July 18, 2001 | Backgrounder on Russia
On July 16, the presidents of Russia and China signed a Treaty for Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation in Moscow.1 This treaty is the first such agreement between these two Eurasian powers since Mao Tse-tung signed a treaty with Joseph Stalin of the U.S.S.R. in 1950, four months before the outbreak of the Korean War. That treaty had been driven by anti-Western sentiments.
The motivations behind this new treaty are much more complex and involve serious geopolitical, military, and economic considerations. In a sense, this treaty is a logical product of the improvement in Sino-Russian relations that began under the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and continued under Boris Yeltsin. The treaty should signal to the Western world that a major geopolitical shift may be taking place in the Eurasian balance of power, with serious implications for the United States and its alliances.
Joint actions to offset a perceived U.S. hegemonism;2
The treaty comes on the heels of another recent security arrangement involving these two countries: On June 14, Russia, China, and four Central Asian states announced the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an arrangement ostensibly aimed at confronting Islamic radical fundamentalism and promoting economic development.3 Together, the agreements portend an important evolving geopolitical transformation for Russia and China, two regional giants who are positioning themselves to define the rules under which the United States, the European Union, Iran, and Turkey will be allowed to participate in the strategically important Central Asian region.
Many analysts point out that while the United States should monitor these developments, there is still no cause for panic. Contradictions in political objectives continue to exist between China and Russia, including Russia's "primordial distrust" of the Chinese, according to Professor James Sherr of Great Britain's Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.4 Nonetheless, there is growing concern that the new treaty between Moscow and Beijing may increase coordination between the two countries against the United States.
The Bush Administration should take steps to protect U.S. interests, increase regional security, and counter the threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). It should, for example, expand intelligence monitoring of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership, including assessing possible secret codicils in the treaty. It should boost military and security cooperation with India and Japan while developing joint efforts with Russia and China to counter radical Islamic threats in Central Asia. And it should offer Moscow incentives to scale down its military cooperation with China, especially with regard to weapons of mass destruction and advanced military technology.
China and Russia first announced the development of their "strategic partnership" at a Shanghai summit in April 1996. Since then, they have taken steps to boost this relationship. During President Jiang Zemin's visit to Moscow in 1997, he and President Yeltsin committed to promoting a new international policy based on "multipolarity"--the creation of competing centers of power as a response to perceived U.S. dominance.5 They called for the preservation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty between the United States and the former Soviet Union, and they supported lifting the U.N. Security Council sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.6
The desire to counter U.S. global supremacy and the West's pressure on both countries regarding the rights of independence-seeking ethnic minorities (and human rights in general) furnished much of the impetus for a friendship treaty between Russia and China as well as the creation of the so-called Shanghai-6 Organization (SCO). The parties of this organization vehemently oppose the policy of NATO-led "humanitarian interventions," such as the Kosovo war, which was not sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council.
Chairman Jiang has repeatedly declared that "hegemonism and power politics" are the "main source of threat to world peace and stability" as well as China's interests.7 Beijing is clearly interested in curtailing the U.S.-led condemnations and sanctions of China for human rights, as in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Furthermore, Russia and China are both seeking to safeguard their status as two of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Finally, they are working to boost each other's military potential as well as that of other countries that pursue anti-American foreign policies, such as Iran and Iraq.8
The state-run media in Russia and China often point to "U.S. hegemonism" and "U.S. power politics," and call for the "establishment of a new international order" under United Nations tutelage.9 Some of the forms of cooperation that have followed such rhetoric clearly pose a threat to U.S. interests. For example, the Russian and Chinese navies began conducting joint military exercises in 1999.10 These maneuvers included the Russian Pacific Fleet missile cruisers and destroyers as well as warships from the Chinese Eastern Fleet.11 The Sino-Russian exercises this year allegedly included Russian TU-22 bombers equipped with long-range nuclear-capable cruise missiles flying attack missions against simulated U.S. forces in East Asia.12
In view of these actions, the assertions made by the Chinese and Russians that the new strategic relationship is not aimed at any one nation have a particularly hollow ring.13 More than the formalization of the new treaty, it is the massive Russian arms sales and WMD-related technology transfers to China that make the multipolar rhetoric of these new "friends" of particular concern to the United States and its allies in Asia.
