ussia and China have joined together in a strategic partnership aimed at countering the U.S. and Western "monopoly in world affairs," as was made clear in a joint statement released by the Chinese and Russian presidents in July 2005. The long standing border disputes between the two countries were settled in agreements in 2005, and joint military exercises were carried out in the same year. Furthermore, Russia, in addition to its arms exports, has been increasing its oil and gas commitments to China. Clearly, the recent comprehensive improvement of bilateral relations between China and Russia is a remarkable development. What is the meaning of this military and security related cooperation, and is the Sino-Russian military liaison likely to expand? Should this rapprochement be considered as a structural shift of power with the goal of repelling Western influence from Central Asia and the adjacent areas?
Russian-Chinese Military Maneuvers
In August 2005, for the first time in 40 years, Russian and Chinese armed forces carried out joint military exercises. China took the lead in proposing the size, participating type of forces and content of the maneuvers. Allegedly, China also took care of most of the costs of the exercises. The formal objectives of the mission were to strengthen the capability of joint operations and the exchange of experience; to establish methods of organizing cooperation in the fight against international terrorism, separatism and extremism; and to enhance mutual combat readiness against newly developing threats. [See: "The Significance of Sino-Russian Military Exercises"]
The exercises comprised "ingredients" such as the use of strategic long range bombers, neutralization of anti-aircraft defenses, command posts and airbases, gaining air superiority, enforcing a maritime blockade and the control of maritime territory. Terrorist movements, however, do not posses conventional land, sea or air forces, nor do they deploy their military power in a symmetrical way. Therefore, the objectives of the joint exercises had little to do with combating terrorism; instead, they were aimed at conventional warfare, employing all military services except for nuclear forces. The actual objective of the maneuvers was likely to display to the Western world that Russia and China consider themselves to be in control of the Asia-Pacific region and that outside powers will be denied the right to interfere in their sphere of influence.
From a military-operational point of view, Russia as well as China gained from the experience of the bilateral exercises. The Chinese armed forces are -- as a consequence of China's increasing political and economic power -- in a stage of growth, in size as well as in ambition. Therefore, practicing command and control procedures but also purely operational aspects, such as carrying out an airborne assault, will strengthen the capabilities of the Chinese forces. If Russia considers that China might turn into a threat in the long run, then these exercises have also been worthwhile for the Russian general staff by providing it insight into how the Chinese armed forces operate and what their current capabilities are.
The demonstration of weapon systems at the 2005 Sino-Russian exercises might have been meant to promote Russian arms sales to observers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (S.C.O.). India, for instance, comprises some 40 percent of Russia's arms exports and Iran is considered to be an important growth market for the Russian arms market. Currently, some 45 percent of Russia's arms exports go to China. Since 2000, Russia has delivered weapon systems to China -- including fighter aircraft, submarines and destroyers -- amounting to an average of US$2 billion annually. China has been the largest consumer of Russian military equipment for a number of years. Russia's arms trade to China is an important factor in the cooperation between the two countries.
Nevertheless, Russia seems to be well aware that China would like to obtain its most sophisticated military technology, which, in case of deteriorating relations, Beijing might use against Russia. For that reason, Russia is reluctant to provide China with its state-of-the-art products. Moreover, there are indications that China is steadily acquiring enough knowledge to have a solid military industry of its own. Subsequently, in the coming years China will buy fewer arms from Russia, which will diminish the value of this cornerstone of their bilateral relationship.
In August 2005, during a visit to Beijing, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed economic ties and especially the work of Russian energy companies in China, bilateral projects that would distribute those supplies to third countries, as well as the delivery of Russian oil and gas to China. Furthermore, in November 2005 Russia and China agreed to double oil exports to China and to consider constructing an oil pipeline from Russia to China and a gas-transmission project from eastern Siberia to China's Far East.
