Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan arrived in Moscow yesterday for a weeklong Russia visit aimed at strengthening the two countries' military cooperation -- particularly on arms sales.
Moscow, 16 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan is spending seven days in Russia, holding talks and touring arms factories in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
The extended visit reflects the continued importance of the arms trade for both countries. China has been a faithful consumer of Russian military equipment, and accounts for half of Russia's arms sales abroad, buying, for example, 73 Sukhoi fighter jets in the past three years alone.
Ruslan Pukhov, an expert on arms sales, says China is a key partner for Russia, whose arms complex largely depends on export sales for its survival. "It is like an oxygen mask for a person who's gravely ill," he said. "Without Chinese arms-procurement orders, probably one-third of Russia's military complex wouldn't have survived into the third millennium. Factories would have just closed down. They only made it through thanks to China. So for Russia, relations with China are extremely important."
But Pukhov, who heads the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, an independent Moscow think tank, warns that Moscow's reliance on Beijing may present a danger if the Chinese market becomes saturated. For now, however, the former adversaries are putting even greater emphasis on their partnership in the arms trade.
A China expert and deputy director of the Russian Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), Gennadii Chufrin, says it took the two regional giants decades to reach what he calls an obvious conclusion. "If you look at the map, you see that Russia's longest border is with China. So merely maintaining peaceful and good-neighborly relations along that border is extremely important," he said. "Also, [for Russia], economic and trade ties come a lot easier [with China] than with countries that geographically are in other parts of the globe."
Last spring, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao signed a wide-ranging cooperation pact on everything from arms to space and energy issues. This followed 2001's ground-breaking treaty on "Good-Neighborly Friendship and Cooperation" and a settling of a border dispute stemming from the 1960s.
This year, official trade between the two countries reached $12 billion, doubling in the space of five years.
But to millions of Chinese and Russians in the Far East, it is unofficial trade relations that are even more important. In cities like Khabarovsk and Blagoveshensk -- situated on the Amur River, which divides the two countries -- China is the only logical partner. There is no road to the West. In those cities, local markets offer Chinese-manufactured goods at prices that are far lower than Western products. The rising tide of temporary Chinese migrants and traders regularly spurs protectionist comments from local Russian politicians.
Just over 7 million people live in the entire Russian Far East, while 120 million Chinese live immediately across the border. But as Professor Aleksei Voskresenskii of Russia's International Relations Institute (MGIMO) points out, transborder population flows are a natural consequence of growing economic interconnection -- and will only grow more permanent.
"I think that the intensification of economic activity will spur the creation of diasporas that will live [here]. Permanently or temporarily, that's still unclear -- it's a recent model [of development,]" Voskresenskii said.
For this reason, he says, it is crucial for both countries to quickly devise a long-term growth plan for the Far East region to ensure structured development and greater integration.
Recent efforts to that end include cooperation between northeast China's Heilongjiang Province and Russia's Far East district to fight drug trafficking. Other border projects include ferry service across the Amur River and jointly built customs terminals.
But one key proposal -- a planned pipeline running from Russia to China -- appears to have been put on hold. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov yesterday called the Angarsk-Daqing line "a local project" affecting "relatively little volume."
Instead, Kasyanov has put his weight behind another pipeline running from Angarsk to Nakhodka, which the prime minister describes as a lifeline for new oil wells and large oil exports.
The line was a pet project supported by former Yukos oil boss Mikhail Khodorkovskii before he was arrested following his fall from political grace. Khodorkovskii argued that without a pipeline, oil cost more to transport to China than it did to produce.
But despite the strengthening of economic ties, some old suspicions die hard. Arms sales analyst Pukhov says Moscow is still reserving its best equipment for sales to India, opting to sell older versions with more limited performance to Beijing.
That, he says, reflects continued fears among the Russian General Staff that China still represents a potential opponent. So Defense Minister Cao may face some hard bargaining during his Russia visit. "Lately the Chinese have been putting pressure on the Russians to buy arms with standard, and not inferior, fighting characteristics," Pukhov said.
Still, Russia is China's only viable arms supplier, and the outcome of the week's negotiations remains unclear. But Pukhov says in the long term, it is important for Russia to stop viewing China as a military threat, in order to prevent Beijing from turning to European or Israeli producers instead. Moscow's arms-export business is at stake -- and so is its long-term economic development in the Russian Far East.