A world system that is not dominated by one country is attractive to both Moscow and Beijing for similar reasons: Economically, it offers them alternative sources of technology, financing, and markets for their raw materials, goods, and services. Moreover, an overburdened U.S. military would pose less of a risk to Russia and China in the regions where they assert their own power. Alternative poles of power in which there is a proliferation of weapons of mass destruction would force the United States to spread its resources thinly to deal with evolving crises in different regions simultaneously.
The reason for Russia's willingness to support China's security interests and vice versa may lie in the fact that each country now views the other as its "strategic rear."14 Russian leaders have often stated that the threats to Russia are NATO enlargement to the East15 and radical Islamic forces active in Chechnya and among Moscow's Central Asian allies. Beijing views U.S. predominance in the post-Cold War world--from its success in the Gulf War to its support of Taiwan security--as important threats to China. Russia has stated that "there is only one China" and that Taiwan is China's "internal affair," while Beijing has expressed unequivocal support for Russia's strong-arm tactics in Chechnya.16
Nevertheless, attempts to add other major Asian powers to this strategic partnership have been problematic. Moscow has tried to woo India into the strategic multipolar relationship by holding out the carrot of access to Russia's military hardware to boost its military capabilities.17 The problem is that China and India have long been strategic competitors. Russia also has longstanding issues with other Asian countries, such as its dispute with Japan regarding the Northern Territories (Kurile Islands) that the U.S.S.R. occupied in 1945. In addition, Japan is apprehensive about China's bid to dominate East Asia. The task of drawing more countries into this plan may prove very difficult.
China has made it clear that it is interested in creating "pockets of excellence"--local weapons development programs based on foreign technologies; but to do so it must first obtain that foreign technology. The large number of Russian weapons scientists who moved to China over the past decade may be the most dangerous aspect of the Sino-Russian strategic relationship.18 China was the leading customer of the Russian military-industrial complex in the 1990s. Chinese leaders turned to Russia for weapons systems that were designed to counter the U.S. military in the Cold War. In particular, they have focused on boosting China's missile forces and related space systems as well as air and naval force capabilities.
Between 1991 and 1996, Russia sold China weapons worth an estimated $1 billion per year. Between 1996 and 2001, the rate of sales doubled to $2 billion per year. Reportedly, the two had signed a military sales package in 1999 that between 2000 and 2004 would be worth $20 billion.19 China also obtained important know-how through the theft of U.S. warhead designs and guidance systems technology.20 In 1999, China tested the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and the DF-31 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM); it also announced its acquisition of the neutron bomb. It has been suggested that Russian scientists and blueprints were used in developing these and other armaments.21
China is building a modern air force to operate over the East China and South China Seas. In 1993-1997, it acquired 74 SU-27 Flankers and the rights to produce 200 more under a Russian license.22 These planes are similar to the American F-14s and F-15s. Earlier this year, China acquired 40 SU-30 MKK multi-purpose fourth generation fighter-bombers (a modernized version of the SU-27) as well as the in-flight refueling capability needed to extend the Flanker's range. The Chinese military also purchased a license to produce 250 SU-30 fighters domestically. Altogether, China has bought or is planning to manufacture up to 525 of these combat aircraft. Its air force already has acquired the over-the-horizon targeting capability that may prove crucial in future conflicts, and it is seeking airborne early warning capabilities for wide-area air and naval battle management, most probably by purchasing the Russian A-50 Beriev.23
China has clearly achieved breakthroughs in missile technology by importing systems and prototypes from Russia. It is deploying S-300 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to protect ballistic missile bases that could target Taiwan. It is also developing indigenous SAMs based on Russian designs, such as the S-300, SA-12, and SA-17 Grizzly.24
Beijing is emphasizing the modernization of the People's Liberation Navy as well. It has acquired four Kilo-class diesel submarines. Most important, Russia has sold Beijing two Type 956E Sovremenny-class destroyers armed with supersonic, nuclear-capable, Moskit missiles (SS-N-22). This destroyer-missile system was designed specifically to hit U.S. aircraft carriers. Some destroyers to be produced in China are based on Russian know-how. Russia also has sold China its Kamov Ka-28 (Helix) anti-submarine, destroyer-based helicopters.25
Such transfer of knowledge is the key to China's being successful in upgrading its military potential; Russia and China have established mechanisms for military technology transfer and intelligence sharing. Russia even allowed China to use its space-based global positioning system, known as GLONASS. A real-time satellite imagery download system may also be in operation.
