Russians help China modernize its arsenalNew Military Ties Raise U.S. Concerns
By John Pomfret
Thursday, February 10, 2000
BEIJINGChina's purchase of two $800 million, Russian-built destroyers, the first of which sailed through the Strait of Taiwan this week en route to a Chinese naval base, highlights a blossoming military relationship between Moscow and Beijing that is raising concerns in Asia and the West.
Western experts and Asian diplomats say that over the last year, and especially since the Kosovo war last spring, Moscow's security ties to Beijing have surpassed the simple cash-for-weapons transactions that characterized the relationship for years and are evolving into something more complex and potentially far-reaching.
In October, the Chinese and Russian defense ministries signed an agreement to conduct joint training and to share data on the formulation of military doctrine. The same month, the elements of the Russian and Chinese navies took part in their first joint exercises at sea. The two governments also removed a major obstacle to bilateral military sales, currently valued at about $1 billion a year, by compromising on China's desire to pay for weaponry and technical assistance with goods and Russia's demand for hard currency.
Asian officials, meanwhile, say that as many as 2,000 Russian technicians are employed by Chinese research institutes working on laser technology: the miniaturization of nuclear weapons; cruise missiles; space-based weaponry; and nuclear submarines. On Jan. 19, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov told reporters that Beijing and Moscow "are close enough" to agreement on joint use of Russia's GLONASS satellite-based global positioning system, an accord that would aid the Chinese military in targeting its rockets and air-to-air missiles. Russia and China also have announced a willingness to collaborate on a ballistic missile defense system to counter U.S. efforts to create its own missile defense system.
"The weapons don't concern us as much as the technology transfers do," said Maj. Gen. Tyson Fu, director of the Institute of Strategic Studies at Taiwan's Armed Forces University. "That is where the Russians are making their biggest impact."
Western experts are split over whether Russia and China will be able to overcome their historic animosities to turn these agreements into durable cooperation. There are questions too about the ability of China's lumbering armed forces to absorb Russian technology and about the overall impact of Russian imports on Chinese military strength. Nonetheless, diplomats and scholars with a variety of viewpoints agree that the Sino-Russian relationship has acquired new energy since the Kosovo crisis and merits closer scrutiny from Western capitals.
"To pretend that this trend toward greater strategic coordination will simply dissolve before our superior strength or wisdom, or because in the past China and Russia have been unable to forge an enduring partnership is to abdicate the requirements of statesmanship," said Stephen Blank, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, who has taken a hard line on the emerging ties. "In general, I think we have been far too complacent about this relationship, but I hope that will change."
Just two years ago, a senior Western diplomat soft-pedaled the emerging ties, quoting Russian sources as saying that the quality of the systems Russia was selling China was inferior. Last week, the same diplomat cautioned that "if the Russians are giving them stuff that is as good as in their own arsenal they are criminally stupid."
The diplomat added, however, that there has been no concerted pressure on Moscow to stop sales and transfers of military technology to China. He said Washington had pressured Israel to halt the sale to China of a $250 million airborne radar system, "but there is no united response to Russia."
China and Russia are moving toward a closer security relationship largely in response to what they see as growing American hegemony around the world. This concern was spurred by U.S. global military and economic dominance, NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, and what Beijing and Moscow view as U.S. use of the United Nations as a foreign policy tool.
The Russian-built Sovremenny-class destroyer Hangzhou left St. Petersburg on Jan. 4 with a mixed crew of Chinese and Russian sailors. The vessel, which will be the largest warship in the Chinese navy, will be equipped with sophisticated anti-ship Sunburn missiles. A second Sovremenny-class destroyer is scheduled to arrive in China later this year, followed by more Sunburn missiles in October.
As it sailed toward the East China Sea, the Hangzhou passed a U.S. Navy task force led by the USS John C. Stennis, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that on Tuesday became the first U.S. warship to visit Hong Kong since the Kosovo war.
China's shopping spree for Russian weapons has not been limited to naval equipment. In 1992, China bought its first batch of Su-27 fighter jets. In 1996, it signed a contract worth an estimated $2.2-2.5 billion to build 200 of the aircraft in China. Last year, it signed a $2 billion contract for 30 to 60 Su-30MK fighter planes, a senior Asian diplomat said, adding that negotiations apparently are underway on a deal involving the Su-37, a more advanced model.
Western analysts say China acquired the Sunburn-equipped ships as part of a long-term strategy--which also included the 1994 purchase of four Kilo-class diesel-powered submarines--to make U.S. forces in the region think twice about defending Taiwan. The U.S. military has yet to come up with a viable deterrent to the Sunburn missile, which has a range of 87 nautical miles, Western analysts said. Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, will elect a new president next month. The last time Taiwan held a presidential election, in 1996, Beijing fired missiles near the island, and the United States responded by sending two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area.
While the Chinese are expanding their military ties with Russia, they are also pursuing a broader security relationship with the United States. U.S.-China military contacts, suspended after the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war, resumed at a high level last month with the visit to Washington of Lt. Gen. Xiong Guangkai, director of intelligence and deputy chief of staff of the Chinese army. Later this month, the vice-chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Ralston, is scheduled to visit Beijing as part of a delegation of senior U.S. officials.
By almost every measure, China remains decades behind the United States and some of its Western allies in key areas of military technology. Some Western analysts see China's acquisitions from the Russians as an illustration of the failure of its own research and development agencies to close the gap.
"I think what the Chinese buy from the Russians or [other foreign sources] is a tacit admission that their defense industries cannot design and make the stuff that the [military] thinks it needs," said John Frankenstein, an expert on China's military-industrial complex. "The Chinese defense industries represent a worst-case example of the problems of the Chinese state-owned enterprises--under-capitalized, lagging technology, over-staffed and poorly managed."
Even attempts by Chinese scientists to "reverse engineer" foreign weapons systems have failed, said Kenneth W. Allen, a senior associate at Washington's Henry L. Stimson Center and an expert on China's air force.
Allen said that after China agreed to buy the first batch of Su-27s, it halted negotiations on further purchases because luck appeared to be on its side. Following the Persian Gulf War, he said, China obtained from Iran at least four models of Russian-built aircraft that used to belong to the Iraqi air force but were flown to Iran at the beginning of the war.
Negotiations for joint production of the Su-27 only resumed in 1994 or 1995, he said, after China's aeronautics ministry acknowledged it could not build its own sophisticated aircraft.
"This was the final nail in the aviation ministry's coffin," Allen said. "Since then, almost every upgrade of existing Chinese aircraft has involved Russian major sub-systems." The trend is not good for the aviation ministry and self-sufficiency."