In the latest sign of Beijing’s and Moscow’s expanding strategic partnership, Russia is assisting China in creating a highly sophisticated missile-defense early warning system.

It follows arms sales of Russia’s most high-tech military kit to China, and comes against a backdrop of expanding cooperation between the militaries of the two states, which are forging a new unity due to their respective animosities with the United States and its allies in Europe and East Asia.

The information about the missile-defense system became public knowledge when Russian President Vladimir Putin teased it to the Valdai Club, a conference of foreign-policy experts that convened in the Black Sea resort of Sochi last week.

Big declaration, few details

“I don’t think I will reveal a big secret,” Putin quipped in Sochi, according to Russian news agency Tass. “This will become evident after all.

“We are now helping our Chinese partners to create a missile warning system,” the Russian president continued. “This is a very serious thing that will drastically enhance the defensive capacity of the People’s Republic of China as currently, only the US and Russia have such systems.”

The systems are designed to enable countries to spot the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles, thus granting defensive weapons critical early-warning time. They are highly sophisticated, integrating widely spaced ground-based radar networks and reconnaissance satellites via computer and secure communications networks.

However, further details were not forthcoming. The Kremlin did not release any information on when the system might go operational. Nor was the geographical scale of the system, and the number of cities it will cover, made public. It is also not known whether the Chinese and Russian systems might be linked, which would provide vast coverage over the Eurasian landmass.

Putin cited US President Donald Trump’s unilateral decision earlier this year to depart from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.The Russian leader told the Valdai Club that Trump’s move had weakened international strategic stability.

Washington has accused Moscow of breaching the INF Treaty, while insisting that renewed nuclear accords should include China’s expanding arsenal. Beijing has rejected this suggestion, while Moscow denies any breach of the treaty.

The development follows the Pentagon’s testing of a ground-launched Tomahawk cruise missile in August. Under the 1987 treaty, that class of missile had been restricted to air- and sea-based launch systems. Both Beijing and Moscow condemned the launch.

However, it is not just the Americans who are testing new technologies. Last week, China test-fired a new hypersonic missile. Meanwhile, North Korea has been test-firing a multiplicity of missiles this year, including multiple-launch rocket systems, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and mid- and short-range ballistic missiles.

Buying Russia’s top toys

Putin’s revelation in Sochi highlights increasing military cooperation between Beijing and Moscow.

“Russia has special relations with China of advanced partnership … including the most sensitive [areas] linked to military-technical cooperation and security and defense capabilities,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, according to Reuters.

While China’s economy has far outpaced Russia, and is home to global commercial brands such as Huawei, Russia still maintains a leading edge in military technologies. According to the report “Trends in International Arms Transfers 2018” produced by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia was the world’s second-largest arms exporter between 2014 and 2018, with China its second-largest customer (after India). Of China’s total arms imports over the period, some 70% were sourced from Russia, SIPRI found.

“China remains reliant on imports for certain arms technologies such as engines for combat aircraft and large ships as well as long-range air and missile defense systems,” SIPRI noted in the report. “Its own arms industry has yet to develop the technological capability to match Russian suppliers in these fields.”

While Russia is reportedly concerned about alleged Chinese theft of some of its technologies, such as aircraft designs, there is clearly trust between Moscow and Beijing. This is clear from China’s purchase in the last five years of some of Russia’s most advanced weapons – notably Su-35 fighters and S-400 missile defense systems.

It has also bought engines from Russia for its aircraft-carrier-based fighters, and multirole helicopters. There has also been discussion about the integration of China’s BeiDou and Russia’s Glonass global navigation systems, which would challenge the dominance of the US Global Positioning System (GPS).

Armed forces’ amity

In addition to arms sales and technology transfers, the two militaries are exercising together. A Chinese contingent joined Moscow’s huge Vostok 2018 exercises in the Russian Far East last year.

In July, Russian and Chinese air units took part in a coordinated exercise over the Sea of Japan that probed the Japanese and South Korean Air Defense Identification Zones and resulted in South Korean jets firing warning shots at a Russian reconnaissance aircraft. The location of the shooting incident was the Liancourt Rocks, two islets whose ownership is contested by South Korea, which calls them Dokdo and maintains a police outpost there, and Japan, which calls them Takeshima, suggesting a maneuver designed to fray Japan’s and South Korea’s always testy relations.

And according to the South China Morning Post newspaper, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that Moscow and Beijing have developed a plan for military cooperation for the next two years, while last month, 1,600 Chinese troops arrived at a Russian training base for a large-scale joint exercise.

At the Valdai Club, Putin said Russia and China were actively cooperating in various fields, from the agrarian sector to space. “Our friendship and our work together is not aimed against anybody,” he said, according to Tass.

The latter comment may well have been a Putin joke. While Moscow is under sanctions from the West and faces off against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Europe, Beijing is engaged in a heated trade war with Washington and faces off against the US and its allies in the South China Sea and in Northeast Asia.