China’s global ambitions

China has become a global power, with major influence on international collaboration, economy and security. The Communist Party of China (CPC) wants a new international order in which the West no longer dominates, liberal values such as democracy and freedom of speech do not set the course, and China's position as a great power gives the country power of definition in international matters.

The strategic partnership with Russia is based on a view of the United States as the defining threat to both Chinese and Russian ambitions. The partnership enables Beijing to focus more on facing the US and its allies in the Pacific.

Security more important than economic growth

Domestically, it is considered important to establish the Communist Party of China as a guarantor of political and economic development. Beijing is preparing for a tougher period with a poorer-performing economy and growing external pressure. This entails prioritising national self-sufficiency and technology development at the expense of economic growth. There is a focus on strengthening supply security for energy, food, technology and other crucial factors of production.

At the same time, China is implementing measures that make it more predictable for Western actors to operate in China, and easier for the Chinese authorities to exert pressure on other states, companies and individuals. China’s revised counter-espionage law of 1 July 2023 rests on a very broad definition of ‘intelligence activity’ and may also include collection of information significant to investing or manufacturing in China.

Economic strength the main foreign policy instrument

Economic strength remains Beijing’s most important instrument of power when it comes to foreign policy. China will continue to seek increased influence in international forums and diminish the dominance of Western countries, particularly the Unites States. Strengthening the ties to countries in the global south is central, both in order to build political and economic alliances and to secure access to critical minerals. China will continue to invest in both physical and digital infrastructure.

Distrust in the outside world

China considers itself surrounded by adversaries and the object of US containment policy. Beijing particularly believes that security developments in the Pacific Ocean are becoming increasingly difficult to navigate. This is due to an increased US presence, neighbouring countries’ military rearmament and the strengthening of defence cooperation to curb Chinese influence.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is supposed to reach important modernisation milestones by 2027, when it celebrates its centenary. The purpose is not only to reduce the US’ and its allies’ freedom of action in areas close to China and the western Pacific, but also to have the capabilities to carry out a potential invasion of Taiwan.

The Taiwan issue intensifies

Beijing thinks Taiwan needs to be coerced with threats of military force in order to agree to be incorporated into the People’s Republic of China. The Taiwan election result from January 2024 reinforces China’s perception. China continues to prefer peaceful unification, but nevertheless seeks to be ready to force the incorporation of Taiwan and to prevent or delay any military support to the island.

China’s military activity in areas close to Taiwan has mushroomed throughout 2023. The situation means short warning times for Taiwan and considerable attrition of the Taiwanese armed forces during peacetime. In addition, China has built bases and increased its activity in the South China Sea, while new Chinese weapons systems enable China to face potential troops from other countries farther out; with that, China’s deterrence capability increases.

Despite influence activity and coercion, Beijing has not managed to change Taiwan’s stand on unification, and China is expected to increase its use of both military and non-military means in an attempt to deter Taiwan from taking steps towards independence. At the same time, China will work to force a unification. Measures to isolate Taiwan diplomatically will persist, as will overt and covert influence activity and a high level of military activity in the region. The latter increases the risk of unintended incidents and escalation, and makes the regional security situation even more delicate.

The rivalry with the US means that it is important for Beijing to maintain good relations with European countries. Beijing will work to ensure that the agreed EU China policy does not become too critical of the country, and that the potential restrictions that will be implemented will have as little impact as possible. China will continue to place importance on European strategic autonomy and seek to stress matters where European and US interests differ.

PLA’s strength and capabilities increase

China is preparing for a confrontation with the West over the Taiwan issue. Against this backdrop, China’s Communist party has initiated an extensive modernisation process within the PLA. The process involves changes to the services’ personnel structure, doctrine and training methods. In addition, advanced technological equipment is being implemented on all levels as part of building a high-tech, network-based force.

According to China’s defence strategy, China is to avoid initiating any offensive action unless an adversary has harmed or intends to harm China’s strategic interests. The strategy provides the Chinese armed forces with great flexibility in responding to actions and incidents.

New technology for the war of the future

China seeks to develop advanced technological systems that offer an asymmetrical advantage against an otherwise superior adversary. Beijing has extremely ambitious plans of completing the modernisation of the armed forces by 2027, equalling the West’s military technological dominance by 2035 and surpassing the US in certain areas by 2049. The PLA has also singled out and defined new domains of warfare: space, cyber, the polar regions, the underwater domain, the biological domain and the cognitive domain. Development of network-based systems intended for these fields requires comprehensive integration of advanced technology in addition to the recruitment and training of expertise.

According to Chinese thinking, big data and artificial intelligence should be exploited in order to achieve information superiority and gain the upper hand militarily. The development shows the close connection required between military and civilian actors in order to achieve the PLA’s strategic objectives.