Most worrisome, however, is a broad program already in place to train military students, scientists, and engineers. According to Chinese military sources quoted by the Hong Kong media, up to 1,500 Russian scientists work in China's design and production facilities.26 China is clearly on track to a comprehensive upgrading of its defense research, development, and production programs.27
The relationship between China and Russia is symbiotic. China is acquiring capabilities to counter U.S. naval and air power in the Far East and intimidate neighbors like Taiwan. Russia is seeking to become a regional rival to the United States, maintaining its defense industrial base and using money from arms sales to China and others to modernize its own armed forces. However, cooperation between the two countries is not limited to military technology and production.
Opposition to the United States as the sole superpower is not the only consideration driving the developing strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing. Both Russia and China are concerned about Muslim radical movements in their territories and around their borders. Since the 1970s, the Turkic Muslim Uighurs in the Western Chinese province of Xinjiang, 7 million strong, have been conducting a violent struggle for independence. They have killed police and soldiers, planted bombs, and robbed banks. In 1997, they exploded a bomb in Beijing, wounding 30 people. They have also developed connections to radical Islamic movements and are training in religious schools (medrese) and camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Stability in Xinjiang is important to China. It is seen as a test case of central control, relevant to Beijing's grip over Tibet and Inner Mongolia. Xinjiang is also viewed as a traditional buffer against Turkic Muslim invasions from the Northwest. And it contains three major oil basins: the Turpan, Jungar and Tarim, with up to 150 billion barrels of reserves, according to some optimistic estimates. The People's Liberation Army maintains numerous bases and nuclear weapons testing grounds in the region, which could be threatened if the Uighurs gain control.
Russia is in a similar position as it enters the seventh year of conflict in Chechnya. Radical Muslim penetration of other North Caucasus autonomous republics, such as Daghestan, is increasing, as evidenced by non-Chechen participation in terrorist activities in Russia. The Russian leaders fear a chain reaction among the country's 20 million Muslims.
In the long term, the threat of Muslim insurrection in Central Asia looms ever larger. The ruling regimes, allied with Russia, suffer from a lack of both legitimacy and democracy. With economic reforms in the Central Asian countries sputtering or stalling, corruption runs rampant, GDPs are flat, and living standards are abysmally low; Islamic radicals are busily recruiting and training the next generation of jihad warriors. The radical drug-pushing Taliban regime across the Amu Darya river is menacing. A flood of drugs and weapons overwhelms the Russian expeditionary force (the 201st Infantry Division) on the Tajik-Afghan border, while indigenous support, corruption, and political maneuvering by Moscow and Dushanbe prevent Russia and the Tajiks from wiping out the Islamic rebels. The secular, authoritarian, and corrupt regimes in Central Asia rely upon their traditional ties to Moscow as life insurance. And Russia believes it must either fight the Islamists in the deserts of Central Asia or face them in Northern Kazakhstan, where many ethnic Russians reside.
Beijing views Central Asia, with its weak governments and rich natural resources--especially oil and gas--as its future natural sphere of influence. The recent institutionalization of the SCO demonstrates that Moscow and Beijing hope to be the decisionmakers in Central Asia, possibly to the exclusion of Turkey, Iran, and the United States. What remains to be seen is how effective the two counties will be against the Taliban, the Islamic Front of Uzbekistan, and the organization of Osama bin Laden.
