Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 9

Is China Russia’s New Ally?

By Stanislav Lunev

Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s official visit to China has ended with the signing of numerous documents on cooperation in political, economic, and other areas. The signing of these agreements will give new impetus to the deepening of relations between Russia and China, which increasingly remind us that a continental strategic partnership may be formed between these two countries in the future.

Various highly-placed Russian leaders began to talk about "looking" for allies in the East in the second half of last year, purportedly in response to a possible expansion of NATO. The existence of a Russo-Chinese alliance or even the possibility of forming one is denied officially by Moscow and Beijing. But, "the East is a subtle place," and, as the Russian press has noted, such things are done here without undue fuss, and real agreements are made orally, and are not advertised, as they are in the West. (1)

The idea of the need for such an alliance is becoming more and more acceptable to Russia. Its strategic partnership with the United States, and with the West as a whole, has not turned out; the friendship was extinguished when, in the face of NATO’s eastward military expansion, Moscow found herself in strategic isolation, having neither friends nor allies, except for Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko.

The need for such an alliance is also growing clearer to the present Chinese leadership, which is growing increasingly worried by the growth of separatism within the country on the part of the Chinese "national minorities." Inspired by the example of Taiwan and encouraged by the imminent struggle to divide up power among China’s highest military and political leadership, this separatism could get out of control and, as recently happened in the USSR, destroy the whole ideological base for stupefying the population, leading to the breakup of yet another stronghold of "world communism and socialism."

The recent events in the Taiwan Straits have shown the Chinese leadership’s concern, just as they have demonstrated that it is impossible for the present People’s Republic of China to solve the "Taiwan question" favorably on its own. The appearance of the U.S. carrier battle group headed by the Independence in the straits (the US has no official responsibilities to Taipei as an ally) bluntly demonstrated the absurdity of putting unilateral pressure on the democratic transformations in Taiwan, and the unfeasibility of the attempt to disrupt the first direct presidential elections in Chinese history.

An accounting of the relative strengths of the PLA and Taiwan’s armed forces shows that, at the present time, if there is an armed conflict, China would be able, in a relatively short time, to seize the small islands [Quemoy and Matsu] in the Taiwan Straits and begin a massive bombardment of Taiwan with M-9 operational-tactical missiles, which have a range of up to 600 kilometers. Since the width of the straits is from 150 to 200 kilometers, these missiles would have no problem "covering" the whole island. Naturally, Taiwan’s army would not be destroyed by this bombardment, but Taiwan’s defense, electronics, and other industries would be seriously damaged. The Chinese submarine fleet, armed with several "silent" KILO submarines (the Soviet Varshavyanka or 877 model) could do additional harm to Taiwan’s economy by disrupting shipping and by mining its ports, which would send the price of insurance skyrocketing.

But this is clearly not enough to ensure final victory. It is clear to everyone that Taiwan’s fate can only be decided in the air, and only by dominating the sky over the straits, the island, and Fujian province. Without constant aerial reconnaissance and correlation, even Chinese ballistic missile strikes would not be all that successful. But at the present time, the PLA’s air arm is not in any condition to win air superiority without which large-scale amphibious operations are impossible, and Taiwan’s air force is not strong enough to strike a retaliatory blow against China. Therefore, both sides, since the beginning of the 1980s, have begun the process of modernizing their air forces.

China has already deployed 26 Su-27 heavy long-range fighter-bombers bought in Russia. Taiwan is a little behind, but is ready to spend significantly more money in the face of a military threat. In 1992, Taipei signed a contract with the US and France to buy 60 Mirage-200 fighters, with the right to buy 50 more such planes, and 150 American F-16s at a total cost of $10.8 million, the payment of which will begin in the near future. In addition, Taiwan has already received four E2C Hawkeye early-warning radio-location and guidance planes at a time when the PLA has practically no radio-electronic equipment.

In response to this, Beijing signed a contract with Russia in December 1995 to buy additional Su-27 fighter-bombers to bring their total number up to 50 and receive the right to buy a license to produce such airplanes independently and modernize its air force. These fighter-bombers, as the CIA recently reported, (2) will be produced with the most modern and precise machinery, received by the Chinese from their American partners, from McDonnell Douglas in particular, to develop China’s civil aviation, that is, on the "reverse conversion" principle.

