Russia: Strategic Partner or Potential Threat to China? – II


ontinued from Part – I

With respect to political aspects of the partnership, Beijing supported Moscow’s early opposition to the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The April 1997 statement said:

Both sides stand for the establishment of a new and universally applicable security concept, believing that the “Cold War mentality” must be abandoned and bloc politics opposed.
“The differences or disputes between states must be settled through peaceful means without resorting to the use or threat of force. Dialogue and consultation should be pursued to promote mutual understanding and build confidence, and peace and security should be sought through coordination and cooperation at bilateral or multilateral levels”
Returning the political favor, Moscow offered its confirmation that both Tibet and Taiwan are inseparable parts of China. Russian Defense Minister Rodionov reportedly went so far in an April 1997 speech in Beijing at the Academy of Military Science (AMS) as to express readiness to support China in an armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula. He blamed the potential for conflict there on alliance arrangements and said, “Russia will not be able to remain aloof.”
Maligning Alliances- Amidst all this blatant rhetorical bashing of Americans, one detects a good measure of smug passion for this aspect of the collaboration. Moreover, there is in all this a campaign to discredit alliances, especially alliances involving the United States, as alluded to by Rodionov in his speech at the PLA’s AMS. The 1997 Sino-Russian joint statement contains these words:
“It constitutes an important practice toward the establishment of a new international order for the two countries . . . to forge a partnership that is characterized by good neighborliness and friendship, equality and trust, mutually beneficial cooperation and common development, in strict compliance with the principles of international law and formulation of a new type of long-term state-to-state relationship not directed against any third country.”
The Roots of Partnership- China has cultivated in Russia an excellent partner for the future: partly Asian, until recently communist, residually authoritarian, presently nonthreatening, and ready to criticize and even challenge Washington. The question is whether this marriage is one of  convenience or whether there are qualities in the relationship that will endure into the next century. Already, the amount of attention given by Beijing and Moscow to touting the partnership seems to have waned significantly.
The Role of Arms and Technology Transfers- There is, however, one area of unquestioned substance and apparent durability in Sino-Russian relations: arms sales and military technology transfer, which pre-dates the formation of the partnership. Three months before the partnership was announced, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Panov said that connections with the PLA and cooperation on armaments manufacture “are being developed and will be developed.” He noted the importance of China as a market for the deteriorating Russian arms industry. Russia’s goal under the 5-year military cooperation agreement it signed with China in 1993, Panov said, was to promote the sale of Russian military equipment without upsetting the military balance in the region.
Taking a jab at Washington, the Russian minister said, “We do not see anybody objecting to such cooperation between Russia and China or fearing it,” noting pointedly that “it was deemed normal for Taiwan to get hundreds of aircraft.” Actually, the initial Su-27 deliveries occurred before the decisions by Washington and Paris to sell Taiwan F-16s and Mirage 2000-5s. Panov asserted that Washington had been consulted and would not be concerned if the scope of the cooperation was not great and remained within “definite limits.”  Washington acknowledged the conversation but said that U.S. officials were informed, rather than consulted, about the sale of additional Russian Su-27 fighter aircraft to China. An unnamed State Department representative said, “[Panov] neither sought nor did we convey to him any approval.”
Although arms sales and military technology transfer seem clearly to be the most active and conspicuous aspect of the strategic partnership, problems remain in that area.
Since the mid-1990s, Moscow has pressed Beijing hard for payment in hard currency rather than largely in barter-as had been the case prior to about 1994. Reportedly, in 1994 Beijing and Moscow signed an agreement to transition to payments in hard currency, but the degree of success of that arrangement is not yet clear to outsiders. Price, form of payment, and financing methods between the two countries remain troublesome.
