Analysis: Strains Show in Complex China-Russia Relations
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
During the Cold War, the Russian-Chinese relationship was watched by Western intelligence analysts like hawks on mice.
What if Moscow and Beijing form an alliance? What if there is another border dispute between them? What if Russia provides advanced fighters to North Korea? How would the United States respond to a Russian attack on Japan?
Today, the relationship is far more transparent, yet still very complicated.
“Despite all the recent joint exercises between Russia and China, as well as continuing arms trade between the two, Japan sees Russia and China as unconvinced bedfellows at best,” said Yoichiro Sato of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu.
The old Cold War alliances of Russia and China supporting North Korea’s ambitions to conquer the South and checkmate Japan’s re-emergence as a regional superpower are unrecognizable today. Now Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing and Moscow share embassies and portion a multimillion-dollar trade relationship that dwarfs North Korea’s gross national product.
Russian sales to China of advanced weapon systems, including ships, fighters, radar and communications gear, have left many in Washington and in the region nervous. But now that relationship appears to heading into an autumn.
Andrei Chang, editor of the Hong Kong-based Kanwa Defense Review, said China is cutting the umbilical cord to Russia.
“As far as Russia-China military aviation cooperation is concerned,” he said, “the spring is already over, and naval cooperation between the two countries is also over.”
Chang said Beijing is moving toward indigenous production of many of the systems it originally bought in mass from Moscow, thanks to reverse engineering.
“Russia has been quite discontented with China’s persistent practice of importing a very small fraction of Russian intact naval systems and then making imitation versions of the equipment,” he said. “Many of the subsystems, like radars and the naval gun for the 054A FFG frigate, have been copied from Russian products, which indicates that the Chinese will simply copy Russian technology to build more domestic vessels.”
Reuben Johnson, a Ukraine-based aerospace and technology analyst and consultant, views Moscow’s open arms policy toward Beijing as a comic tragedy.
“China has sent legions of its own specialists to Russia and Ukraine to study the entire design process of all manner of weapon systems,” he said. “In several cases, Russian design bureaus have developed a piece of kit that is an analog — an analog and not a copy — of an existing Russian system, and presented the blueprints, design documentation and a handful of working models to their Chinese customer.
“The result is that, for example, Chinese aircraft can be armed with either the Vympel RVV-AE active-homing air-to-air missile or the SD-10/PL-12 AAM that Russian design bureaus like AGAT, Vympel and others assisted them in developing.”
Now, Russia is getting nervous over Beijing’s earlier promises to buy more Su-27s and Su-30s from Moscow.
“A source at Sukhoi told me that as of Feb. 2007, the contract for the production of additional Su-27SK/J-11 fighters has not been signed,” Chang said. “The contract on the import of a new batch of Su-30MK2 fighters has not been confirmed, either. The formulation of the new defense budget in China has already been completed, and there is no action on additional Su fighters. The overall plan now is only to import 180 AL31F engines from Russia this year.”
Johnson contends that while early sales of Russian equipment benefited Moscow financially and Beijing strategically, the relationship now appears to be a win-lose situation. An old wound that never healed appears ready to resurface.
“Ironically, the biggest losers in the long run could be the Russians themselves,” Johnson said. “Having made billions by selling every conceivable weapon and technology to Beijing, they now find themselves facing the possibility that they will lose control over the far eastern regions of Russia — including the city where all the Su-27/30 models sold to China are manufactured.”
He said that Chinese immigration, both legal and illegal, into these areas has gone unnoticed by Moscow and, as a consequence, the Chinese have managed to occupy most of the territory and now control much of the industrial base, including agriculture and manufacturing.
“The Chinese population of the Khabarovsk region of Russia, bordering China at the Amur River, is more than 200,000,” Johnson said. “China still regards the region as illegally annexed territory — land that the Russians took over while the Chinese were too preoccupied with the Opium Wars. Now the old landlords want their property back. Chinese inhabitants of Vladivostok now refer to it by its ancient Chinese name of Haishenwei and talk about ‘peacefully reconquering’ the region.”