The military orders which are sent by Taiwan abroad in ever-increasing quantity worry Beijing and the latter is increasingly turning to her northern neighbor, who, in its turn, is actively looking for cooperation in its own interests. As the Russian press has noted in this regard, "the sale of Russian fighters, submarines, modern strategic S-300 (PMU-1 NPO "Almaz") long-range anti-aircraft missile complexes, "Smerch" rocket salvo-fire systems, and the building of a uranium-enriching facility in China by the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy on the basis of technology developed in Tomsk-7 (the closed city of Seversk) could be not only a way to earn money for our own unfortunate military-industrial complex and save jobs, but also the beginning of a long-term strategic partnership and a new balance of forces in Asia, favorable to Russia." (3)

But these military contacts between China and Russia are not limited to that. As Itar-Tass reported, at Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s meeting in Moscow with Deputy Chairman of the Central Military Council of the People’s Republic of China Col. Gen. Liu Huatsin, an agreement had been reached by the two sides on cooperation in "defense industry conversion." In addition, the sides discussed contracts on new Russian arms supplies to China and "expressed interest" in cooperation in implementing "several interesting space projects, including joint space flights and joint use of space equipment." (4)

The fact that Gen. Liu Huatsin headed the Chinese delegation to the fourth plenary session of the Russo-Chinese intergovernmental commission on military and technical cooperation in Moscow, and the Russian side was represented by First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets (who, as is well-known, watches over the Russian military-industrial complex) is also of interest.

Military cooperation in space would be a substantial addition to the nuclear cooperation between the two countries. According to Interfax, which quoted Russian atomic energy minister Viktor Mikhailov, Russia plans to assist China in the building of an atomic power station in Liaoning province (in northeastern China) costing 2 billion dollars, and a uranium-enrichment facility for making nuclear fuel for this power station. (5) As Reuters noted, these projects are linked to the adoption by China of an ambitious plan to increase the country’s nuclear capabilities before it suffers an energy shortage on the crest of its wave of economic growth. (6)

Since 1992, direct military ties have also been developing between Russia and China, characterized by extraordinarily active military exchanges at the very highest level, including the Ministries of Defense and the General Staffs of both countries and their leaders. These exchanges are substantially augmented by Russo-Chinese cooperation in the areas of development and production of new weapons systems. On the basis of the introduction of the same weapons systems, the practical integration of the armaments of the Russian armed forces and the PLA is taking place, and the real preconditions are being created for the production of interchangeable arms and ammunition, as is customary in countries which are allied militarily.

Moreover, cooperation in such specific areas as intelligence continues, and is expanding, which creates serious preconditions for the forming of a climate of mutual trust in Russo-Chinese relations even in the sphere of guaranteeing the national security of both countries. The agreement on such cooperation, by the way, signed in Beijing in 1992 by Yevgeny Primakov and his colleagues from the GRU, envisioned the resumption of the cooperation in the area of intelligence between the two countries which had been cut off in 1959.

According to the Washington Times, this secret treaty extends to the activity of the GRU and the Foreign Intelligence Service, which are to cooperate with the PLA’s Intelligence Directorate. In connection with the signing of this agreement, the paper noted the "concern of unnamed American officials that this cooperation would be directed towards coordinating Russia’s and China’s efforts in carrying out intelligence operations against the US and other Western countries, first of all, to obtain information on modern military technology." (7)

Naturally, in the years since the signing of this agreement, cooperation in the area of intelligence has expanded and has begun to assume a more many-faceted character. As the newspaper Izvestiya noted in this regard, reporting on a secret visit of Yevgeny Primakov to China last fall, "at the present time, we can see representatives of the two countries’ intelligence services visiting each other, which is a definite indicator of progress in the level of trust between Moscow and Beijing. The present time is the best for the establishment for such contacts." (8)

In the political area, there are no substantial contradictions between Russia and the People’s Republic of China; the ideological disagreements which characterized Soviet-Chinese relations from the 1960s to the 1980s were removed from the agenda back in 1991, and the disputed border questions will be solved without any substantial problems. Economic ties between the two countries are as strong as never before, and are developing steadily, bringing real benefit to both sides. Military cooperation strengthens from day to day, and is supplemented by trust-building measures in the area of national security and joint efforts of Russian and Chinese intelligence to obtain secret Western and other technology.

Therefore, the preconditions for strategic cooperation already exist in relations between Moscow and Beijing, which are no longer burdened with either ideological or political disagreements, and only require the little push which would make this cooperation official. It should not be expected that such an alliance would be formulated in writing in the near future, but even one concluded orally, according to Eastern tradition, would be directed towards guaranteeing the national security of both countries, as the present leaders in Moscow and Beijing see it. Simultaneously, strategic cooperation also presupposes a mutual resistance of the allied countries to a third force or coalition of forces, threatening their national security. It’s not hard to guess who they have in mind.


1. Segodnya, No. 40, 1996

2. The Washington Times, April 10, 1996

3. Segodnya, No. 40, 1996.

4. Itar-Tass, December 8, 1995.

5. Interfax, January 6, 1996.

6. Reuters, January 5, 1996.

7. The Washington Times, October 21, 1992.

8. Izvestiya, September 23, 1995.

Translated by Mark Eckert