Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 209

Russia and China moved to further enhance their “strategic partnership” last week during a high-profile, two-day visit to Beijing by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov which included talks with both Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji and Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Some fourteen agreements were signed during Kasyanov’s November 3-4 stay in the Chinese capital–eight of them described as intergovernmental cooperative accords and the other six as commercial agreements (AFP, November 5; Russian agencies, November 3-4).

Kasyanov’s visit also provided the two countries with the opportunity to state anew the importance they attach to their friendly bilateral relations and to level new criticism at the United States for its plans to develop a national missile defense system. In addition, the two countries announced yet again their intention to raise still-anemic levels of bilateral trade. On November 4 a spokesman for the Russian premier praised the results of the Russian-Chinese talks and said that Kasyanov’s visit had been a “fruitful” one. Earlier Zhu Ronghi hailed bilateral relations between the two countries, saying that they are “enjoying their best period ever” (AFP, November 3, 5).

As always during high-level Russian-Chinese meetings, rhetoric blended only imperfectly with reality. Prior to Kasyanov’s arrival in Beijing, Russian officials had gone out of their way to tout two of the agreements to be signed: one under which China would buy or lease up to five Russian Beriev A-50 early warning aircraft, and another involving a long-proposed natural gas pipeline from Russia’s Irkutsk region to China’s eastern seaboard. But though the gas deal was among the fourteen agreements signed during Kasyanov’s stay, reports suggested that it was but a preliminary accord and in fact did little to advance the project. Reports also claimed that, despite the fanfare accorded the subject on the eve of Kasyanov’s arrival, the two sides might have stopped short of finalizing an agreement on the Russian early warning aircraft (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 1; Reuters, November 3).

The proposed aircraft deal, estimated to be worth up to a billion dollars, nevertheless grabbed the most attention during Kasyanov’s visit. According to Russian sources, it involved the possible lease or sale to Beijing of up to five Beriev A-50 early warning aircraft. Called the Mainstay by NATO, the A-50 Long Range Detection System aircraft is based on a stretched Ilyushin IL-76 Transport combined with an upgraded “Flat Jack” radar system. The Mainstay first flew in 1980 and about forty were produced by 1992. Experts say that the Mainstay system is less sophisticated than the analogous American AWACS (Advance Warning and Control System) and the Israeli Phalcon (Federation of American Scientists web site). Its acquisition by Beijing would nevertheless be worrying for U.S. defense planners because of the enhanced capabilities it could give Chinese fighters in a possible face-off with U.S. and Taiwanese military aircraft. In pushing the Mainstay, Moscow was stepping into the breach created this past July by Israel’s decision–made under intense U.S. pressure–to cancel a sale to China of the Israeli Phalcon system.

Despite Beijing’s apparent determination to acquire early warning aircraft, experts said that the Russian-Chinese deal was likely to be finalized only after long negotiations. Among other things, they said that Beijing was expected to demand extensive upgrades on the Beriev’s outdated radar system. The Chinese reportedly also want to receive assurances that Russian defense manufacturers can actually pay to produce and maintain the aircraft. Indeed, Russian sources suggested that the upgrades demanded by the Chinese could take three years to implement, but that a lease deal involving planes currently in service in Russia might be worked out in the interim. Exactly how much developments related to the Beriev sale will be made public is unclear: Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who oversees Russian defense industry issues and preceded Kasyanov to Beijing, said that the Russians and Chinese had reached an agreement not to discuss the sale with reporters (Reuters, November 3).