July 1, 2020

Military Cooperation Between Russia and China: The Military Alliance Without an Agreement?

A group of medical personnel prepare to meet 80 people, accompanied by medical specialists, carried by a Russian military plane at an airport outside Tyumen, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020.
A group of medical personnel prepare to meet 80 people, accompanied by medical specialists, carried by a Russian military plane at an airport outside Tyumen, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020.

Between the 1950s and the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union and China had border disputes and were vying for leadership of the communist world during the Cold War.

After the Sino-Soviet border conflict in 1969—especially the clash between the world’s two largest communist states in March 1969 near Damansky (Zhenbao) Island on the Ussuri (Wusuli) river—the period between 1985 and 1991 could be described as a thaw in relations. Even before this, in a February 1981 speech at the 26th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev proposed normalising Soviet-Chinese relations, and he repeated his proposal in a speech in Tashkent the following year. As a result, in 1984 an “Intergovernmental Agreement on Economic Cooperation” was signed. In a speech in Vladivostok on 28 July 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev announced the USSR’s readiness to withdraw most Soviet troops from Mongolia and six regiments from Afghanistan by the end of that year, as well as to hold talks with China and reduce troops on the Soviet-Chinese border. In 1989 Gorbachev visited China and relations between the two countries started to normalise.

After several years of negotiations, the Sino-Soviet Border Agreement was signed in 1991. The treaty agreed work done on demarcation to resolve most disputes, and recognised some minor territorial changes along the border.1 Russia inherited most of the former Sino-Soviet border, and ratified the agreement in February 1992. In the 1990s the two countries implemented a number of confidence-building measures, which in 1997 resulted in an agreement on mutual troop reductions on the borders between China and four former Soviet republics: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.2 The agreement established ceilings for the numbers of troops and weapons systems and established inspection mechanisms.3

At the same time, military cooperation between the two countries was re-established. Since 1989 this has been the most important component of the bilateral relationship. Until the 2000s, the arms trade and regional and border security issues were the main facets of Russo-Chinese relations. But since then, strengthening economic relations have overtaken military cooperation. However, the latter remains important, especially amid increasing tensions between Russia and the US on the one hand, and China and the US on the other.

Military cooperation in recent years

Following the normalisation of relations between Moscow and Beijing in 1989, the arms trade began. China was the first country to buy the Su-27 fourth-generation heavy fighter while the most trusted Soviet allies in the Warsaw Pact, and India, the key Soviet partner in Asia, only had access to the less sophisticated MiG-29 fighter.4 After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation continued to sell arms to China. It should be noted that the post-Soviet Russian defence industry depended heavily on China for its survival. Until the mid-2000s the arms trade was the main component of bilateral relations, but since then other economic sectors have overtaken it. However, between 2001 and 2009, the value of military cooperation with China amounted to 16 billion dollars, although in 2008 volume decreased by 18%.5

After several years of decline, the arms trade resumed its upward trend in the 2010s. In recent years, Moscow has sold Beijing advanced weapons such as the S-400 air defence system and the Su-35 fighter aircraft, as well as helicopters and aircraft engines. In 2016 Russia and China implemented contracts in the field of military-technical cooperation with a total value of about three billion dollars.6 Two years later, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoygu stated that 12% of Russian arms exports were sold to China, but he did not say over what period of time.7 According to China expert Vasily Kashin, if Shoygu was referring to 2017, “that could mean that the deliveries of the [sic] Russian defense-related goods and services to China had decreased to $1.8 billion, possibly because some of the old contracts had terminated and the new ones were not yet being implemented”.8

