Russia: China’s Force Multiplier for Its Taiwan Strategy

Russia: China’s Force Multiplier for Its Taiwan Strategy

Russia: China’s Force Multiplier for Its Taiwan Strategy

In a recent article about Sino-Russian collaboration in Afghanistan, Elizabeth Wishnick observed that “Beijing and Moscow, once bitter adversaries, now cooperate on military issues, cyber security, high technology, and in outer space, among other areas. While it falls short of an alliance, the deepening Sino-Russian partnership confounds US strategists.” While this collaboration does not represent a formal alliance like NATO—and scholars remain averse to characterizing this relationship thusly—this author has and continues to maintain that it is an alliance in fact. 

The nature of the Russia-China alliance has confounded experts and policymakers alike. Nevertheless, this alliance’s qualities and ambitions are visible, and have been particularly manifested in the military sphere. Indeed, People’s Republic of China (PRC) Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) recently proclaimed that Russia and China can work together to maintain global order. While few have endeavored to ascertain Russia’s potential role in China’s Taiwan strategy, Russia actually offers numerous advantages to China in its unrelenting campaign to “reincorporate” Taiwan. Therefore, in regards to Taiwan, Russia is a force multiplier for China.

Political Advantages

Although Moscow rarely comments on Taiwan, it did so in October 2021 when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that, “Russia, like the overwhelming majority of other countries, considers Taiwan to be part of the People’s Republic of China […] We have proceeded and will proceed from this premise in our foreign policy.” Similarly, Moscow also supports Beijing on key issues of Asian security beyond Taiwan, maintaining staunch opposition to US efforts to strengthen cohesion among India, Australia, and Japan (under the concept of the “The Quad”), as well as mechanisms like the Australia-United States-United Kingdom (AUKUS) collaboration on maritime security. In general, Moscow apparently strives to weaken the U.S. network of allies in Asia.  

Thus, this relationship manifests itself in other Asian issues like Korea, where discussions of great power policies often no longer include Russia, a telling sign of its eclipse by China. In addition, Russia’s coordination with China on overflights and naval threats to both Taiwan and Japan has led to a tightening of alliance relationships—as evidenced in Japan’s many new accords with Australia and the US against Sino-Russian threats,  increased defense spending, and South Korea’s clear if quiet decision to take sides in the growing tensions between China and the US. This support for the PRC’s Asian policies displays China’s ascendancy in this relationship, even as China enhances its diplomatic power in Asian security issues. At the same time the Sino-Russian alignment in the UN—including Russian support for China’s efforts to gain control of UN international organizations—also reinforces China’s campaign to oust Taiwan from independent representation and presence in the UN. 

Beijing’s insistence on a “One-China Principle” in and beyond the UN is also critical to the diplomatic-political dimension of its overall strategy. Chinese diplomats firmly maintain that “Taiwan was a province of China and therefore not qualified from participating independently in international organizations such as the UN.” Accordingly, Moscow’s position on Taiwan exemplifies the broader process by which Russia’s position on Northeast Asian issues like relations with both Koreas and Russo-Japanese relations have been subordinated to the quest for coordination if not alliance with China, often at considerable cost to Russian interests in Asia.  Nevertheless, President Putin—notwithstanding virtual unanimity among Western analysts that Moscow cannot ultimately accept Chinese dominance here—has explicitly stated that “the main struggle, which is now underway, is that for global leadership and we are not going to contest China on this.” Already in 2014, he postulated that Russia and China were natural allies. [1] In China’s eyes, Russian support for Chinese positions on Taiwan and other critical issues ultimately validates Beijing’s sense of its leadership in Asia and its stance on those issues.


Russo-Chinese coordination is strongest in the military sphere, a fact that has duly triggered foreign apprehension regarding possible concerted action against the United States and its allies in Asia and Europe via simultaneous probes directed against both Taiwan and Ukraine. Bilateral support from the two militaries for the alliance has grown steadily and has proven to be durable. Moreover, Russian elites very much favor enhanced collaboration.  

Moscow believes that bolstering China’s military position in East Asia is very much in Russian interests: as the official in charge of Russian arms exports stated in April 2015, “if we work in China’s interests, that means we also work in our interests.” [2]

Building on this, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu remarked in 2017 that: 

Russia’s strategic partner is the People’s Republic of China. Bilateral military cooperation is developing actively. Primarily it is focused on the fight against international terrorism. Joint actions are regularly practiced during the military exercises Naval Interaction and Peaceful Mission. The Russian Federation continues to prepare specialists for the People’s Liberation Army of China. In total more than 3,600 Chinese servicemen have been trained in the universities of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation.