Economic cooperation is another important leg of the Sino-Russian partnership. If China seeks to maintain its impressive economic growth rate of 1985-2000, it will face a major raw materials shortage--China imported 30 million tons of oil in 1999; by 2010, it may import 100 million tons a year. By 2010, China will face a water deficit of 10 percent of its total consumption. By 2020, it will not be able to supply itself with oil, iron, steel, aluminum, sulfur, and other minerals.
Sino-Russian trade was at $5.5 billion in 1999, accounting for 1.6 percent of China's foreign trade and 5.7 percent of Russia's.28 While the trade structure between these two countries is weak and primarily involves Russian raw materials and Chinese low-quality consumer goods and food, the potential for growth in trade and investment is very high.
Chinese experts predict that Russia will be able to export 25 billion to 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas to China annually, as well as 15 billion to 18 billion kilowatts of electricity from the newly completed hydropower stations in Siberia and 25 million to 30 million tons of oil from the Kovykta oil field in Eastern Siberia. In addition, Russia can pump oil produced in Kazakhstan to Irkutsk and then supply it to China. Furthermore, Russia is willing to build six nuclear reactors in China to generate up to 1.5 trillion kilowatts.29
The two countries are considering building a bridge over the Amur river to connect Heihe city in Heilongjiang province with Blagoveshchensk. There also are numerous projects for developing free economic zones along the Chinese-Russian border and an international port in the mouth of the Tumannaya river (Tumangan), where the Russian, Chinese, and Korean borders meet. That port has been on the drawing boards for 15 years.
Russia and China also could cooperate in developing a network of railroads and pipelines in Central Asia, building a pan-Asian transportation corridor (the Silk Road) from the Far East to Europe and the Middle East. However, ambitious Chinese plans to build the longest pipeline in the world, from Western Kazakhstan to China, at a cost of $10 billion have run into financing difficulties.30 Thus far, the target of $20 billion in trade established by Presidents Jiang and Yeltsin in 1997 has not been reached. The West remains China's leading trade partner--a fact that has become a major impediment to a deeper Sino-Russian alliance.
The West will remain China's leading trade partner for the foreseeable future. Japan, the United States, Taiwan, and Europe account for over $284 billion in trade with China, while Russia and Central Asia provide only $7.7 billion in trade.31 Moreover, Russia is incapable of meeting China's needs for high technology and foreign investment to maintain its current GDP growth, an important issue if the Communist Party is to maintain its grip on power.
From the Russian point of view, the vast and expanding conventional imbalance of military and economic power is a concern. Many elites and ordinary people in Russia are suspicious of China. Some fear that the underpopulated Russian Far East and Siberia could become targets for Chinese expansionism in the 21st century32 since the population disparity is immense. Only 8 million Russians live between Lake Baikal and the Pacific, while over 200 million Chinese live in Northeast China. Only 30 million Russians live to the east of the Ural Mountains. The ethnic Russian population of the Far East is falling due to high rates of mortality and emigration back to European Russia, while hundreds of thousands of Chinese peasants, migrant workers, and small traders have moved into the area illegally. Frequent intermarriages are further irritants to the Russian elite.33
Russia must undergo a steep learning curve to adjust to the growing power of China and forgo the leadership position it historically has occupied in Eurasia. A Russian military force in the Far East will not be capable of countering a powerful Chinese military without increasing reliance on a nuclear deterrent.34 However, China, with its deeper pockets and larger military, might have to address Central Asian security challenges regardless of Russia's wishes, and China's appetite for Russian raw materials may cause its leaders to ponder the value of their ties with Moscow for their country's economic development. As one expert pointed out, "Russia is likely to discover that it can no longer manage an equal partnership with China"; Russia will "likely face a choice between the increasingly close embrace of a more dynamic China and attempting to find regional and global partners to help balance Chinese influence."35
Riding the Chinese dragon may prove less comfortable for the Russians than they thought it would be, at which point a renewed interest in a genuine partnership with the United States may emerge. Carefully developing a policy toward the emerging alliance will require monitoring Sino-Russian "friendly" developments.
