Tags: U.S. | Concern: | Moscow-Beijing | Arms | Deals

U.S. Concern: Moscow-Beijing Arms Deals

Wednesday, 29 November 2000 12:00 AM

The question is why.

The U.S. Congress has passed legislation authorizing sanctions if even some of Russia's ambitious new arms export plans go forward. Japan and Taiwan have each hinted in public and made it clear in private that such deals could seriously upset the balance of power in Asia.

India, one of Russia's best arms markets and a longtime friend, has also expressed its nervousness over the high-tech weaponry heading for Beijing's troops, sailors and airmen.

And U.S. intelligence analysts are convinced that most of their Russian counterparts see China as a long-term strategic threat to Moscow's vast, resource-rich territory of Siberia.

The short-term benefits of selling the most-advanced Russian military hardware and software – at rock-bottom prices – hardly seem to compensate for the diplomatic and possibly strategic price that Russia is likely to pay.

The answer, according to a leading U.S. analyst, could be as simple as the short-term demands of Russian domestic politics.

"Russia's President Vladimir Putin needs to build up constituencies of support, and the export-led arms industry remains an important player in the Russian political mix," suggests Celeste Wallender, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It employs a lot of people, which is important to the struggling Russian economy, and it helps finance the modernization of the Russian military, another crucial constituency for Putin."

Wallender, director of PONAR (Project on New Approaches to Russian Security), has gained a high reputation in official U.S. circles for her analyses of the new Russian politics of the Putin era. In a lecture this week at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center, she described Putin's political strategy as "pragmatic and based on Russian national interests."

"Putin's preferred strategy is still eventual economic integration with the West, but not at any price," says Wallender. "Putin sees that there are acceptable alternatives for Russia. The resources needed for reform do not have to come from the West; they can come from China, India, Iran and other states.

"Arms sales also fit into Putin's economic strategy of backing the existing winners in the Russian economy – and arms exports are an area where Russia remains highly competitive".

Along with the U.S., Britain, France and Israel, Russia is one of the few countries with the advanced avionics skills to produce AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control Systems) aircraft that are crucial to modern air warfare. Carrying advanced radar sensor and communications systems, AWACS can scan the skies for hundreds of miles in any direction, and direct and control their own aircraft against attackers. After Israel bowed to U.S. pressure this year and stopped the planned sales of its Phalcon system to China, Russia has now jumped at the opportunity.

The deal was struck during Putin's summit meeting in Beijing in July, when Russian officials refused all comment on the discreet parallel meetings between Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and his Chinese counterpart Chi Haotian. Alexei Ogarev, head of the giant Russian arms sales complex Rosvooruzhenie, was also in Beijing at the same time.

But the AWACS deal, which could give China sufficient command of the air to make it difficult for the U.S. to repeat its 1996 deployment of aircraft carriers off the Taiwan Straits, is just the tip of the iceberg. Russia is, in effect, resupplying China with an advanced air force and a modern navy.

Beijing spent over $6 billion from 1991 to 1997 buying Russian weapons and this year reached agreement to pay another $2 billion to buy 40 of Russia's latest SU-30 fighter jets. The agreement was aimed at gaining parity with Taiwan's U.S.-made F-16s and French-made Mirage 2000 fighters. The deal also included technology transfers, which will enable China to produce its own spares and future warplanes.

This deal caused serious concern in India, which was promised by Russia when it signed a 1997 agreement to buy SU-30s that the technology would not be transferred to other countries. The SU-30 is Russia's most advanced fighter-bomber, and the latest models incorporate the MM thrust-vectoring, which direct the power of the engine to produce sharp changes of height and direction – a state-of-the-art system to avoid anti-aircraft missiles.

China has already started production of a total of 200 Russian-designed SU-27 fighters at its defense complex in Shenyang City under an agreement signed in 1996. With the experience gained from the SU-27, and the new machine tools, blueprints and skills that will be acquired with the SU-30, China will be close to having its own advanced warplane industry.

The overall package is as important as the individual aircraft and ships being sold. The AWACS aircraft, along with the SU-27s and the SU-30s, will give China for the first time the potential to seize and maintain command of the air over Taiwan against Taiwanese opposition. But air power alone would not be sufficient to deter the U.S. aircraft carriers. For that, China needs an advanced naval capability. This, too, is being sold by Russia.

China's navy is now awaiting delivery of a second Sovremenny class destroyer, equipped with the latest 3M80E supersonic ramjet anti-ship missile. These highly advanced cruise missiles, which fly so fast and so low that they are very difficult for radar to detect, were designed to counter the Aegis ship-defense system now used by the U.S. Navy

In another naval deal, Russia is selling to China Kilo-class submarines, which are quiet enough to mount a serious threat to U.S. aircraft carrier task forces. U.S. officials fear they will be delivered with Russia's latest wake-homing torpedoes, which mean that the vessels do not have to rise to periscope depth to aim and fire them.

Intelligence reports that Russia is negotiating a cooperation deal under which it will help China build its own new generation of nuclear-powered submarines have not yet been confirmed. But the overall meaning of these Russian-Chinese arms transactions is clear enough. China is determined to hold the trump cards in the air above Taiwan and the seas around it.

And for political reasons, and whatever the political cost in his relations with the U.S., Russian President Putin seems willing to help Beijing achieve that goal – and earn $15 billion in the process.

Copyright 2000 by United Press International.

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The question is why. The U.S. Congress has passed legislation authorizing sanctions if even some of Russia's ambitious new arms export plans go forward. Japan and Taiwan have each hinted in public and made it clear in private that such deals could seriously upset the...
Wednesday, 29 November 2000 12:00 AM
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