The deputy CEO of Russian state arms export agency Rosoboronexport, Alexander Scherbinin, said recently that military-technical cooperation between Russia and China “amounts to several billion dollars per year. However, several other important indicators are in place, including consistency. We have such level of cooperation already during a fairly long period of time.” He noted that Russia and China were developing military-technical cooperation in new spheres, such as high technology: “If we speak about further prospects of military-technical cooperation, I am confident this is symbiosis: on the one part, conventional products, and on the other part work in the high technologies sphere. This symbiosis is the pledge of our future relations.”9 However, illegal copying of Russian armaments and equipment takes place in China. According to an official from Rostec [Russian state-owned holding conglomerate that specialises in consolidating in strategically important companies, mainly in the defence and high-tech industries—Ed.], more than 500 cases of unauthorised copying have been identified over the past 17 years. China has been especially successful in copying Russian aircraft engines, Sukhoi aircraft, carrier-based fighters, air-defence systems, MANPADS and the Pantsir surface-to-air missile system.10

In recent years Russia’s requirements for electronic components and naval diesel engines that it could no longer obtain from the West have been met by China.

Joint Exercises

Several joint exercises have been conducted by the Russian and Chinese militaries in recent years, starting with the first Peace Mission in 2005.11 At first these exercises were staged in Russia, China and the Central Asian members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), but their scope was later expanded by adding a naval component. The Russian and Chinese navies held joint exercises in the Black Sea, the Baltic and the Mediterranean, and also in the Yellow Sea and the South China Sea. In 2018 a Chinese brigade-sized force took part in Russia’s Vostok military exercise in Siberia and the Russian Far East.12 In September 2019, China participated in the Tsentr-2019 exercises, providing the largest presence of any of Russia’s partners. (India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan also took part.)13 The Chinese defence minister, Colonel General Wei Fenghe, emphasised that, during the preparations for and conduct of strategic command and staff exercises, the parties were able to exchange experiences in conducting military operations.14

While both sides seek to avoid describing the current partnership as an alliance, military cooperation between Russia and China has increased in recent years and in reality there are some striking signs of a military alliance. They conduct joint exercises, hold regular and extensive talks and conduct education projects for each other’s military staff.15 According to the Russian defence minister, Sergey Shoygu, by the end of 2016 more than 3,600 Chinese officers had been trained at Russian military academies and training centres.16

The increase in joint military exercises in recent years, and recent joint air patrols in the Asia-Pacific region, may be explained by the need for cooperation to face up to confrontation with the US. Shoygu explained the joint air patrols by Russian and Chinese warplanes over the Sea of Japan as “two neighbours seeking strategic partnership, Russia and China are thus messaging to everyone that they want to ensure their security”.17

In August 2019 Shoygu noted that the actions of the US and its allies were aimed at expanding its influence in the Asia-Pacific region, weakening the positions of Russia and China in South-east Asia.18 President Putin also recently stated: “High-ranking US politicians are claiming that the deployment of new arms systems may start in the Asia-Pacific region, which is also affecting our vital interests because they will be close to the Russian border”.19 At the end of 2019 the Russian and Chinese navies held joint exercises far from the two countries’ maritime borders. In November, Russian and Chinese warships took part in exercise Mosi with the South African navy. This was the first trilateral Chinese-Russian-South African naval exercise in waters off Africa, and involved advanced PLA Navy assets, including the Type 054A guided-missile frigate Weifang. Weifang has been dispatched from the Chinese mainland to conduct escort and anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden and off the Horn of Africa. The Russian navy was represented by the Slava-class missile cruiser Marshal Ustinov, accompanied by the Kaliningradneft’-class medium sea-going tanker Vyaz’ma and a sea-going rescue tug.20 At the end of December, Russia, China and Iran held joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean and the Sea of Oman, amid heightened tensions in the region between Tehran and Washington. Although the Chinese defence ministry said that “it is not necessarily connected with the regional situation,” all of these were seen as military muscle-flexing.21

Security in Central Asia: Sharing Responsibility or a Gordian Knot in Relations?