Though a full confrontation between the United States and Russia and China today is unlikely, a Moscow-Beijing policy of strategic cooperation to limit U.S. policy initiatives may well affect relations between the United States and each of those two regional powers. The situation has evolved beyond Russia's playing the China card to get more Western economic assistance or China's playing the Russia card in order to be taken more seriously in Washington. It is an evolving relationship that requires U.S. policymakers to examine the changing geostrategic reality and take steps to ensure that U.S. security and national interests are not at risk.
Russia's military assistance to China, including in the areas of advanced conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction, should continue to be a major concern of the Bush Administration. Moreover, attempts by both countries to exclude the United States from developing Central Asian energy resources, as well as their support of authoritarian regimes in the interest of "fighting Islamic fundamentalism," must be countered peacefully but firmly.
More closely monitor relations between Russia and China, especially in national security areas. The intelligence community should be instructed to establish whether secret codicils exist in the new treaty that provide for the parties to conduct joint military action in case of foreign military operations against one of them. Specifically, this intelligence gathering should focus on the possibility of the Russian Pacific Fleet's intercepting the U.S. Seventh Fleet in any confrontation in the East China Sea. It should also examine military and dual-use technology transfer programs between Russia and China, including the involvement of Russian scientific and engineering personnel in modernization programs of the People's Liberation Army.
Strengthen military and security cooperation with India and Japan. India has thus far resisted Russia's advances to coordinate security strategy, despite its 50-year-old ties to the Russian military-industrial complex. The Bush Administration should strengthen U.S. cooperation with India to fight terrorism and narcotics trafficking, and it should seek greater cooperation with India on security issues in Central Asia and on assuring freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean. While the Administration should explore arms sales to India and military-industrial cooperation, it should not allow the United States to become embroiled in helping India settle the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan. Washington and Tokyo should enhance efforts to encourage joint military exercises and the gathering of intelligence about military activities in Russia and China. The United States and Japan should encourage their businesses to invest in the Russian Far East and Chinese Northern provinces and enhance economic ties to these provinces.
Offer to help Russia and China counter the efforts of radical Islamic groups in Central Asia, including the Taliban and the Osama bin Laden organization. Radical Islamic subversion in Central Asia and Xinjiang is a threat to regional security. While opposing Islamic terrorism and militancy, the Bush Administration should help develop the democratic and participatory aspect of civil societies in the region by providing support to developing indigenous democratic institutions, with moderate Islamic participation. It should support the development of joint energy, services, and manufacturing projects in Central Asia among, for example, Russian, Chinese, Turkish, and Indian firms. Beyond such efforts, it should ask to join the SCO as an observer, to examine how sincere China and Russia are about cooperation in dealing with Islamic fundamentalism.
Offer incentives to Moscow to prevent the transfer of WMD and advanced military technology to China, Iraq, and Iran. A cooperative relationship between U.S. and Russian aerospace companies and agencies may occur if Russia agrees to prevent the transfer of WMD and sensitive advanced conventional weapons technology to China, Iraq, and Iran. The Administration should explore how to assist Russian companies currently doing business with China in this sensitive area to convert their operations to civilian production.
Focus U.S. public diplomacy efforts on the problems inherent in closer Sino-Russian relations. Russians have had many apprehensions regarding China, especially its intentions in the Russian Far East and Siberia. The debate on Sino-Russian relations should be encouraged, involving the U.S. academic community, international broadcasting, and NGOs. Washington should reach out to the Russian people as well as the Chinese business community (through the Chinese-American Chamber of Commerce and other organizations) to explain that a military anti-American alliance between Moscow and Beijing may threaten economic cooperation with the United States, including access to U.S. financial markets.
The signing of the Russia-China Treaty of Friendship this week, on the heels of the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization last month, portends the establishment of a strategic partnership that could influence the future of Eurasia and East Asia for decades to come. The anti-American rhetoric that has dominated Russian-Chinese summits in the past, and Russia's military technology transfers to China, are causes of concern for U.S. defense planners.
China and Russia have one of the longest land borders in the Eastern Hemisphere, vast human and natural resources, and complementary national economies with great potential for trade and investment. They also have legitimate concerns regarding the spread of terrorism and militant Islam. They have a right to manage their own relations unless it threatens the security interests of third parties, such as India, Japan, and the United States.