Military-civil fusion is supposed to remedy Western restrictions on technology exports. A large proportion of the emerging and disruptive technologies that the Chinese armed forces and security services seek to acquire is multi-purpose technology developed by commercial actors in the civilian sector.

Beijing views space as decisive in future conflicts. China is launching a great number of satellites and is competing with the US to become the greatest space power. The space programme has both a civilian and military part, but all of China’s space resources can be exploited for military purposes.

Biotechnology is already a strategic investment area, and Beijing also seeks to exploit this technology militarily. Several important state laboratories specialise in biological research. These mainly supply the civilian sector, but the research also has military potential. To different extents, other state research institutes, civilian and military hospitals and civilian companies contribute research and development that also builds military capability. The PLA has access to data and knowledge from the entire range of Chinese research and development communities.








Ambitions and asymmetry

An imbalanced strategic partnership

China is Russia’s most important partner, and China has on several occasions stressed the significance of the strategic partnership with Russia. The countries have gradually strengthened political, military and economic cooperation.

In order to safeguard Russian and Chinese interests to a larger degree, both parties seek to be alternatives to the West and reorganise the international order. A cornerstone of the bilateral relations is the shared perception of the US as the primary threat to Chinese and Russian ambitions.

The increasing trust between the two countries frees up resources. Previously, strained relations tied up considerable military capabilities on both sides of the border. For Beijing, the partnership means that it has its back covered and can direct its defence modernisation towards facing the US and its allies in the Pacific. For Russia, the low tensions along the border with China are important for its ability to challenge the US and NATO westwards and to be able to concentrate its land forces in Ukraine.

The high number of meetings between Russian and Chinese officials will carry on and the parties will continue to develop their relations though formal agreements. This makes the bilateral relations less dependent on the personal relationship between Xi and Putin. China persistently supports Russia diplomatically in international forums, and the parties cooperate closely on the UN Security Council, in particular on matters where criticism of Western countries is involved. In addition, both countries seek to strengthen multilateral organisations such as BRICS and SCO, aiming to create real alternatives to organisations where the West has influence. While China is the driving force behind adding new countries to BRICS, the expansion gives Moscow the opportunity to show that Russia is not internationally isolated.

The imbalance in the partnership continues to increase in China’s favour. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent Western sanctions have made Russia significantly more dependent on China than vice versa. This imbalance is apparent in almost all areas of Sino-Russian cooperation.

China is indispensable to Russia’s ability to cushion the effects of Western sanctions, stabilise the Russian economy and consequently contribute to stabilising the Putin regime. In 2023, bilateral trade exceeded USD 200 billion for the first time. The growth seems to continue in the period to 2030, in part because of increased industrial cooperation, simplified bureaucratic processes and the improvement of transport infrastructure. Russia is becoming increasingly dependent on Chinese consumer goods and high technology, while Chinese investments in Russia have dropped as a result of reduced profit potential and Western sanctions. Russia’s adjustment to the use of the Chinese currency renminbi (RMB) in trade settlements and foreign exchange reserves exacerbates the imbalance, reducing Russia’s vulnerability to US sanctions but increasing its dependence on Beijing’s fiscal policy.

BRICS is a cooperation forum for Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Prior to 1 January 2024, it was also a collective term for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, which until then comprised the members of BRICS.

SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) is a security policy cooperation organisation in Asia, dominated by China and Russia.

Limited military cooperation

Russia and China frequently conduct joint naval exercises, usually in the western Pacific and adjacent waters off Japan and South Korea, and their strategic bombers have in recent years carried out joint patrols in the same area. The joint operational return is limited for the time being; so far, the increased joint military activity must first and foremost be seen as mutual support in the rivalry with the US.

China strives to appear impartial and well-suited as a mediator in the war in Ukraine, while actually supporting Russia with components, vehicles and other goods which enable Russia to maintain and continue the war effort in Ukraine. Beijing is unlikely to exert any pressure on Russia to stop the war. So far, China has refrained from supplying Russia with weapons and ammunition that are ready for use. Any potential Chinese diplomatic advances will have a Russian bias and be cleared with Moscow first. There is close coordination with Russia regarding the war in Ukraine, both in bilateral and multilateral forums.

Russia and China have conducted joint deployments in the southern part of the Bering Sea (the northern Pacific). Patrols have so far only taken place south of the Bering Strait, and it is still unlikely that Chinese naval vessels will participate together with Russian forces north of the Bering Strait, i.e. the Arctic Ocean or the Barents Sea.

In 2023, China and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding regarding increased coastguard cooperation, and for the first time, the Chinese coastguard participated as an observer during a Russian coastguard exercise. While China’s coastguard is subordinate to China’s Central Military Commission, Russia’s coastguard is subordinate to the security service FSB.


Russia’s permanent break with the West


Arms race picks up pace
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