The increase in their security cooperation also exerts influence on Russo-Chinese relations in Central Asia. Bilateral military cooperation also involves some CIS countries and Russia has been involved in Chinese military cooperation with the Central Asian countries since the beginning. However, in recent years there have been several examples of security cooperation without direct Russian participation. Cooperation-2019 was the latest in a series of joint China-Tajikistan anti-terrorism military exercises and training ventures held in the Central Asian nation, in 2006, 2015 and 2016 respectively. A similar joint exercise with the same name was held by China’s People’s Armed Police Force (PAP) and the National Guard of Kyrgyzstan. Some 150 Kyrgyz troops attended the counter-terrorism exercise in suburban Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in north-west China. In 2018, the vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, Xu Qiliang, stated that the two countries had expanded their military exchanges, enriched cooperation, and improved their military mutual trust, adding that the cooperation had been fruitful within the framework of the SCO and had played an important role in safeguarding the security and stability of the two countries and Central Asia as a whole. China has also improved its security cooperation with Uzbekistan. In May 2019, the Uzbek National Guard and the PAP conducted a two-week joint anti-terrorism exercise, also named Cooperation-2019, at the Forish field training base in the Jizzakh region of eastern Uzbekistan. China has similar cooperation with border forces in Kazakhstan.22

Notwithstanding Moscow’s suspicions over China’s activities in these former Soviet republics, Russia might have agreed to Beijing’s military cooperation with them with the aim to fight or prevent the infiltration of terrorist groups and radical groups into Central Asia, which also poses a threat to Russia. Given its economic shortcomings, Moscow probably decided to share the burden of military presence with Beijing; protecting the southern borders of the Central Asian countries from possible threats and infiltration by radical groups is clearly in the common interest of Russia, China and the countries of the region.23

A New Level of Cooperation

On 3 October 2019, president Vladimir Putin told the final plenary session of the Valdai International Discussion Club that Russia and China would continue to work together in the exploration of outer space and to cooperate in the military-technical sphere.

I am probably not revealing a big secret here, but it will transpire sooner or later anyway: we are now helping our Chinese partners create a missile attack warning system. This is very important and will drastically increase China’s defence capability. Only the United States and Russia have such a system now.24

Putin’s statement signalled a new level of development in security relations. Early-warning missile-attack systems rely on long-range ground-based radars and space-based technology to detect missile launches and predict their trajectory. Russian media reported that under the 60-million-dollar contract Russian companies including Vympel and Comet were developing software for the Chinese system.25

According to Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong, Putin’s remarks indicated that military cooperation between Beijing and Moscow may have evolved from the previous “model alliance” to a “real alliance”, with the US as their common target.26 Hong Kong-based military analyst Song Zhongping said the system would help Beijing and Moscow set up a joint early-warning ballistic-missile network to counter “American global hegemony”: “If the US wants to attack China [with its ICBMs], their missiles are likely to be launched from the Arctic, and that will be covered by Russia’s early warning system, and that means Moscow will have the capability to alert Beijing,” said Song, who added that China could provide reciprocal help to Russia.27 Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said Putin’s remarks served as a veiled warning to US president Donald Trump, who had taken the unilateral step of withdrawing from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed between the US and Russia in 1987. According to Zhou, joint cooperation will help both Russia and China to save costs “because early warning ballistic missile systems are very expensive”.28 Russian scholar Vasily Kashin notes that this new level of military cooperation is primarily the fully fledged expansion of cooperation to cover strategic arms: “The Russian leadership has acknowledged that it helped China to create a missile launch detection system, and for any country, this is the most important and sensitive component in the strategic nuclear forces control system”.29 He stresses that an important issue in Russo-Chinese cooperation remains the possible integration of the missile launch detection system, which would give both countries a significant advantage in terms of the speed with which they would be warned of a missile strike from the US (for China, from warning stations in Russia’s north, and for Russia, from stations in southern and south-eastern China):

If the two countries take this step (most likely after the Chinese system goes online), Sino-Russian military integration will match the level of the military allies led by the United States, which shares information from its missile detection system with a range of allies, including France and the UK.30

However, the main drivers of Russia’s cooperation with China to create a missile attack warning system might be: (a) Moscow’s understanding that, in the event of military conflict with China, the threat to Russia would come not from intercontinental ballistic missiles but from short- and medium-range ballistic missiles; (b) to show that Russia is able to create strategic challenges for the US.