China, however, also focuses on Kazakhstan in its need for energy. In December 2005, the Atasu-Alashankou pipeline between the two countries was opened. In due course, this Sino-Kazakh pipeline will be enlarged from 1,000 to 3,000 kilometers (621 to 1,864 miles) and will eventually provide China with approximately 15 percent of its crude oil needs. By establishing energy ties with Kazakhstan, it is clear that China wants to avoid energy dependency on Russia.
Another argument is that by redirecting Kazakh oil pipelines through China instead of through Russia, China's influence over Kazakhstan and Central Asia will increase at the expense of Russia's position. Thus, Russia's energy power tool -- as used successfully against Ukraine -- seems to be threatened by China's energy strategy. Although cooperating with China in energy, however, Kazakhstan has a considerable Russian minority and therefore will be unlikely to follow an anti-Russian political course.
The Demographics Factor
In December 2005, Russia's interior minister, Rashid Nurgaliev, stated that illegal immigration is creating a threat to national security in the Russian Far East. Although Nurgaliev did not mention the word "Chinese," and in spite of frequent formal statements contradicting such a development, a continuous influx of illegal Chinese immigrants is taking place in this region. Russia has a long border with China, some 4,300 kilometers (2,672 miles), and is sparsely populated in its Far East. The numbers may vary but sources mention a flood of thousands of Chinese entering Russia, up to allegedly 600,000 per year.
It is not inconceivable that this flood is more than a coincidence; in fact, it might well be a planned policy directed from Beijing. Possibly, China is carrying out a policy of "Finlandization" in order to gradually increase its influence over this Russian region. The reasons for such a population policy might be to create an overflow area for Chinese citizens from densely populated areas in China proper, and also to gain a political and/or economic foothold in this area, which is rich in energy resources.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization
The Russian-Chinese military exercises of 2005 should not only be considered from a Sino-Russian bilateral point of view, but also as an activity of the S.C.O., as was frequently stated by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Not only did the Russian and Chinese ministers of defense observe the maneuvers, but also present were representatives from the S.C.O.
Formed in 1996 as the "Shanghai Five" -- comprising Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan -- in 2001, together with admitting Uzbekistan, the S.C.O. was formalized as an international organization. Until 2005, the S.C.O. mainly dealt with regional security -- in particular against the three "evils" of terrorism, separatism and extremism -- as well as with economic cooperation. However, at its summit of July 2005 in Astana, the S.C.O. proclaimed a radical change of course. The governments of the Central Asian member states -- faced with the Western-supported regime changes in Ukraine and Georgia, as well as with Western criticism of the Uzbek government's repression of the unrest in Andijan -- increasingly saw their existence threatened, which forced them to choose an alliance with Russia and China and diminishing the (economically favorable) relationship with the West. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Russia in the S.C.O."]
At the summit, this led to a final statement of the S.C.O. members in which Washington's unipolar and dominating policies as well as foreign military deployment in Central Asia were condemned and the withdrawal of Western military troops was encouraged. This Declaration of the Heads of Member States revealed a watershed in the S.C.O.'s range of policy from regional anti-terrorist activities to claiming an important position in the international arena in external security policy.
In addition to the S.C.O.'s change of course, there was another significant development at the 2005 summit. In addition to Mongolia, in July 2005 Iran, Pakistan and India joined the S.C.O. as observers. By admitting these three states as observers, the S.C.O. now encompasses nearly half of the world's population. Furthermore, in addition to Russia and China, India and Pakistan bring together four nuclear powers, whereas Iran possibly has the ambition to become one. In addition to this, the S.C.O. Shanghai summit of June 2006 -- which was dominated by energy deals, especially by China -- demonstrated that energy resources (Russia, Kazakhstan and Iran) are also a crucial focal point for its members and observers. Comprising a considerable territory in and around Central Asia, a large part of the world population, energy resources and nuclear arms, the S.C.O. has a formidable political, economic and military potential.
