What Russia Fears in Asia
Image Credit: Juerg Vollmer

What Russia Fears in Asia


Developments in Central Asia and Pakistan are a major concern for Russia, but the growing military might of China isn’t really, at least according to Russian political and military officials I spoke with at a key conference in Moscow.

I probed numerous senior Russian officials at the off-the-record Defence and Security section meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club on China, and received what were in some ways some surprising responses. When considering China’s growing economic power and military potential, even many US defence analysts who don’t consider China a threat still see managing its rise as a challenge. Indeed, over the past two years, the Barack Obama administration has sought to strengthen defence cooperation with other Asian countries worried about China’s rise, including Japan and Vietnam. And, like previous US administrations, they’ve also called on Chinese policy makers to make their defence policies and programmes more transparent.

Russian leaders speaking in public, in contrast, almost always repeat the official view that Russia and China are strategic partners, and that rather than fear China’s rise, Moscow welcomes it as a stabilizing factor in Asia. And although one senior military officer I met with in Moscow insisted that the Russian defence community constantly monitors Chinese defence developments, and sees clear signs of improved Chinese capabilities, the country still doesn’t see China as a current or emerging threat.

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A senior Russian general confirmed that Russian defence leaders regularly discuss China with their US counterparts, but added that this was because Russian leaders are concerned that tensions between China and the United States could negatively affect the security of Asia in general, and Russia in particular.

Still, some Russian defence analysts at the conference were a little less sanguine over China’s rising military potential. For example, one told the sole Japanese participant, who had asked several questions about this issue, not to worry about the likely placement of the Mistral warship in the Russian Far East, since its main function would be to deter China, not fight Japan.

Indeed, the crash in Russian arms sales to China in the past few years has led many Western defence analysts to believe that Russia has essentially given up on the Chinese. In the past, Moscow could count on China buying various high-tech weapons systems from Russia’s military industrial complex. And, following the decision of Western governments to impose an arms embargo on China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, a ban that remains largely in force today, China emerged as one of the most reliable clients of Russian defence items. For almost two decades, China accounted for between one-fourth and one-half of Russia’s foreign military sales, with Beijing buying more military products from Russia than from all other countries combined. During the 1990s, the value of these purchases ranged up to $1 billion per year, while during the mid-2000s, this figure sometimes rose above $2 billion per annum.

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