Prospects for Future Military Cooperation

Besides economic benefits and similarities of political regime, Moscow uses military cooperation with China as a response to the development and deployment by the US of missile defences close to Russia. Moreover, Moscow is concerned about the fate of the New START treaty between the US and Russia. After Washington withdrew from the INF treaty in 2019, Moscow has growing suspicions that New START may not be prolonged or replaced after it expires in 2021. To prepare for such a scenario, Moscow is attempting to develop its military cooperation with China with the aim of sharing the costs of a possible future arms race.31

Significantly, China’s recent white paper on national defence in the new era includes more references to Russia than its 2015 predecessor, all of them positive.32 In 2017, Russia and China signed a roadmap on military cooperation for 2017 to 2020.33 According to the Chinese defence ministry,

The roadmap makes top-level design and general plan for the military cooperation between China and Russia in 2017-2020. It shows the high level mutual trust and strategic cooperation; it is conducive for both sides to face new threats and challenges in the security field and to jointly safeguard regional peace and stability. In the next step, the two sides will formulate a concrete plan to promote the military cooperation.34

Furthermore, in 2019 Russia’s prime minister signed a decree authorising the defence and foreign ministries to start negotiations with the Chinese defence ministry on a military cooperation agreement. No other details are available but it seems military cooperation between the two countries may develop to forms other than the traditional military-industrial cooperation.35 According to Vasily Kashin, the new phase of the Sino-Russian military relationship will probably be “enshrined in the Sino-Russian agreement on military cooperation, which will replace a rather vague document signed in 1993 and is likely to be signed in the near future”.36

Nowadays, Russia and China do not generally expect each other to become direct security threats under their respective current political regimes. Vasily Kashin believes some military planning against each other is being conducted, but conflict is considered a low probability, possible only in the event of very dramatic political change in one of the countries.37 Kashin notes that, despite the ongoing progress in general political/economic relations between the two countries, the growth of their defence cooperation is limited by the extreme technological nationalism of their defence establishments: “In fact, the technological nationalism on both sides seems to be more rampant than it was in the Cold War era”, he says.38 Michael Kofman argues that “the problem for any prospective military alliance between the two states is that China is revisionist in the Asia-Pacific region, where Russia is a status quo power, and the inverse is true in Europe”. Thus, “they do not require each other for security guarantees or extended nuclear deterrence, hence there is no basis for a military alliance”.39

However, while scholars, experts and politicians discuss whether or not military cooperation between Russia and China is in the form of an alliance, the two countries are improving relations in several areas, including the military. Although Moscow and Beijing deny that they intend to establish a military alliance in the immediate future, military cooperation is increasing. Moreover, the two cooperate closely on international issues and coordinate their activities. For instance, they have very similar views and positions on Middle East issues.40

However, the main driver of their close relations in the international arena is the rivalry with the common adversary: the United States. It is possible to say that, until the US is perceived by both as the main adversary and the main source of common threat, or black swan scenarios such as a change of political regime in Russia (involving not only Putin leaving the presidency), military cooperation between Moscow and Beijing will probably increase in the coming years. According to the CAN’s Dmitry Gorenburg, “bilateral cooperation is unlikely to advance to the level of a full alliance because of differences in geopolitical interests and asymmetries of power, with Russia remaining reluctant to fully acknowledge China’s geopolitical rise”. But US actions to pressure both Russia and China have the effect of pushing the two countries closer together.41 However, the current state of the relationship could be defined as Dmitri Trenin puts it: “China and Russia pragmatically engage in increasingly close cooperation on issues of common interest, while agreeing to amicably disagree where their positions do not align”.42

Moscow may also try to manoeuvre between China and the US, which would realistically be better for Russia than staying on one side and is tacitly suggested by the so-called Primakov Doctrine, which is admired by Russia’s current foreign-policy elite. This position may be one of the main components of the multipolar international system preferred and promoted by Moscow. However, strengthening relations with Beijing is currently the Kremlin’s priority, and this is not in Washington’s favour. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, explains Moscow’s vision thus:

… our American colleagues adamantly want to mobilise essentially all their external partners to deter Russia and China. At the same time, they do not hide the desire to embroil Moscow and Beijing, to upset and undermine multilateral unions and regional integration structures developing outside of American control in Eurasia and the Asia-Pacific region.43

All this suggests that, probably at least for the immediate future, military and security cooperation between Russia and China will increase but both sides will keep an eye on each other with the aim of not repeating past mistakes.


