In a show of growing military ties, Russian and Chinese strategic bombers flew a joint patrol over the Pacific Ocean on Wednesday that ended when the warplanes landed in each other’s airfields for the first time.
During an eight-hour mission, Russian Tu-95 “Bear” bombers and Chinese H-6K bombers flew over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea in a flight path that triggered South Korea and Japan to scramble fighter jets in response.
The Russian defense ministry later issued a statement saying that no foreign airspace was violated during the flight and the bombers acted in accordance with the provisions of international law. China’s Defense Ministry described the patrols as a “routine” annual exercise between the two nation’s militaries.
The bomber patrol is the latest example of strengthened defense collaboration between the two countries in recent years and follows a series of large-scale joint military drills this year as the pair face increased tensions with the United States over Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s threats against Taiwan. A senior U.S. defense official told reporters Monday before the joint China-Russia bomber patrol took place that their shared military exercises are often “a means of signaling their closer alignment and sending a message to the U.S. and to other countries.”
But while Beijing and Moscow share aspirations to push the U.S. from its hegemonic role over world affairs, a formal alliance between the two nations will prove challenging to sustain.
Three weeks before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a deepening strategic alignment with one another in the coming years. In a lengthy Feb. 4 joint statement, they declared a “new era” of partnership in which cooperation would have “no limits” on a range of issues, including trade and defense.
Yet months later, some boundaries have become apparent. Unlike other world powers, China chooses not to condemn Russia’s blood-soaked military actions in Ukraine and has blamed the U.S. and its NATO allies for provoking Moscow into launching an assault on its smaller neighbor, while denouncing efforts to punish Russia through crippling economic sanctions. But China has failed to come to Russia’s aid in the war as Moscow struggles with diminishing weapon stocks. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to funnel billions of dollars in aid to support Kyiv and has sent thousands of American troops into surrounding countries, principally in Poland, to deliver on-the-ground guidance to Ukrainian forces.
“China doesn’t provide Russia with any weapons for the Ukraine fight, despite Moscow’s pleas,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. “We may make too much of the existing partnership and, as a result, so demonize them both that we push them together.”
In October, the Biden Administration unveiled a new defense strategy that puts the U.S. military on a Cold War-footing with both Russia and China, detailing a plan to confront two nuclear peer-adversaries for the first time in history with a multi-year build-up of modernized weaponry, enhanced foreign alliances, and a top-to bottom $1.2 trillion overhaul of the American nuclear arsenal. It characterizes China as a long-term “pacing challenge” with its growing power projection in the Pacific region, while deeming Russia to be an immediate “acute threat” amid its ongoing war with Ukraine.
China “still seems to see a lot of value in their partnership with Russia,” the senior defense official said. “Of course, it’s going to be an area of keen interest for us and other observers in Europe and elsewhere. We’ve seen (China) continue to support Russia diplomatically and to amplify a lot of their propaganda and disinformation. And so those are areas of particular concern.”
On Wednesday, the Pentagon released its “2022 China Military Power Report,” an annual assessment that found Beijing could have 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035, up from its current 400, if they continue to expand their stockpile at the present pace. While the American stockpile now stands around 4,000 warheads, the U.S. is limited to 1,550 deployable weapons under a bilateral treaty known as New START with Russia. The landmark treaty, which the Biden Administration extended for five years with Putin, remains in force until February 2026.
A future President may choose not to renew the agreement or negotiate a follow-on. In that case, there could be a push—particularly from Republicans—to double the U.S. nuclear arsenal to match both Russia’s and China’s stockpiles, opening the door for an unprecedented arms race. It remains to be seen how united those two nations will stay going forward, but the prospect is one that Americans are increasingly concerned about, according to Pew Research. Although China and Russia still don’t have a formal military alliance, the evolving military exercises and joint patrols serve as a key way the two nations can strengthen bilateral defense ties.
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