This post was published in Inosmi. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.
WASHINGTON, (BM) – The Chinese economy is starting to slow down, but the Chinese armed forces continue to build up their power. A long-term increase in military spending, supported by high rates of economic growth, is beginning to bring dividends in the form of new technologies and newfound aggressiveness.
Beijing has made notable strides in aviation, navy, and missile defense. And territorial claims in the South China Sea region, and the opening of the first foreign military base in Djibouti – all this indicates that China is beginning to exert military influence both in the neighboring countries and in more remote territories.
And how does Russia view these events? While Moscow and Beijing are strengthening cooperation in all areas, many Western experts have warned that China’s growing military power will increase tension between the two countries.
The National Interest editors talked with several Russian military analysts and Sinologists in order to better understand Russia’s attitude to the growth of China’s military power.
“At the moment, our national interests coincide with the national interests of China, so the improvement of the Chinese armed forces and military equipment does not bother the Russian military command and political leadership,” said Yuri Tavrovsky, professor of the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia.
Nevertheless, Tavrovsky admits that there is a certain wariness in Moscow due to the buildup of China’s military power. “In the final analysis, we are observing China’s successes and do not rule out any of the possible scenarios, since we remember how Beijing’s foreign policy has changed from the 1950s until the reform period under Deng Xiaoping,” he emphasized.
A specialist in China from the Higher School of Economics, Alexander Lukin, presented a similar point of view. “I have a feeling that [in the Kremlin] there is an understanding that China might someday become a problem. However, now these concerns are not so significant when compared with concerns about the West,” he told me.
“Speaking hypothetically, we can say this: if relations with the West were better, then relations with China could be different,” Lukin said. “But since relations with the West are not improving, and are unlikely to get any better, the trend towards closer cooperation with China will continue.”
On the whole, those Russian analysts with whom the editors managed to talk do not consider the buildup of China’s military power as a direct threat. The editor-in-chief of Arsenal of the Fatherland magazine Viktor Murakhovsky told me that the efforts being made by China are clearly directed against Washington, and not against Moscow.
“If you look at this situation from a geostrategic point of view, then China is not interested in expanding in the direction of Russia, but it shows a very noticeable interest in ensuring its own security in the South China Sea, as well as even further in the Pacific Ocean,” he said.
The common desire of Russia and China to create a counterbalance to the United States largely shaped the views of experts (from among those with whom the author managed to talk) on the newfound military power of China. Some even believe that this could be a boon to Moscow. According to Tavrovsky, Russia benefits from strengthening China, as it is able to more effectively challenge the United States.
“It was one thing when Russia was the only strategic adversary of the West,” he said. “But now the United States National Defense Strategy speaks of two opponents, and therefore all the resources of America and the West need to be divided into these two countries.”
Tavrovsky notes that the United States’ emphasis on containing China “to some extent lessens the pressure on Russia.”
In Washington, an increasing number of influential politicians and analysts express concern over Beijing’s global military aspirations. In Moscow, China is praised as a conservative and responsible military power.
“So far, China has been very restrained,” Lukin told me. He believes that Beijing, given its current financial capabilities, could open many military bases outside its territory if it wanted to. However, China’s global military presence remains small, and this, according to Lukin, indicates that the Chinese are “more interested in solving economic problems” than in expanding their military influence in the world.
Lukin acknowledges that China, with its growing global economic interests, is likely to rely more and more on military power to achieve its goals. “But even if China increases its military activity, it will take 100 years for it to be compared with the power of the United States,” he emphasized.
He further noted that even militarily more active China poses a lower threat to Russia than the West, since Beijing’s foreign policy is not as ideological as Washington’s.
“We know that the United States will bomb other countries if they do not like them; that the United States wants to establish democracy around the world,” Lukin said. “And China is not going to establish Confucianism or communism in Russia.”