1 V. S. Balakin and L. Syaoin, “KNR i SSSR v 1960-e — 1980-e gody: ot konfrontatsii k ravnopravnomu sotrudnichestvu”, Vestnik YuUrGU Sotsial’no-gumanitarnye nauki, Tom 16, № 1 (2016). DOI: 10.14529/ssh160102.

2 Soglasheniye mezhdu Rossiiskoi Federatsiyei, Respublikoi Kazakhstan, Kirgizskoi Respublikoi, Respublikoi Tadzhikistan i Kitaisko Narodnoi Respublikoi ob ukreplenii doveriya v voyennoy oblasti v rayone granitsy, N 87-F3 (1997). docs.cntd.ru/document/901763237.

3 Vasily Kashin, “The Current State of Russian-Chinese Defense Cooperation”, CNA Occasional Paper, DOP-2018-U-018184-Final, 29 August2018, p. 13. Arlington, VA: CNA Center for Strategic Studies.

4 Ibid., p. 7.

5 Igor Chernyak, “Kalashnyy ryad- Gendirektor ‘Rosoboroneksporta’ Anatoliy Isaykin: Nesmotrya na krizis, eksport nashego oruzhiya stavit rekordy”, Rossiyskaya gazeta – Federal’nyy vypusk № 0(4887), 21 April 2009, rg.ru/2009/04/10/orujie.html.

6Shoygu: Rossiya i Kitay za god realizovali kontrakty v sfere VTS na 3 mlrd dollarov”. Vzglyad, 23 November 2016, vz.ru/news/2016/11/23/845346.html.

7Shoygu zayavil, chto voyennoye sotrudnichestvo RF i Kitaya ukreplyayet global’nuyu bezopasnost’”. Interfaks-AVN, 11 July 2018. www.militarynews.ru/Story.asp?rid=1&nid=48564….

8 Kashin, “The Current State of Russian-Chinese Defense Cooperation”, p. 20.

9 “Defense technology cooperation between Russia, China reached several bln dollars per year”, TASS, 16 December 2019. (The quoted text is a TASS translation.) tass.com/economy/1099915.

10V Rostekhe rasskazali, kak rossiyskoye oruzhiye nelegal’no kopiruyut za rubezhom”, TASS, 13 December 2019. tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/7344701.

11 Aleksey Ventslovskiy, “‘Mirnaya missiya’ v zalive Lunvan’”, Krasnaya zvezda, 25 August 2005. old.redstar.ru/2005/08/25_08/1_01.html. See also “‘MIRNAYA MISSIYA-2005’ V LITSAKH”, Krasnaya zvezda, 26 August 2005. old.redstar.ru/2005/08/26_08/3_01.html; “Sergey Goncharov o sovmestnykh voyennykh ucheniyakh ‘Mirnaya missiya-2005’”, China Internet Information Center. russian.china.org.cn/russian/190460.htm.

12 Dmitri Trenin, “US Obsession With Containment Driving China And Russia Closer”, Global Times, 31 July 2019. www.globaltimes.cn/content/1159900.shtml.

13 Sergey Sukhankin, “What Did Russia’s Strategic Military Exercise Tsentr-2019 Reveal?”, Diplomaatia No. 194, October 2019. icds.ee/what-did-russias-strategic-military-exerci….

14 Aleksandr Pinchuk, “Masshtabno, effektivno, slazhenno”, Krasnaya zvezda, 29 September 2019. redstar.ru/masshtabno-effektivno-slazhenno/?attemp….

15 Vasily Kashin, “Russian-Chinese Security Cooperation and Military-to-Military Relations”, Italian Institute for International Political Studies, 21 December 2018. www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/russian-chinese… (accessed 10 October 2019).

16Rossiya postavit v Kitay S-400, protivokorabel’nyye rakety i istrebiteli Su-35”, Tvzvezda.ru, 21 February 2017. tvzvezda.ru/news/opk/content/201702211445-41k8.htm (accessed on 10 October 2019).

