18.02.2004
Russian-Chinese Military-Technical Cooperation in 1992-2002: Achievements, Tendencies, Perspectives.
Opinions
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Konstantin Makienko

Konstantin Makienko is Deputy Director of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.

The military-technical cooperation between Russia and China or,
in other words, the delivery of Russian military materiel and
technologies to China, is one of the most interesting – and covert
– facets of Russia’s present foreign and military-technical policy.
When Russia resumed its delivery of weapons to China in 1992
following the 30-year Sino-Soviet Cold War, it was perceived as a
sensation which demonstrated how the world had changed by the late
20th century. Over the past decade, Russia has viewed its arms
deliveries to major neighboring states as a foundation for a new
continental alliance meant to restrain the United States, as well
as a means for helping the domestic defense industry to survive.
However, this short-sighted policy of encouraging a potential
adversary, and the many problems involved in the supplies of arms
and military technologies to China, have never been subjected to an
in-depth analysis.

Recently, this deficiency was given due consideration by
Konstantin Makienko in his booklet Russian-Chinese
Military-Technical Cooperation in 1992-2002 published by the
Russian mission of the Washington-based Center for Defense
Information. Makienko,

a young but already well-known Russian analyst specializing in
arms export issues, has summarized almost all unclassified
information available on this issue. Furthermore, he has made an
expert analysis of this information and has drawn some important
conclusions. Although small in size, the in-depth work by Makienko
certainly deserves attention of all those who take interest in
international relations in Asia and military-strategic issues.

Most of the conclusions made by the author are well
substantiated. Makienko demonstrates how the Chinese Air Force made
impressive progress in the 1990s by adopting into service fourth
and fourth-plus generation aircraft, instead of operating
second-generation machines. The Chinese Navy also substantially
enhanced its capabilities through the acquisition of advanced
anti-ship missiles and the buildup of ship-borne air defense
weapons. The author thoroughly assesses the demand of the People’s
Liberation Army of China for modern arms and military equipment.
Among other things, it will need advanced combat support systems,
heavy and medium-class fighters for the Air Force, small-size
ship-borne air defense systems and anti-ship missiles for the Navy,
as well as sub-strategic weapon systems.

The author’s conclusion, that despite the purchases of Russian
arms China will not be able to carry out – in the foreseeable
future – a successful offensive operation against Taiwan with the
purpose of occupying the island, seems to be reasonable. Any
attempts by Beijing to gain air supremacy over the Taiwan Strait
will presumably be successfully thwarted by Taipei, which has
sufficient financial and economic resources to do so. Makienko is
right in concluding that the strategy pursued by China’s political
and military leadership “consists in building a credible potential
of deterring Taipei, which is supposed to be just one means of more
so-phisticated political and diplomatic operation aimed at annexing
the rebellious province” (p. 33).

Some other conclusions seem to be disputable. For instance,
unlike the Taiwan scenario, the military balance in Southeast Asia
(pp. 33-37) has not been analyzed through the political and
economic components of Beijing’s strategy. As a result, it hangs
poised in mid-air, offering dubious guidelines for the future.
Beijing’s strategy in Southeast Asia can by no means be reduced to
attaining military superiority, seizing the isles and getting
control over the straits which are used for the shipment of the
Middle East oil. China is working along several lines, with the
emphasis on the economy and finance being the key ones. Instead of
a confrontation, China is now concentrating its efforts on
cooperation, while relying more on its market and currency
potential than on the Air Force or Navy. As for the third countries
involved, such as the U.S. and India, I absolutely agree with
Makienko here: the increased interest of the United States in
Southeast Asia is due not only to the necessity for combating
international terrorism.

A more serious question is the global military-political
strategy of the People’s Republic of China. The author proceeds
from an assumption that “China is on a way to acquire the status of
a second superpower or, at least, the status of a single state in
the world that will be able in the long run to compete with the
United States in the conventional field” (p. 20). This assumption
is daring enough. In applying the model of the Soviet Union to
China (as is done by the author against the background of more
specific issues of developing the fleet of military aircraft), he
runs the risk of arriving at seemingly feasible, but actually
unsubstantiated, conclusions. Beijing’s foreign policy and
strategic conduct over the past 25 years substantially differs from
the Soviet stereotypes. By way of illustration: during the last
decade of the Cold War, Beijing resisted the temptation of joining
the nuclear and non-nuclear arms race which would have hampered the
country’s development, as had actually been the case with the
Soviet Union.

