Tensions strain ‘strategic’ Russia-China ties


SINGAPORE — To judge from the recent exchanges between the leaders of China and Russia, all is sweetness and light in the strategic partnership between the two leading Eurasian powers. But beneath the surface, problems over military sales, trade and energy are weakening Sino-Russian relations just when they appear to be at an apex.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China received 94 percent of its major conventional weapons from Russia in the five years to 2007. They included combat aircraft, helicopters, surface warships, submarines, air defense systems and an array of missiles. Yet in 2007, no new contracts for planes or ships were signed.

Analysts in Moscow say that the Russian-Chinese bilateral commission on military technical cooperation has not met for two years, and that Russia’s defense minister has repeatedly postponed a planned visit to Beijing because of a dispute over the supply of Russian heavy-lift transport planes and air refueling tankers to China. Moscow wants the contract renegotiated to raise the price and lengthen the delivery schedule. Beijing has so far refused.

Before the stalemate, Russia’s sales of arms and equipment to China made up 40 percent of its total military exports, earning as much as $2.5 billion a year. China now has more than 280 Russian Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30 Flanker fighters, 12 missile-armed submarines and four destroyers equipped with supersonic anti-ship missiles. The lack of new orders from China may be the result of dissatisfaction with delays in the supply of the transport planes and tankers, which are critical for military mobility. Two other big recipients of Russian arms, India and Algeria, have also raised concerns with Moscow in the past year over the poor quality and supply delays of some Russian weapons.

However, China is intent on developing its domestic arms industry to become as self-sufficient as possible. It turned to Russia because of U.S. and European restrictions of exports of arms and related technologies. Russian and Western analysts say that China has stopped licensed production of Sukhoi fighters because it has been able to copy them and make local versions.

This has reinforced Russian reluctance to provide more advanced military equipment that China wants, including T-90 tanks, artillery and multi-role helicopters. Moscow’s lack of trust in future Chinese intentions is in marked contrast with the depth of Russian military ties with India. Despite Indian complaints about the delivery delays and quality of some Russian arms, new deals were announced last year for the transfer or licensed production of 40 Sukhoi fighters, nearly 350 T-90 tanks, 24 multiple rocket launchers and 80 multi-role helicopters. The delivery of the first BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles to the Indian Army in 2007 also showed Russian readiness to transfer technology and engage in joint production with India.

Meanwhile, as Russia’s manufacturing capacity falters and its arms and energy exports to China decline, the balance of trade is swinging in Beijing’s favor. In 2007, China recorded its first trade surplus, of nearly $9 billion, with Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russian oil deliveries by train to China fell 9 percent by volume last year, and the two sides are still haggling over prices and other issues in a long-standing plan to supply much bigger amounts of Russian oil, as well as natural gas, by pipeline to China.

China’s trade with Russia in 2007 reached $48 billion, a mere 2 percent of China’s global trade, and eight times less than its trade with the United States. Cast in this light, the Sino-Russian strategic partnership seems to be founded more on rhetoric than substance.

Michael Richardson, a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is an energy and security specialist at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.