For Russia, the S.C.O. apparently acts as a means to bring together different policy objectives. Not only China, but India and Iran as well have a special relationship with Russia. All three states are important actors in Russia's arms exports. In addition to this, China and India are gaining a closer relationship with Russia in the field of joint, bilateral military exercises. Therefore, the fact that India and Iran recently joined China in its cooperation with Russia within the S.C.O. could prove that the S.C.O. serves as a platform for Russia's security policy.
It is evident that the S.C.O. is gaining power, in particular since the Astana summit of 2005. It is likely that this development of the S.C.O. will continue in the coming years. Russia will use this organization to reduce Western and U.S. influence in Central Asia which was accomplished in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. In such a way, the S.C.O. will represent to Russia a vital instrument to achieve geopolitical objectives.
In envisaging the future position of the S.C.O., it is important to note that cooperation among its members and observers is essentially based upon a negative strategic objective: to counter U.S. and Western influence. To a large extent, common, positive targets are absent. For example, China is seeking markets and energy resources; Russia is eager to regain its leadership status within the C.I.S. as well as that of a superpower in the international arena; and the Central Asian regimes consider the S.C.O. as their guarantee for political survival.
Moreover, India and Pakistan are probably showing the West that they follow their own independent course and Iran's objective might be found in anti-Americanism. This mixture of possibly divergent objectives -- for instance, Iran's support of radical Islamists which are a threat to the Central Asian states -- demonstrates that they do not necessarily have much in common. It is not inconceivable, therefore, that the eventually deviating objectives of the S.C.O. member states and observers will cause a split in the organization, which would paralyze its activities.
Outlook on Russia-China Relations
In the coming years, Russia is likely to strengthen its ties with China. These two states are seeking a closer relationship not only in the field of security, but also in areas such as military cooperation, energy, the arms trade and foreign policy. Russia has more than once stated that closer relations with China is a geopolitical objective in order to strengthen Russia's global position. Nonetheless, this close relationship with China could very well turn out to be for the short term.
In its Far East, Russia is increasingly confronted with illegal immigration from China. Furthermore, Russia possesses energy resources that China desperately needs. China is "using" Russia for its military technology and energy resources. When China reaches its current drive for independence in military technology and will have created alternative ways of gaining energy -- for instance through Kazakhstan -- China may reduce ties with Russia. Moreover, China will continue to use its neighbors, such as Russia, the Central Asian states and other partners within the S.C.O., to strengthen its global position. If so required, China will not hesitate to use its power against one of its former partners, as is demonstrated by China's efforts to divert energy routes away from Russia.
Russia is well aware that China's growing economic and military importance could develop into a threat. An indication of Russia's concern toward China could be in Moscow's alleged creation of a second joint military grouping of defense forces and internal and security troops. In contrast with the areas of Chechnya and Dagestan, in Russia's Far East there is no threat of Islamic extremism and the formation of a joint military command could only be related to a potential threat from China. In due course, the so far hidden fear of China could cause Russia to draw back from China and to seek an intensification of political and economic ties with the West, even if this abandonment from China would mean that Russia has to accept Western influence in its backyard of the former Soviet Union.
The West will probably have to cope with increasing ties between Russia and China and subsequent policies contrary to Western activities in the Far East and the Pacific. To a certain extent, the West itself is the reason for this rapprochement between Russia and China. All current Russian major security documents clearly demonstrate disappointment in the West for leaving Russia out of Western security policy. The climax of this mistrust has been N.A.T.O.'s war in Kosovo. Although Russian-Western relations since then have improved, the feelings of mistrust and disregard are still evident in parts of Russia's security elite and thus have resulted in closer ties with China.
China's emerging economic and military power will have to be taken into account. China will become a regional and possibly global power with capacities and policies that may counter Western influence not only in the Far East, but elsewhere. Western security policy should be aware of this development. If China indeed achieves such a superpower position, the West and Russia may find common ground to seek closer cooperation.
Report Drafted By:
Dr. Marcel de Haas
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