There are still less grounds for assuming that China will be
ready

to risk challenging U.S. military supremacy within the coming
quarter of the century. And there are four reasons for this belief.
First, China has huge domestic problems; second, its economic
development continues to be an undisputable priority for the
Chinese leadership, the basis for the Chinese Communist Party to
stay in power, and a guarantee against chaos should the CCP be
overthrown. Third, Beijing’s foreign policy ambitions are limited
enough. Fourth, the Chinese leaders had been witnesses to the
trying experience of the U.S.S.R., which suffered a decline
simultaneously with, and largely as a result of, the attainment of
its long-awaited military-strategic parity with the United
States.

The above does not mean that China will not eventually become
second in the world, after the United States, as a military power
in the “conventional field.” That is likely to happen in the coming
15 to 20 years. To rank second, however, is a much easier task than
to become a global or regional rival of the United States. Given
the present strategic situation, a second-ranking nation is only
the first among equal states. The first-ranking nation, i.e. the
United States, has the military power and military potential of a
markedly different level. The Chinese leadership seems to proceed
from the assumption that in the second half of the 21st century
China may become the world leader and surpass the United States in
a number of important criteria. However, China’s efforts to become
the world leader will most likely differ from the Western or Soviet
plans for gaining world supremacy, or for securing ‘the victory of
Communism.’ In the ‘Chinese project,’ military power is expected to
play a certain role, but that would be of secondary, rather than of
primary importance. Finally, the book by Konstantin Makienko makes
the reader contemplate more general issues of Russia’s policy
toward China. The latter’s growing military power, in contrast to
the on-going crisis of Russia’s military organization, poses a
serious problem for future military reformers. It is evident that
China, as well as NATO, are superior to Russia in the “conventional
military field.” Almost everybody agrees that a large-scale armed
conflict in Europe is improbable; nuclear weapons are now used as a
guarantee of Russia’s security with respect to the U.S. and its
allies. Although Russian officials are cautious in their public
assessments on the state and dynamics of the Russian-Chinese
military balance, and the importance of ‘the Chinese factor’ for
Russia’s military security, there are grounds for extending the
conclusions made with regard to Russia’s  Western neighbors
onto China. In the foreseeable future, a large-scale war with China
is most improbable; Russia’s nuclear potential should be used as a
guarantee of its security. Another important topic addressed by
Makienko is the impact that Russian-Chinese military-technical
cooperation has on the relationship between Russia and the United
States. It is worth mentioning that when the George W. Bush
administration just entered the White House, they treated China as
the most serious foreign political challenge of the United States.
The catastrophe of September 11, 2001, and the events that
followed, set aside this problem for a while, but the U.S. did not
cancel it altogether. It can be expected that in 10-15 years from
now the East Asian issues will come once again to the foreground of
world policy, pushing aside the currently dominant problems in the
Middle and Central East. If so, Russia’s assistance in modernizing
the Chinese military machine might annoy the United States more
than its present cooperation between Russia and Iran on nuclear
issues.

To find oneself between the United States and China is quite an
unenviable position, but Russia should be prepared to face it.
Russia cannot afford to make China a hostile nation. Neither can it
sharply cool down its relationship with the United States. It will
be extremely difficult for Russia to find a safe way out of this
complicated situation. However strange it may seem now, the best
strategy possible would be promoting friendly relations between the
United States and China. Russia should, to the best of its
abilities, encourage the readiness of Washington and Beijing to
assume multilateral efforts in East and Central Asia. The ultimate
settlement of the Korean problem, i.e. the reunification of the
country after the German pattern, would be a long-term
international project resulting from the vast cooperative
experience of the countries involved. The participation of the
United States in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would be no
less valuable. As for the supply of arms and military technologies,
it would be more expedient for Moscow, given its own national
interests, to specify the limits of its military-technical
cooperation with China.

It is essential that Russia be on a par with, rather than in
between, the United States and China. Amending Russia’s national
policy due to external pressure will be both humiliating and
dangerous.

Dmitry Trenin