Russia Selling Arms to China: so what?

2014-08-30 14:56

Is Russia selling new sophisticated military equipment to China at the time when China's disputes with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines are being resolved peacefully?

What is the point of war machinery when the route to peace is through negotiations? Does this have to do with commerce (arms trade is a huge industry and revenue generator) or prestige; or does it have to do with global power dynamics sharpened by the US' increase military presence in the area?

Perhaps, the context is the starting point. China and Russia shared a very long border that makes relations necessary rather than merely strategic. They indeed have significantly improved their relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rebirth of the Russian Federation in the early 1990s. In 2001, they signed Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation Treaty to set out their shared strategic interests and their common pursuit of friendship, a word stronger than "cooperation" usually used by countries exploring relations.

In 2010, they declared their decision to cooperate in high technology areas including aircraft technology and research, and nanotechnology. The following year they started trading through their national currencies instead of the US dollar, a decision that alarmed the US.

During the new Chinese president's state visit to Moscow in 2013, they upgraded the script to declare their "special relationship", an indication of the elevation of relations.

It is important to note that military relations are much older than diplomatic ones. When the EU imposed sanctions on China in the 1980s over human rights issues, it turned to Russia as a reliable supplier of military equipment it needed. Arms trade have increased substantially after 1991.

Political interaction between the two has become more frequent. Their political positions in international fora have become ever more converging. Their trade relations have also increased dramatically relative to world averages in areas like energy,

Since 2010, China has been in talks with Russia over the supply of Russia's upgraded advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile equipment with a capability of hitting targets as far as the United States. The negotiations seemed to heading nowhere the western sanctions designed to demonise and ostracise Russia and the intensification of US military presence along China's boarders over the past few months.

Now, it is reported that the two parties have come much closer to signing a deal that will bring much needed capital to Moscow and needed deterrent military assets to Beijing. It is said that the deal could be announced in weeks and that the scale of it would surprise many.

Widely reported in the main newspapers in south-east Asia, the imminent sale will be the third big arms deal that Russia clinches in the region. China has good reason for this besides the need to reciprocate to Russia's warm overtures including its leniency in respect of recent deals in the energy sector. It needs to send a signal to those seeking containment by keeping China under overt military surveillance by seas and air means.

The upgrade of its military capability in recent years has already caused a lot of worry among its neighbours with whom it has running territorial disputes while it sent shock waves in Washington its threat to the US power and influence in the region who stability it has sought to underwrite since the Second World War.

Russia has rational reasons for its aggressive courting of China in respect of gas and arms trade even if this risks rupture of relations with the US. The first is that there is very little relationship with the US anyway since the US starting speaking about domestic situations in Russia, casting doubts on the integrity of democracy in that country, long before the US played a strong hand over the Russia re-annexation of Crimea in 2013, slapping sanctions and demonising Moscow throughout the world.

Russia should not see further tensions as a loss of anything that was had by way of relationship. The second is that Moscow has huge ambitions to recover their stature and power in the world by boosting its economic role and making alliances with countries that can help it in this regard. The membership of the G8 offers opportunities for this until relations with the worst soured so that when several years later Russia was excluded from the G8 over the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine issues it had become a reluctant member.

The third is to boost the military industrial complex and help diversify the economy especially in areas of high-tech industry that the arms industry is part of and can boost.

South-Asian countries have their happiness about this deal emboldening China's assertive diplomacy in respect of South China and East China disputes. China is already a huge giant in their door step by virtue of its economic power, political capital and military might. But these countries are also influenced by US views on China quite frequently.

The rivalry between China and US, accused of overreaching its role by deploying military equipment in the region, is unlikely to Iead to push confrontation because their war would have a huge impact and produced unforeseen outcomes with a bearing in the status quo of international relations. Neither country can afford the costs of war.

But dialogue of the deaf between the US and China will continue, beginning with the discussion between president Barack Obama of the US and Xi Jinping of China. This dialogue will still be helpful in calming things down.

The East China Sea and South China Sea peace initiative premised on dialogue should move from prevent war to building conditions for lasting peace by settling once and for all territorial claims to the satisfaction of all, something that requires compromises from all in the region and it needs the US to pull back from its China containment strategy - the military build-up and the forming of alliances against China- to give peace a chance.

Ultimately, the region and the world requires transition from the paradigm of war and violence that old superpowers like ancient empires are built on, the paradigm that produced three major wars in the 20th century- two open wars and one long Cold War. The soon the US as the anchor powder of this world order reliant on military might alongside economic dominance begins a paradigm shift towards a politics of life based on the "will to live" rather than Nietsche's "will to power" the better. In this, it will need to be assisted through continuous dialogue with emerging powers and civic action by international civil society.

China too should avoid the temptation to switch from peaceful rise doctrine to aggressive power in response to US militarization of the region. This does not mean in must not build its defensive capability in proportion to the threat and in deterrence of extra-regional aggression. Dialogue with the region, settlements with Japan (which has to become more peace-loving), the Philippines and Vietnam in search for permanent outcomes is the way.

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