Buying A Better Army

At a recent aerospace exposition in the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai, the stars of the show were Russian. Military personnel and businessmen from Russia attended the exposition in force. Russian pilots drew the loudest applause for their aerial acrobatics. Russian arms peddlers drew the most visitors to their booths. Russian brass sometimes outnumbered their Chinese hosts at the banquets and vodka-soaked happy hours that punctuated the 10-day aerofest. "We've brought our best [jet] fighters and our best pilots to the air show," bragged Col. Aleksandr Ermolenko, trainer for the world-renowned Russian Knights, Moscow's jet-flying team. That wasn't exactly true. The Russians didn't take their most advanced weaponry to China. For weeks Russian generals had debated whether to allow a cutting-edge MiG-31 interceptor to be flown to Zhuhai. In the end Moscow's Defense Ministry decided against the idea. Instead, it sent a miniature dummy of the jet to the exhibition, accompanied by a vague list of technical specifications.

Despite that minor snub, Russian arms makers and the Chinese military have lately developed a very cozy relationship--one built on mutual need. The Russians badly need export earnings, while the Chinese need modern weapons--or at least arms more advanced than those in their creaky arsenal. Beijing's 1989 Tiananmen crackdown triggered a boycott of Western arms sales to China, leaving that country desperate for dependable suppliers. Russia has stepped into the breach, and it is now the biggest seller of big-ticket military hardware to China. Beijing has recently bought everything from Russian aircraft to advanced destroyers to diesel-powered patrol submarines, suited for use in the Taiwan Strait. Last month in Zhuhai, the Russians delivered the first of 45 SU-30 multirole fighter aircraft purchased by Beijing for about $2 billion. More lucrative arms deals are under discussion--ranging from Russian AWACS-type radar systems to attack helicopters. Prime Minister Zhu Rongji recently said that relations between China and Russia were "enjoying their best period ever."

That doesn't mean that China and Russia have become fast friends. The countries have long been strategic rivals and share lots of historical baggage. Mao Zedong was openly offended by Nikita Khrushchev's 1959 hint that Moscow would like a submarine-refueling base in China. A year later Khrushchev refused to assist China's nuclear program--and called Mao "a worn-out galosh." The two sides fought a border war in 1963. Relations have certainly improved since then. The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union diluted Chinese fears of Russian expansionism. But for all the contracts being inked (and all the vodka being guzzled), there's an unmistakable sense of watch-your-back caution on both sides. "There's not a lot of trust between the two," says one foreign Defense attache in Beijing. "Much of this is a hard-nosed business relationship--a marriage of convenience."

That was evident last Nov. 25, when proud Chinese naval officers took delivery of the second of two Sovremenny-class destroyers at a dock in St. Petersburg. Dozens of workers from the Severnaya Verg construction company, along with a Russian naval crew that had been testing the destroyer, looked on sadly as the Russian Navy's blue and white St. Andrews flag was lowered. The Chinese flag was already flying atop the ship. Sergei Lakhin, commander of the Russian crew, could not conceal his emotions as he marched his sailors and officers away from the vessel. "It was so sad to see a foreign crew take over what could have made Russian naval commanders jump for joy, if they could have had this ship," said Svetlana Yemolayeva, a spokeswoman for the shipbuilding company. Russia's top naval brass did not attend the ceremony. The demise of the Soviet Union has shrunk Russian arms-procurement budgets, as well as demand for weapons. If Beijing had not bought the destroyers, their hulls might have been cut up for scrap.

Beijing is moving in the opposite direction. The government's push to modernize the People's Liberation Army is driven primarily by one objective--to intimidate Taiwan. Chinese authorities hope to boost the credibility of their warnings to the prosperous renegade island--namely, that any move toward independence would spark a Chinese invasion. Beyond that, China aims to deter the United States from supporting Taiwan in the event of a military conflict. Chinese strategists were sobered by U.S. high-tech wizardry during the gulf war, and more recently by NATO's intervention in Kosovo. "[In it] the Chinese leadership saw a dangerous precedent that could be used to oppose Beijing's control of Taiwan and dissident ethnic-minority areas [in Central Asia]," says June Teufel Dreyer, a professor at the University of Miami.

Despite its Russian arms-buying spree, the PLA is still in no shape to invade Taiwan. "It will take the PLA another 10 years or so to complete reinforcement of its forces deployed against Taiwan," says Konstantin Makienko, deputy head of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow. He believes the Chinese can change the military balance only after their fighter fleet is upgraded to acquire land- attack capabilities, and after the Navy commissions vessels equipped with powerful anti-ship missiles like the Russian Yakhont. And as other experts point out, it will take years for the PLA to learn to use Russian weapons. "It's taken the Chinese longer than expected to absorb some new technologies," says a foreign Defense attache in Beijing. "It's one thing to buy a new toy--and another thing to know how to play with it."

No doubt, many Moscow arms manufacturers would like to push bilateral cooperation as far as it can go. Russia's opinion makers may feel the same way. According to a survey of Russian politicians, journalists and business leaders released last week, more than half of 650 respondents said they viewed China as Russia's most important strategic partner. The poll, conducted by ROMIR (a member of the U.S.-based Gallup polling group), showed that China edged out Belarus (second), Germany (third) and the United States (sixth).

The handshakes and toasts are not confined to hardware sales. Moscow and Beijing are working on a new 15-year Military Cooperation Plan. Already, Beijing is sending pilots and weapons designers to Moscow for training. Russian weapons experts are helping Beijing with its nuclear arsenal and cruise-missile programs, many Western analysts assert. In addition, the two defense establishments are mulling closer ties as they study joint security initiatives against Islamic extremists in Central Asia. "There are a lot of factors bringing Russia and China closer together militarily," says Dru Gladney of the University of Hawaii, who studies China's Muslim minority groups.

But like most strategic partnerships, cooperation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Jiang Zemin has its limits. Experts don't foresee a formal military alliance between the two, like the one Russia and China forged in 1950 to fight U.S. hegemony and to promote communism. "There's a good deal of unease in the Russian Army about selling weapons to China," says Dreyer. Both sides realize that, one day, the two countries could find themselves on a competitive trajectory once again. "Some Russians are saying, 'We're selling China the weapons it could someday use against us', " says Dreyer. She attributes such cautionary attitudes to the fact that "Russia is a declining power and China is a rising one." Ironically, both now seek to reclaim their former glory by doing business with the other.