New Moscow-Beijing Ties Worry Asia

TOKYO: The emerging "strategic partnership" between Russia and China, symbolized by President Jiang Jemin’s visit to Moscow in April, has significant implications for diplomacy and the military balance of power throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The new "partners" should be watched with vigilance, not because presidents Jiang and Yeltsin have agreed to coordinate their strategies in the region, as many now believe, but because Moscow seems unaware of the negative role it is playing.

The recent, unexpected improvement in relations between the muddling Eurasian power and the rising Asian power result from a marriage of convenience. China craves modern arms so as to cope with any possible move for independence by Taiwan; Russia desperately needs to sell its modern aircraft, tanks, and other weapons in order to salvage its defense industry. In 1995, indeed, China bought over 20% of Russia’s total arms exports worth $2.7 to $ 3 billion, while in 1996 Russian arms sales soared to $3.5 billion, the largest portion of which China purchased.

Shut out on transfers of military technology and hardware by the United States ever since the Tiennamen Square incident of 1989; feeling increasingly "encircled" by the "redefined" Japan-U.S. Alliance (agreed in April 1996); China is particularly anxious to upgrade and strengthen its military might, and quickly. Intervention by two American aircraft carriers in the Taiwan Straits in March 1996 humiliated the Chinese, who were forced to stop intimidating Taiwan with missile tests.

Russia, having seen its gross domestic product fall 40% since communism’s end, needs to retain its defense industry as one of the few sources of national revenues. Despite initial denials by the Kremlin, China early this year did buy two modern destroyers along with anti-ship missiles from Russia. An added worry, both for Russia and Asia, is that the Russian government is losing control of the unofficial, black market flow of arms to China.