Moscow-Beijing relations show a definite tidemark separating the period prior to the 2001 Afghanistan War, and the resultant Bush-Putin strategic alliance, from the subsequent six months. Before those events, Russia let China have its most advanced defense technologies, both owning a shared interest in countering a perceived US global hegemony. They were alarmed by Western tactics in the Kosovo crisis – and particularly the US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999. The downing of a PLAAF J-8 fighter that crashed into a US reconnaissance aircraft last year near Hainan Island also cast a shadow.
However, since Bush and Putin forged their understanding, the Russians, according to the latest reports, appear to be scaling back the transfer of their most sensitive military technologies to China, although China remains the Russian armaments sector’s leading customer.
The same tidemark is stamped on the “Shanghai Cooperation Organization”, which Beijing conceived in 1996 as a security barrier against American influence. Military cooperation and defense technology transfers between China and former Soviet states were encouraged to offset America’s preponderant superpower role within the new unipolar geo-strategic environment, halt NATO’s eastward expansion, and encourage regional cooperation and coordination in the fight against “terrorism, separatism and political extremism”.
In mid-May 2002, the defense ministers of the “Shanghai Six”, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, met in Moscow to reaffirm these basic goals. However the group found itself unable to launch any concrete unified actions, such as major joint military exercises, while some of its smaller members had turned away to engage in active military cooperation with US-led anti-terrorist coalition forces, in direct contradiction of those goals. Uzbekistan did not even send its minister to this year’s meeting, having meanwhile allowed US forces to be stationed on its territory adjacent to Afghanistan.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s members are thus distancing themselves from Beijing’s agenda, which consists of two main items: To provide many levels of support for the re-building of Afghanistan in such a way as to counterbalance the US military presence, which so far shows no intent of leaving the region; and to shore up China’s long friendship with Pakistan, which has also gravitated into the US sphere.
Russia has instead joined a NATO joint council to combat common security threats, a step interpreted as turning its back on its eastern neighbor.
As the chasm between the two former ideological partners widens, there is unease in Moscow over China’s growing military power and its preferred purchases of Russian defense technology and components that will lead to eventual indigenous production (For example, recent relatively small purchases of Russian S-300 anti-ballistic missiles, advanced mines, mortars, anti-tank guided missiles, thermobaric flame-throwers, and advanced man-portable anti-aircraft missiles are thought to be intended primarily for reverse engineering by China’s large defense industry sector). Moscow fears China will steal its traditional arms exporting markets and therefore prefers to sell complete systems rather than technology transfer packages. Beijing has already concluded agreements with alternative suppliers of Russian defense technologies, such as the Ukraine and Belarus.
China has no illusions concerning the long-term utility of Russia's declining armaments infrastructure; it is simply taking advantage of Russia's misfortunes to lay hands on the end results of decades of R&D effort. Indeed, Beijing hopes also to benefit from Russia’s new program introduced in 1999, to modernize its defense electronics and other advanced weapons systems, which lag far behind the West.
This, the US will make every effort to thwart.
Bush and Putin are signing an agreement to reduce each side’s nuclear stockpiles by two-thirds or more, scrapping thousands of US and Russian nuclear warheads over the next decade (down to between 1,700 and 2,200 respectively for each country). The US will also try to eliminate any lingering Russian dislike for the development of an American ballistic missile defense (BMD) system after the US unilaterally abrogated the 1972 ABM Treaty in 2001.
But in Beijing, the BMD is perceived as a threat. Taken with regional cooperation in this area from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, the development of supposedly limited strategic, theatre, naval and tactical BMD systems might eventually be integrated into a full-fledged strategic BMD program that could render Beijing’s nuclear retaliatory force impotent against the US and its allies.
At the same time, the Russo-American nuclear reduction pact is seen as giving China an edge over the two signatories: Its current modernization program of both long-range multiple warhead land and sea-launched ballistic missiles (DF-31, DF-41, and JL-2) could make China a first-rate nuclear power within a decade.
In addition, China’s dynamic space program, with considerable technical assistance from the nearly bankrupt but innovative Russia program, is a potential component for a future Chinese BMD system, although China officially opposes the militarization of space.