17 Mariya Loktionova, “Ne sobiralis’ zadirat’ SSHA: Shoygu ob”yasnil polety Tu-160”, Gazeta.ru, 18 August 2019. www.gazeta.ru/army/2019/08/18/12586165.shtml.

18 Anastasiya Sviridova, “Minoborony Rossii sovershenstvuyet boyevoy sostav i osnashcheniye voysk na zapade i vostoke strany”, Krasnaya zvezda, 23 August 2019. redstar.ru/na-glavnyh-strategicheskih-napravleniya….

19 “Meeting with permanent members of the Security Council”, President of the Russian Federation, 23 August 2019. en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/61359.

20 Ankit Panda, “Chinese, Russian, South African Navies Conduct Trilateral Naval Exercises”, The Diplomat, 27 November 2019. thediplomat.com/2019/11/chinese-russian-south-afri….

21 “Russia, China, Iran start joint naval drills in Indian Ocean”, Reuters, 27 December 2019. www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-military-russia-ch….

22 Nurlan Aliyev, “China-Russia Security Cooperation in Central Asia”, The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 22 October 2019. cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/i….

23 Ibid.

24 “Valdai Discussion Club session, Vladimir Putin spoke at the final plenary session of the 16th meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club”, President of the Russian Federation, 3 October 2019. en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/61719 (accessed on 10 October 2019).

25 Vasiliy Kashin, “Kak sotrudnichestvo Rossii i Kitaya v sozdanii SPRN povliyayet na strategicheskiy balans v mire”, 15 October 2019. profile.ru/military/kak-sotrudnichestvo-rossii-i-k….

26 Minnie Chan and Reuters, “Vladimir Putin says Russia is helping China build a missile early warning system”, South China Morning Post, 4 October 2019. www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3031639/v… (accessed on 21 October 2019).

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 Vassily Kashin, “Tacit Alliance: Russia and China Take Military Partnership to New Level”, Carnegie Moscow Center, 22 October 2019. carnegie.ru/commentary/80136.

30 Ibid.

31 Aliyev, “China-Russia Security Cooperation in Central Asia”.

32 “China’s National Defense in the New Era”, The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, 24 July 2019. Available at www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-07/24/c_138253389.h….

33 “中俄签署2017-2020年军事领域合作发展“路线图”, 29 June 2017. www.chinanews.com/mil/2017/06-29/8264778.shtml.

34 D.D. Wu, “China and Russia Sign Military Cooperation Roadmap”, 30 June 2017, thediplomat.com/2017/06/china-and-russia-sign-mili….

35 Rasporyazhenie Pravitel’stva Rossiiskoi Federatsii ot 18.07.2019 № 1584-r, publication.pravo.gov.ru/Document/View/00012019072….

36 Kashin, “Tacit Alliance”.

37 Kashin, “Russian-Chinese Security Cooperation and Military-to-Military Relations”.

38 Kashin, “The Current State of Russian-Chinese Defense Cooperation”, p. 22.

39 Michael Kofman, “Towards a Sino-Russian entente?”, Riddle, 29 November 2019. www.ridl.io/en/towards-a-sino-russian-entente/.

40 “China says shares similar views and positions with Russia on Middle East issue”, 9 January 2020. www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-security-china/chi….

41 Dmitry Gorenburg, “An Emerging Strategic Partnership: Trends in Russia-China Military Cooperation”, Security Insights No. 54, The George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, 29 April 2020. www.marshallcenter.org/sites/default/files/files/2….

42 Dmitri Trenin, “Russia and China in the Arctic: Cooperation, Competition, and Consequences”, Carnegie Moscow Center, 31 March 2020. carnegie.ru/commentary/81407#_ednref3.

43 Sergey Lavrov, “Mir na pereput’ye i sistema mezhdunarodnykh otnosheniy budushchego”, Rossiya v global’noy politike, 20 September 2019. globalaffairs.ru/articles/mir-na-perepute-i-sistem….

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