Subsequent bilateral cooperation continues to expand in many directions. First, the greatest Russian military policy contribution in a Taiwan contingency would likely be its ability to tie down US forces and policy attention in Europe, the Arctic, and the North Pacific, while also deterring them by means of its nuclear threat and political support for China. Second, Russia’s continuing arms sales to China have almost exclusively consisted of systems that would threaten US assets and capabilities in the Pacific Ocean and Asia. [3] These systems have greatly enhanced Chinese reconnaissance and strike capabilities against targets from Japan and Korea. In turn, they have enabled China to threaten not only US and local forces but also Japan by overflights and naval probes, while also challenging US Air Force superiority in these theaters.  Third, Russo-Chinese exercises not only familiarize Chinese forces and commanders with Russian weapons and operational concepts, but also facilitate potential inter-operability should a Taiwan conflict expand beyond Taiwan, as is quite possible. Fourth, thanks to Russia’s alliance with China and both governments’ shared interest in putting Central Asia under their exclusive sphere of influence, Russia’s role as the “gendarme of choice” in that region relieves China of the potentially draining experience of two-front operations in Taiwan and Central Asia. Fifth, there are mounting signs not only of coordination but of emulation and learning regarding tactics and operations in information and cyber warfare. Such cooperation could assist China in its global cyber and information campaigns against Taiwan.

In this regard, Russian arms sales have led to an expanding and mutually rewarding high-tech partnership that could further complicate Taiwanese, US, and overall allied defense planning throughout the Indo-Pacific, while also generating a mutually beneficial arms and technology transfer environment. As Samuel Bendett and Elsa Kania observe:

Traditionally, China has also looked to Russia for access to aero-engines. Today, China’s tech sector and defense industry have surpassed Russia in certain sectors and technologies. For instance, China has developed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are far more advanced than those currently operational in Russia. Nonetheless, the Russian military has been unwilling to acquire Chinese UAVs, instead deciding to attempt to develop indigenous counterparts in mid-range and heavy unmanned combat models. Nonetheless, for Russia, near to mid-term access to certain Chinese products, services and experience may become the very lifeline that Russia’s industry, government and military will require in order to wean themselves off high-tech imports, although even that approach may be challenged by limited availability of Chinese components.

Economic Advantages

The primary economic advantage that China could gain through an alliance with Russia is that it undermines the threat of the long-feared “Malacca Dilemma,” in which the US and/or its allies could interdict Chinese energy imports in a time of crisis by closing off the Straits of Malacca. Alternatively, the breakdown of Sino-Australian relations due to Chinese aggressiveness has now led China to pursue a new campaign to obtain contracts for Russian energy. Although China’s efforts to frustrate such eventualities comprise many global policy lines, its investments in Russian hydrocarbons from Siberia, the Russian Far East, the Arctic, and Central Asia all attest to Russia’s critical economic role in the event of a crisis or war concerning Taiwan. Likewise—and this becomes more important as European allies and NATO now support Washington on China—is the possibility of a Russian energy squeeze on them and the US in case of such a crisis.


Russia clearly serves China as a force multiplier, even without committing any forces to potential conflicts over Taiwan. Clearly China gains enormous benefits thereby not least an increasing ascendancy over Russia and enhanced capability to threaten not only Taiwan but other Asian states.   Thus this alliance now facilitates a much more precarious threat environment for not only Taiwan, but across Asia.  How being China’s force multiplier benefits Russia remains unclear, although China’s gains are palpable. Nevertheless the most important question is: who really benefits from a much more dangerous Asia-Pacific?

The main point: The increasingly close relationship between Moscow and Beijing offers diplomatic, economic, and potentially even military support to China not only in regards to Taiwan, but also in broader issues throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

[1] Thomas J. Fingar Ed., Uneasy Partnerships: China’s Engagement with Japan, the Two Koreas, and Russia In the Era Of Reform (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017): 202. 

[2] Michael Yahuda, “Japan and the Sino-Russian Strategic Partnership,” Japan and the Sino-Russian Entente: The Future of Major-Power Relations in Northeast Asia (Seattle: National Bureau of Research Asia, NBR Special Report no. 64, 2017): 6.  

[3] Paul Schwartz, Russia’s Contribution to China’s Surface Warfare Capabilities: Feeding the Dragon (Pennsylvania & Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).