Russia played an important role in equipping the new Chinese armed forces. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China was the largest buyer of Russian weapons from 1999 to 2006. At the same time, in 2005 China accounted for 60% of Russian arms exports. However, in subsequent years, the share of deliveries of Russian weapons decreased significantly. In 2012, it amounted to only 8.7%.
The main reason for this rapid decline was Russia’s growing fears about the Chinese actions to copy military equipment and weapons. So, in the 1990s, Moscow sold to Beijing some of its elite Su-27 fighters, and then even granted China a license to assemble them domestically. After some time, China refused this contract and used the technical knowledge acquired during the assembly of Su-27 fighters to create its own J-11 fighter, which is an almost exact copy of the Russian aircraft.
The arms trade between Russia and China has recovered somewhat in recent years. Moscow in 2015 received a contract to supply Beijing with S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems and Su-35 fighters, which are the most modern examples of Russian weapons. According to available information, Russia is also interested in selling new fifth-generation Su-57 fighters to China.
Moscow has no illusions that China will continue to copy Russian weapons in the future. Vadim Kozyulin, director of the Asian security project from the Moscow analytical PIR center, admitted in an interview with me: “When we enter into transactions with China, we always mean that China primarily wants to copy samples of our weapons.”
“The Russians are aware of this threat, but there are not many ways to deal with this problem,” he added.
But what, then, can explain the unexpected change in Moscow’s position on the arms trade with Beijing? According to Lukin, the political consequences of the conflict with the West over the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 made the Kremlin more flexible and ready to accept the costs of close cooperation with China.
“Given the actions of the Russian leadership, it can be said that Moscow clearly decided: it has no choice but to further rapprochement with China,” Lukin emphasized.
At the same time, Russian analysts are increasingly confident in their country’s ability to maintain innovative advantages and superiority in military technology. Tavrovsky noted that the theft of technology by the Chinese today is less of a concern than it was in the 1990s, and the reason is that “the Russian defense industry and R&D today receive sufficient funding from the state.”
According to him, the Russian military-industrial complex today “feels rather confident” and “supplies modern types of armaments and military equipment to China, on the basis that the equipment and layout of the equipment and weapons coming into the Russian armed forces are more perfect than the ones that we sell to China and other countries.”
Murakhovsky also believes that the Russian defense industry has a lot of competitive advantages over the Chinese.
“When they say about China that it is a gigantic country with a huge population, with a strong economy, with an increasingly powerful armed forces, then all this is right,” he said. – However, it would be wrong to assume that we ourselves are so small and miserable in comparison with China, and that now we ourselves need to ask the Chinese to sell some military technology to Russia. This is not true”.
“China will not get ahead of Russia in developing the most important military models. We have a powerful military-technical potential, it is constantly being improved, and we look with confidence to the future,” Murakhovsky added.
At the same time, all the Russian experts with whom I managed to talk admit that Beijing is already ahead of Moscow in some areas. As an example, they cite the use of artificial intelligence for military purposes, shipbuilding, the production of drones, as well as the adoption of ballistic missiles to combat aircraft carriers.
In the near future, China may begin to sell arms to Russia. According to Murakhovsky, “the acquisition of certain types of military equipment from China can be very beneficial for both countries.” In particular, he positively assesses the possibility of Russia acquiring Chinese drones and ships.
“China has a powerful shipbuilding industry. They build their own frigates and destroyers at a fast pace, as if they were baking pies in the oven. Every year they launch several ships, and send them to the sea,” Murakhovsky said. “It is entirely possible that we will order hulls for our future ships in China, because, as our own experience in shipbuilding shows, we are building very slowly.”
Thus, China’s northern neighbor is trying to get the most out of strengthening this country. Russia has certain concerns about the growth of China’s military power and the long-standing practice of copying foreign technologies. But she is extremely interested in creating a united front with Beijing as a counterweight to the West, and this outweighs her doubts. The question is whether this state of things will last long.
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Original source: Inosmi