Washington should support economic cooperation. However, the degree to which the Sino-Russian alliance may become anti-American and anti-Western in the future depends on how deeply the two Eurasian powers feel that the United States threatens their interests. While it values friendly relations with both countries, Washington should oppose anti-American elements in the character and direction of the alliance.
Dr. Ariel Cohen, is Research Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
1. Vsevolod Ovchinnikov, "No Need to Fear the Chinese Tiger: Russia Enters the 21st Century Shoulder to Shoulder with Its Great Neighbor," Rossiyskaya Gazeta , September 19, 2000, reported as "Russia and China to Sign Friendship and Cooperation Treaty," FBIS-CHI-2000-0919.
3. Martin Fackler, "China and Russia Form New Bloc," Associated Press, June 15, 6:50 a.m. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (formerly the "Shanghai Five" and now also known as the "Shanghai Six") consists of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
5. Helmut Sonnenfeldt, "The Evolving International System and Russia's Relevance," Russia in the International System , p. 62. Sonnenfeldt notes that besides China and Russian, the country most ardently denouncing unipolarity is France.
9. Peng Shujie and Quian Tong, "President Jiang Zemin and President Putin Hold Talks," Xinhua Domestic Service in Chinese, reported as "Jiang Zemin, Putin Hold Talks, Sign Documents," FBIS-CHI-2000-0718.
11. Brian Mosely, "Russia and China to Hold Joint Naval Exercises," Associated Press, September 27, 1999, at http://www.freerepublic.com/forum/a37efa8452c60.htm.
13. Mark Burles, "Chinese Policy Toward Russia and the Central Asian Republics," RAND Corporation, No. MR-1045-AF, 1999, p. 35, at http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR1045.
16. Robert J. Saiget, "China, Russia Beef Up Cooperation on Ethnic Separatism, Taiwan, Terrorism," Agence France-Press, Hong Kong, November 18, 2000, as reported by World News Connection, FBIS-CHI-2000-1118.
18. John Deutsch, Threats to National Security, hearing before the Committee on National Security, U.S. House of Representatives, February 12, 1998, 105th Cong., 2nd Sess., at http://proxy.lib.umich.edu:2059/congcomp/printdoc .
19. Stephen J. Blank, "Military Capabilities of the People's Republic of China," testimony before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, 106th Cong., 2nd Sess., July 19, 2000, p. 5, at http://www.fas.org/spp/starwars/congress/2000_h/00-07-19blank.htm.
20. Report of the Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns With the People's Republic of China (Cox Committee Report), U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., 1999, pp. 186-187, 191, 196-197.
21. Mark Stokes, "China's Strategic Modernization: Implications for the United States," U.S. Army War College Report, 1999, p. 204, at http://www.nyu.edu/globalbeat/asia/Stokes0999.html ; see also Blank, "Military Capabilities of the People's Republic of China."
24. See Military Analysis Network, HQ-9/FT-200, at http://www.fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/missile/row/sa-17.htm.
25. Olga Kryazheva, "Russia-China Arms Trade Growing," Weekly Defense Monitor , Center for Defense Information, Vol. 4, Issue 5 (February 3, 2000), at http://www.cdi.org/weekly/2000/issue05.html#5.
26. Tung Yi, "Russian Experts Said Helping PRC Make High Tech Weaponry," Sing Tao Jih Pao , September 6, 2000, p. A39, as reported in FBIS-CHI-2000-0906. Areas of cooperation extend to submarine construction, including advanced models (the 93 and 94); the Jian J-10 fighter jet; nuclear weapons development; cruise missiles; and jet propulsion.
31. Calculated from Chinese Foreign Trade Ministry statistics, at http://www.moftec.gov.cn/moftec/official/html/statistics_data/e2000-01-051c.htm , and U.S. Department of Commerce statistics, at http://www.export.gov/docTSFrameset.html , as well as Burles, "Chinese Policy Toward Russia," pp. 20-21.