China's Xi'an, a Type 052C guided missile destroyer, participated in the 2019 Russian Navy Day Parade off St. Petersburg.

China's Xi'an, a Type 052C guided missile destroyer, participated in the 2019 Russian Navy Day Parade off St. Petersburg. Peter Kovalev/TASS (Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images

Don’t Assume the US Will Fight China and Russia One at a Time

Beijing and Moscow are boosting their strategic coordination along with their militaries.

China and Russia last week conducted their first-ever joint naval patrol in the western Pacific following a combined exercise in the Sea of Japan, highlighting the deepening defense cooperation between America’s preeminent competitors. While U.S. military planners have long hoped and often assumed that any conflicts with China and Russia might come one at a time, that assumption is increasingly questionable and even dangerous.

If the Biden administration is to develop an effective 2022 National Defense Strategy and build the U.S. defense capacity and capability that American interests require, the administration must jettison outdated assumptions and recognize that the United States could confront Chinese and Russian military forces simultaneously.

Anyone skeptical of this claim should consider Joint Sea 2021, an annual combined naval exercise that China and Russia conducted on October 14-17. The Russians contributed  an Udaloy-class antisubmarine destroyer, two Steregushchy-class corvettes, two coastal-type minesweepers, a Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarine, and a missile boat. China sent a Type 055 large destroyer, which reportedly served as the command ship, plus a Type 052D destroyer, two Type 054A frigates, a diesel submarine, and a supply ship. A naval aviation contingent comprising 12 Chinese and Russian fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters also participated. The exercise apparently marked the first time a Chinese heavy destroyer and anti-submarine warfare aircraft have participated in an exercise abroad.

During the exercise’s first stage, the Russian minesweepers escorted the Russian and Chinese warships in the Sea of Japan. The warships then fired artillery at mock floating mines and at a towed target simulating a surface warship. They also practiced air defense, with the opposing force played by Russian Su-30SM multirole fighters and naval helicopters. In a clear indication that both militaries view American submarine capabilities as a leading concern, Russian and Chinese vessels, supported by anti-submarine aircraft, also hunted down and trapped a simulated enemy submarine.

After the exercise was over, the Chinese and Russian warships sailed through the Tsugaru Strait together — another first — before heading down Japan’s eastern coast and back toward China via the Osumi Strait. They were joined by Russia’s Udaloy-class destroyer Admiral Tributs, which Moscow claimed days earlier had chased off the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Chafee for allegedly breaching Russian waters closed for Joint Sea 2021 (an assertion the U.S. Navy disputed). Chinese state media said the combined patrol “sends a warning to Japan as well as the US, which have been rallying allies to confront China and Russia.”

These developments follow another combined exercise this summer that underscored China and Russia’s growing trust and military interoperability. That exercise, Sibu/Interaction-2021, held in north-central China in August, included more than 10,000 troops and marked the first time that Russian forces have participated in a Chinese strategic exercise.

Chinese and Russian forces reportedly operated under a joint command for the first time, using a specially designed “joint command information system.” Russian Su-30SM multirole fighters, motor-rifle troops, and a special forces unit integrated into Chinese formations, training to improve their “joint reconnaissance, search and early warning, electronic information attack, and joint strike” capabilities, per China’s defense ministry. China’s J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighter reportedly made its first appearance in an international exercise. Russian forces operated modern Chinese equipment (ZTL-11 infantry support vehicles and ZBL-08 armored personnel carriers) for the first time, according to the Russian and Chinese defense ministries, after Chinese forces reportedly did the same with Russian equipment at Russia’s Kavkaz-2020 exercise last year.

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In addition to building operational and tactical interoperability, Sibu/Interaction-2021 allowed the two militaries to share valuable lessons. Beijing’s relatively untested military had an opportunity to learn from Russia’s combat experience in Syria and elsewhere. Russia’s MoD noted that Chinese and Russian officers drew on “experience [from] modern armed conflicts” while jointly planning the exercise’s mock counterterrorism operation.

