China's Strategic Modernization: The Russian Connection

By Barron, Michael J. | Parameters, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

China's Strategic Modernization: The Russian Connection


Barron, Michael J., Parameters


"Mr. Chairman, let me now turn to China, whose drive for recognition as a Great Power is one of the toughest challenges that we face. Beijing's goal of becoming a key world player and especially more powerful in East Asia has come sharply into focus. It is pursuing these goals through an ambitious economic reform agenda, military modernization, and a complex web of initiatives aimed at expanding China's international influence--especially relative to the United States.... Russian arms are a key component of this buildup. [But] arms sales are only one element of a burgeoning Sino-Russian relationship. Moscow and Beijing plan to sign a 'friendship treaty' later this year, highlighting common interests and a willingness to cooperate diplomatically against US policies that they see as unfriendly to their interest."

-- George J. Tenet, Director, CIA (1)

February 2001

The Chinese military is in the process of a long-term strategic modernization program. Uniformed and civilian leaders in Beijing have studied recent conflicts, including the United States' performance in the Gulf War and its more recent operation in Kosovo. Their studies have analyzed comparative Chinese shortfalls and identified improvements that need to be made in their forces and doctrine. China's military leaders are well aware of the gap in modem military capabilities that exists between the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and modem militaries exemplified by the US armed forces.

Most foreign analyses concerning the existing and potential Chinese military threat emphasize recent equipment purchases from Russia and the trends these purchases portend. This article reviews and analyzes those acquisitions in relation to Chinese strategic modernization, draws overall conclusions, and then suggests that an expanded policy of engagement with China is the best course for the United States. The notion of "containing" China is not realistic. Instead, the United States should continue to improve its relations with China, to use its strong position of power and influence to build a solid foundation for US-China relations, and to shape that relationship to both countries' present and future mutual benefit.

A Strategic Relationship of Mutual Necessity

Russia clearly has become China's chief supplier of modern weapons and military technology. Virtually all of the weapons technology of the former Soviet Union, including its most advanced systems, is now for sale to the highest bidder--which has turned out to be China. About 70 percent of Russia's foreign arms sales went to China in 2000. (2) Some observers have characterized the Chinese approach toward purchasing Russian military equipment as buyers at a fire sale. (3) Russian arms merchants have introduced Chinese military leaders to a variety of hardware and technology that could greatly improve existing PLA capabilities. Thanks to the Russian connection, China can conceivably, through reverse engineering, leapfrog over obsolete intermediate technologies, perhaps developing state-of-the-art military capabilities comparable to those of the United States in a decade or less. (4) In the not-too-distant future, China may well be producing sophisticated weapon systems domestically.

Elements of the defense industries in both China and Russia have established relationships with their counterpart organizations. The foundation for these relationships was set during then-President Boris Yeltsin's visit to Beijing in late April 1996. (5) These relationships continue to be endorsed. Indeed, they are supported even more strongly by Russia's current President, Vladimir Putin, based on his apparent intent to secure short-term gains in hard currency for the Russian economy and political clout from Russia's comeback in the global arms business. (6) Over the past five years, reports of negotiations for many advanced systems and technologies have been widespread, although they are generally vague and sometimes exaggerated. …

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