In March 1998, unofficial but well-connected sources believed that contract arrangements had not yet been concluded for the licensed production in China of 200 Su-27 fighter aircraft, despite reports concerning provisions for assembly in Northeast China.  Thus, 2 years after the licensing arrangement had been revealed and a total of more than 6 years since Beijing had begun pressing Moscow to allow Su-27s to be assembled in China, payment methods were still under discussion. A very reliable Chinese official, with whom this author spoke, said that negotiations on payment and financing of the Sovremenny destroyers were still in progress. That was well over a year from the time that the deal was made public. The PLAN also wants more than the four Kilo-class diesel submarines that China has purchased. It needs to buy more comprehensive training from the Russian Navy for the crews of the delivered submarines. However, the PLAN’s hopes for more submarines and more extensive training have foundered because of the refusal of the Chinese government to provide the needed hard currency. Looking across the board at arms transfers, it is pertinent that only a fraction of the innumerable expensive items mentioned by news reports and by observers in the West has actually been delivered from Russia to China. There are numerous explanations, but prominent among them is the inability or unwillingness of Beijing to pay for this equipment and technology in ways acceptable to Moscow.
Russia’s deepening financial crisis is an additional complicating factor- China, in coming years, will be no less inclined to seek favorable terms, but Russian officials are not likely to become any more generous, and they may well make greater demands for payments in hard currency and for “normal” financing terms. On the other hand, Russian arms industries will likely become more desperate for markets abroad. Russian research scientists, technicians, and others with specialized knowledge of value to the PLA and China’s defense industries will be more inclined to accept paying work in China, temporarily or permanently. Regional neighbors and others, including the United States, will have heightened concerns; however, because Moscow and Beijing are now more linked to their neighbors, both will take those neighbors’ concerns into account in decisions about arms sales and technology transfers.
All these factors will introduce strains into the Sino-Russian military cooperative arrangements. In light of these factors, one cannot help but wonder how Beijing views the military supply relationship. Does Russia appear reliable in the eyes of the PLA leadership as a supplier of technology, training, and weapons? The PLA has sound grounds for at least some measure of concern. It was badly burned by the dissolution of the arms and technology transfer relationship with the Soviets around 1960. The PLA was emphatically reminded of that peril again in 1989 by the imposition of sanctions by the United States after its Tiananmen Square intervention rupturing a budding military supply and technology transfer relationship of great value to the PLA. From a broader perspective, it simply cannot be assumed that the flow of arms from Russia to China will remain a major feature of their bilateral relationship. It is highly likely, but hardly assured.
Other Ties That Bind- Some less conspicuous aspects of the strategic partnership appear to be quite solid. Long-standing border disputes have been resolved through multilateral agreements. Many of the disputes over specific border areas were extremely difficult to resolve with considerable strong feelings on all sides, especially between the Russians and the Chinese. On one occasion, President Yeltsin, just before a visit to Beijing, had to intervene angrily to squelch objections by Yevgeny Nazdratenko, governor of the far eastern Primorsky region. Nevertheless, both capitals had the will to resolve the contentious border problems. There have been regular biannual meetings of a high-level defense commission. By September 1996, there had been 20 rounds of talks on reduction of military forces in border areas, with successful results. The first secure telecommunications hotline between Beijing and a foreign capital was established with Moscow in May 1998. These seem to add up to a significant bank of goodwill that can be drawn on in the future.
What does all this portend for security relations in the 21st century between the world’s largest nation and the world’s most populous nation? Regardless of whether their strategic partnership truly takes on the mantle of a “universal security concept that would promote world peace,” as Xinhua termed it last year, the most pertinent aspect is what this partnership means for Sino-Russian bilateral relations and the effects that has on regional security. In the early 1990s, one could not go very long in discussion with Chinese security specialists without hearing about the potential threat from a reawakening Russian bear. Now, in place of fears of Russian unpredictability, much is heard about equality and trust in the relationship. Admittedly, the tone and frequency of such pronouncements give reason to wonder whether this is whistling in the dark. Does Beijing truly see Moscow as a regional security partner in Asia? Or is Russia perceived as seeking to protect from the Chinese hordes its troubled expanses of Siberia and the Russian Far East? Or is Moscow simply a convenient partner used by Beijing to challenge Washington and its alliances at a time in history when China’s other neighbors are not inclined to do so? There are no ready answers to these questions, but this is one of those situations where knowing the questions is of considerable value.
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