Even if the Chinese and Russian militaries have more work to do in terms of capability and combined operations, the increasing frequency of the military exercises suggests a disturbing level of strategic coordination between America’s great-power adversaries. Contrary to claims by some scholars and policymakers that China and Russia’s relationship is merely superficial or tactical in nature, their strategic alignment appears to be deepening. That’s especially concerning given both militaries’ massive modernization efforts, which are eroding the U.S. advantage.

Chinese defense spending has exploded as Beijing races to complete military modernization by 2035 and field what Xi Jinping called a “world-class forces” that can dominate the Asia-Pacific and “fight and win” global wars by 2049. China has constructed at least 12 nuclear-powered submarines and commissioned its first domestically built aircraft carrier in 2019, with a second expected to enter service by 2023.

Russia’s military, meanwhile, is more capable, ready, and mobile than it has been in decades. Moscow has made strides in areas such as long-range conventional missiles. Both countries are investing heavily in various hypersoniccounterspace, and unmanned capabilities. Moreover, both countries are aggressively fielding a modernized nuclear triad that can target the American homeland.

While a formal alliance remains unlikely, Beijing and Moscow share many common security interests, burgeoning energy and economic ties, and a longstanding disdain for the U.S.-led rules-based international order.

The fallout with the West following Russia’s 2014 aggression against Ukraine led Moscow to accelerate its pivot toward Beijing. China participated in Russia’s capstone strategic exercises in 2018, 2019, and 2020, and they conducted joint strategic air patrols in Northeast Asia in 2019 and 2020.

The governments have also been engaging in increased arms sales. From 2016 to 2020, Russia provided 77 percent of China’s total arms imports, including equipment such as Su-35 advanced fourth-generation fighters and S-400 SAM systems. As China’s defense industry advances, Beijing and Moscow may move toward co-development of certain systems. In 2019, Putin said Russia is helping China build a missile early warning system.

In fact, the U.S. intelligence community assessed in 2019 that “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s, and the relationship is likely to strengthen.”

So, what’s to be done?

At the grand strategic level, Americans should note that Beijing and Moscow value military partners. The United States should, too. As China and Russia become more aligned, America will need its allies and partners more than ever. 

At the strategic and operational levels, the Pentagon should urgently assess relevant war and contingency plans. Even without advance coordination, it is entirely plausible that Beijing or Moscow could exploit a military crisis involving the other power to pursue its own aims in the Taiwan Strait or Eastern Europe, respectively.

Any plans that assume the United States will confront only one great power adversary at a time should be revised and updated without delay. Any additional capacity and forward basing requirements identified should inform ongoing program and budget discussions.

Such an assessment would almost certainly indicate the need for more U.S. military capacity, requiring at least 3 to 5 percent real annual growth in the defense budget. It’s worth noting that this is just what the bipartisan 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission recommended.  

Whether the Pentagon actually receives the money to fund its updated war plans is ultimately, of course, a decision for Congress. Regardless, the Pentagon has a responsibility to inform political leaders and decision makers if war plans are increasingly disconnected from reality and based on questionable assumptions.

Evolving realities should inform not only U.S. war plans, but also the Biden administration’s 2022 National Defense Strategy, the administration’s fiscal year 2023 defense budget request, assessments of the capacity the U.S. military needs, and forward-positioned U.S. military posture in the Indo-Pacific and Europe.

After all, in light of growing Chinese and Russian anti-access and area denial capabilities, it was already unsafe to assume that the U.S. military could surge forces in an uncontested and expeditious manner from the continental United States to the Baltics or Taiwan Strait. If those U.S.-based surge forces were needed simultaneously in both places, then the U.S. military has an even bigger problem.

Such a potential scenario puts a premium on building additional U.S. and allied military capability and capacity that is forward-positioned in both Eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific. 

Beijing and Moscow are dramatically increasing the power of their militaries as well as their strategic coordination. Americans and our allies would be wise to pay attention and act accordingly.

Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

John Hardie is the research manager at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Zane Zovak is a research analyst with Foundation for Defense of Democracies’s China Program and Center on Military and Political Power.