Russia and China Militaries Reach 'New Heights' Together, Agree to Challenge U.S. in Middle East

Russia and China have pledged to strengthen their bilateral military and political ties as part of a strategic cooperation that challenges U.S. interests, especially to Washington's stance on Middle East allies Syria and Iran.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met Tuesday with Air Force General Xu Qiliang, vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission, and other regional military officials as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in the eastern city of Qingdao. As increasingly powerful Russia and China build up their clout on the world stage, they sought a more united front against the U.S., which frequently challenged their rise.

"Time changes everything," Shoigu said, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. "But, fortunately, it does not change our relations both personally between us and between our states, and the very close, friendly relations of the heads of our states serve as a guarantee of this."

Shoigu praised "the privileged character of intergovernmental ties" evidenced by numerous meetings between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, both of whom secured enough national support to extend their terms last month. He said the two nations were continuing "their strategic course toward further boosting friendly and trustworthy ties in the defense sphere," calling this relationship "an important factor for maintaining global and regional security."

"In contemporary global politics, our countries are in similar positions," he told Xu.

Chinese Central Military Commission Deputy Chairman Air Force General Xu Qiliang (center) and Russian Defense Minister Army General Sergei Shoigu are joined by defense officials from India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), on April 24. Russian Ministry of Defense

Shoigu also praised China's position on Syria, where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues to battle the remnants of an uprising by rebel and jihadi groups. The 2011 rebellion was supported and sponsored by the West, Turkey and the Gulf Arab states but was deeply opposed by Assad allies Russia and Iran. When the West sought to condemn the Syrian government's crackdown at the United Nations Security Council in the early years of the conflict, China joined Russia in vetoing resolutions targeting Assad.

As fundamentalist organizations such as the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) began to dominate the fight, the focus switched to defeating the jihadi forces, and both the U.S. and Russia staged military interventions. ISIS has since lost at least 90 percent of its territory in both Iraq and Syria, and the rivalry between the U.S., and Russia has again risen to the forefront of the issue.

The U.S. and its allies have accused Assad of using chemical weapons in rebel-held territory, and President Donald Trump has twice ordered missile strikes against Syrian government facilities. The U.K. and France joined in the latest and most intense round earlier this month, despite warnings not only from Russia and Iran, but China as well, all of whom doubt Assad's role in alleged toxic gas attacks. China has also joined Russia, Iran and other countries in investing in the war-torn country's reconstruction.

Related: U.S., Saudi Arabia and France talk military action in Syria as Russia, China and Iran warn against it

"I am grateful to you for the support you have provided to us at the United Nations Security Council meeting dedicated to the missile attack on Syria. It undoubtedly was a violation of all the international and humanitarian rules," Shoigu added, describing the attack as "Western-style" in the way it occurred before an international inquiry could be conducted.

"I would also like to thank our friend China for supporting us on the Syria issue and condemning the irresponsible behavior of some Western countries that, under a false pretext, attacked a sovereign state," he added.

A Chinese instructor discusses Chinese rocket launcher systems during the second day of the code-named Cooperation-2017 joint anti-terrorism training between the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force and the Russian Federation National Guard, on December 4, 2017. The two leading U.S. military rivals have grown closer in recent years. Wang Huawei/Wang Tao/Zhou Huancheng/China Military Online

In his own remarks to the Russian general, "Xu said the Sino-Russian relationship has reached new heights, thanks to a strong push by leaders from both countries. Sino-Russia bilateral relations are now at an all-time high, characterized by deepening strategic mutual trust and expanding cooperation," the official Chinese Military Online reported. Xu also reportedly recognized "new security challenges and issues are emerging due to growing uncertainties around the world."

As a result, "China is willing to deepen mutual support with Russia, increase comprehensive cooperation and enhance bilateral relations, especially in military relations," Xu said, according to the state-run defense website. "China and Russia also will jointly protect the security interests of both countries and maintain regional strategic balance."

To illustrate this point, Xi met with Shoigu as well as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The Chinese leader said Monday that "a high level of Sino-Russian relations is a precious asset of both countries," according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, and her stressed deepening this cooperation, as well as ties to all eight nations of the SCO.

The group was first established in 2001 and now includes China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. When asked if the alliance was attempting to forge a direct challenge to the West, Lavrov told reporters Tuesday that they "do not contain anyone; our role is to uphold the principles of international law in the political, military-political and economic areas," according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Lavrov did emphasize that SCO countries "also maintain military cooperation" and prioritized global security, including the fight against ISIS and other designated terrorist groups. Lavrov complained that "several countries openly adopted a policy of Syria's disintegration" and accused the U.S. going beyond its stated mission of fighting ISIS by maintaining a military presence and "creating local governments" in an attempt to challenge Assad.

After meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi the previous day, Lavrov said Russia and China would also work together to prevent the U.S. from disrupting the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was a multinational nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran. Trump has said the deal was too lenient on Iran, which received sanctions relief in exchange for promising to cut nuclear production, but the deal's other signatories—China, Russia, France, Germany and the U.K.—have fought to keep it alive.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi (from left) shake hands after their signing ceremony at the Diaoyutai State Guest House, in Beijing, on April 23. The two have pledged to challenge U.S. military intervention against the Syrian government and Trump’s threats to scrap or renegotiate the 2015 Iran deal. MADOKA IKEGAMI/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. military has maintained a sizeable lead over its top two competitors, Russia and China, respectively. The two Eastern powers, however, have moved to expand and modernize their own military forces in an effort to close the gap. Despite Trump and Putin's efforts to reconcile their nations, both leaders have noted an all-time low in relations. When asked by the state-run Tass Russian News Agency, Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said Washington still valued a relationship with Moscow but saw it mainly as a competitor.

"Russia continues to be a strategic competitor. And its efforts undermine the West," he said during a Defense Writers Group on Tuesday, according to Tass. "Relationships are important. We all understand their value," he added. "[But] we are in a strategic competition, and I'll just leave it at that."