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Moscow Facing A Complex Chinese Challenge

File photo: China's Premier Wen Jiabao struts past a Russian Honorguard after the two countries compete in wargames - only time will tell if the games are replaced with a real battle.
by Mark N. Katz
Washington (UPI) Jun 05, 2006
The rise of China affects virtually every other country in the world, but most especially those that neighbor it. Moscow has important reasons to be concerned about China: Russian territory bordering it is sparsely populated.

Furthermore, large numbers of Chinese citizens have been crossing the border to settle in Siberia -- something that many Russians in the region have become nervous about. Siberia also possesses petroleum and other natural resources that a rapidly modernizing China increasingly wants access to.

In the past, Beijing has asserted territorial claims to a significant portion of Siberia. Almost all of these claims have been settled, but if a more powerful China ever in the future decided to revive its claim to any of this territory, Russia would face an extremely difficult challenge.

The Chinese military appears to be undergoing modernization at a far more rapid rate than the Russian one -- in part because China is the largest customer for Russian weaponry. As time goes on, the Russian-Chinese conventional force balance is steadily shifting in Beijing's favor.

Russia, of course, continues to possess a large nuclear arsenal -- as does China. But would the Kremlin really be willing to risk Moscow in order to save Vladivostok or any other Russian city near the Sino-Russian border? The answer to this question may not be clear to the Kremlin even now, much less in the future when China has become more powerful.

The Chinese challenge to Russia, of course, has not reached this point by any means. Many Russian observers, though, have expressed fear about China's future intentions toward Russia. Yet China and Russia also have several important common interests, including opposition to American "hegemony," democratization, and Sunni fundamentalism. They also have a growing trade relationship that is important to both.

Moscow's response to the Chinese challenge has so far involved a mixture of bandwagoning with it and balancing against it. On the one hand, Moscow bandwagoned with China through signing a Treaty of Friendship with Beijing in 2001, working with China through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to reduce America's post-9/11 presence in Central Asia, and participating in joint military exercises that were widely seen to have both anti-Taiwanese and anti-American overtones. On the other hand, Moscow has balanced against China through repeatedly calling for a strategic partnership with India as well as China (despite the important differences between these two), and selling more advanced weapons to India than to China.

The Putin administration's conflicted policy toward China can best be seen by comparing its arms export and petroleum export policies toward it. China is the biggest customer for Russian weapons. Indeed, the Russian arms industry needs China as a customer in order to prosper since the Russian military cannot afford enough weapons in order for it to do so. By contrast, the Putin administration has been hesitant about building an oil pipeline from Siberia to China for fear of becoming too dependent on China as a customer. The result is that Moscow is providing Beijing with the means (i.e., arms) to threaten Russia while also giving it some incentive to do so by denying Beijing as much Siberian oil as China wishes to buy.

Fortunately for Moscow, Beijing is preoccupied with Taiwan, the U.S., Japan, and even domestic unrest. But if China ever decided to take measures that Russia found threatening, Moscow could find fending it off to be extremely difficult -- if not impossible.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.

Source: United Press International

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