense ties to ‘reach a new level,’ the Chinese Defense Ministry said after the two met in Beijing… “The Chinese and Russian navies have close exchanges and frequent interactions,” the ministry quoted Li as saying. “It is hoped that the two sides will strengthen communication at all levels, regularly organize joint training, joint patrols and joint war games.” 

The unnamed AP reporter goes on to point out that the PRC operates the world’s largest navy by number of hulls and vastly outstrips Russia’s Navy in both size and technical ability. This is most starkly demonstrated by the fact that the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) three homegrown aircraft carriers – the Shandong (山东舰), the Liaoning (辽宁舰), and the Fujian (福建舰) – actually work, whilst Russia’s carrier Admiral Kuznetsov continues to languish as a basket case and endless source of embarrassment for the Russian Navy.  

The article also informs readers that the two dictatorships’ fleets have held a series of exercises and joint maneuvers since Russia initiated its “special military operation” in Ukraine last year, as have their air forces. 

To provide readers a bit of biographical background on Messrs. Li and Yevmenov, they assumed their current positions in March 2023 and May 2019 respectively. In the case of General Li, back in 2018 he was sanctioned by the Trump Administration, fittingly enough from the standpoint of 20/20 hindsight, for purchasing Russian weapons. As for Adm. Yevmenov, he started his naval career during the days of the Soviet Union in 1980, spending more than half of his career as a submariner. Yevmenov has also been hit with his fair share of Western sanctions, by the European Union and the UK Government alike.

The India Factor

To complicate matters further, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are set to meet next Tuesday, 11 July 2023, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a virtual summit known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which The Economist describes as having been “envisaged as a forum through which China and Russia could manage neighbourly relations,” with India and Pakistan added to the membership rolls in 2017.  

Significantly, this summit will mark Putin’s first participation in a multilateral meeting since the Wagner revolt. But what’s also significant is the timing of Mr. Modi’s participation in the summit, considering that his official state visit to the White House took place a mere two weeks ago, a visit that Washington Times reporter Jeff Mordock described as “focused on combating Chinese aggression and tensions with Russia.” This shows the diplomatic and strategic tightrope that India is trying to walk; strengthening its ties with the U.S. as a bulwark against China via “the Quad” on the one hand, and maintaining amity with Russia on the other hand.

What Now?

Both the Li-Yevmenov meeting and the upcoming SCO underscore America’s need to continue to strengthen ties with the other partners in the Quad, namely Australia and Japan. Regarding U.S.-Japan defense ties, the two countries’ announcement back in January 2023 about a significant strengthening of their military relationship and upgrade of the US military’s force posture in the country was a huge step in the right direction, and that momentum must be sustained. Meanwhile, in the case of U.S.-Australia defense ties, in addition to the obvious (and controversial) example of the AUKUS pact, there was the announcement back in December 2022 by SECDEF Lloyd Austin that the U.S. would increase the rotational presence of air, land and sea forces in Australia, including bomber aircraft and fighter jets. 

But America also needs to bolster ties with non-Quad allies in the Indo-Pacific region. At least two significant steps have been taken thusly. This past February, the U.S. secured access to four additional military bases in the Philippines, which, as the BBC’s Rupert Wingfield Hayes puts it, “a key bit of real estate which would offer a front row seat to monitor the Chinese in the South China Sea and around Taiwan.” And last month, the U.S. Navy carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) made a port call with an old former nemesis, Vietnam.

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU).

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Written By

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).