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Will Russia re-arm China? A new strategic dilemma for Moscow.

Will Russia Re-Arm China?

A New Strategic Dilemma for Moscow

Senior Chinese officials visited Moscow in June to begin negotiations for the purchase of Soviet military equipment. This represents a major policy shift in Beijing, which had in recent years been relying on western technology for the modernization of its armed forces, known collectively as the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

The change in policy is the result of two main developments. First, most western defence contracts have been suspended as a result of the bloody crackdown on the dissidents in Tienanmen Square last year. Second, Moscow has now withdrawn its Army from Afghanistan, reduced its forces stationed in Mongolia only 400 km from Beijing, and pulled back its troops stationed along the Far Eastern Sino-Soviet frontier, all of which happen to be the conditions laid down by Peking for a resumption of relations.

Disputes over the frontier led to serious border clashes in the 1960s and minor ones thereafter and exacerbated the increasing friction between the two ideologically competing communist giants. Until 1960, the year of the break between the two countries, the PLA had been equipped and trained entirely by the Soviet Union.

From 1983 until Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to Beijing immediately prior to last year's Tienanmen incident, the USSR was regarded as the greatest threat to China's national security. This was due to the size and modern equipment of Soviet forces stationed in the Far East, the unresolved territorial disputes between the two, and the apparent willingness by the Soviets to resort to force, as illustrated by their invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan.

The Chinese claim that significant sections of their territory were given up to foreign powers under the "unequal treaties" imposed on them well before the communist era. In addition to a key part of Far Eastern USSR including Vladivostok, Beijing maintains a claim (and has used force to underline it in 1974) to a large, potentially oil-bearing sector of the South China Sea stretching as far as the Paracel and Spratley archipelagoes. These are also claimed by several other countries in the region. Other territorial disputes which have led to clashes involve China's borders with India (now more or less resolved) and Vietnam, plus the Nationalist Chinese island republic of Taiwan.

Press reports have indicated that the current Chinese quest for Soviet military technology includes fighter aircraft and help with building a long-planned class of Chinese aircraft-carriers, with payment to be made by barter trade. If these reports are accurate, such proposed technology transfers would appear to confirm Beijing's continued efforts to upgrade its air force, naval air arm and naval power projection capabilities.

Because of their great distance from the Chinese mainland, the Paracels and Spratleys are extremely difficult for the PLA to patrol. The availability of carrier-based aircraft would dramatically alter this situation in Beijing's favour. We may therefore be witnessing the first moves towards an enforcement of Chinese territorial claims along the Vietnamese border and in the South China Sea, with Chinese carrier task groups operating out of Hong Kong.

The Soviets now have to decide whether the economic interest of selling such technology to the PRC is negated once again by the extension of Chinese regional power which it would bring.

Moscow also has to consider the fact that, although the Chinese Communist Party still has considerable support in the countryside, the present leadership is heavily dependent on the PLA to maintain its power in the cities. President Yan Shangkun, via his family, now controls a sizeable part of the army, and it was these units which were used to suppress the dissident movement last year.

Just what will happen in China when Deng Xiaoping and the almost equally aged Yang pass into the next world is anybody's guess. But the betting among educated Chinese is that there will be a power struggle between those favouring a continuation of the present hard line, and those who believe that modernization should be extended into the political sector.

Their great fear is that this could split the PLA and lead to factional strife in a modern equivalent of the murderous conflict between rival warlords that tore China apart earlier this century.

The implications for China's neighbours, and the rest of the world, are hard to calculate. It is tempting to hope that future Chinese leaders will recognize that economic modernization can only be successful if the country is freed from the dead hand of nepotistic, single party control, and that they will resolve internal and external disputes by negotiation rather than by force. In this respect a renunciation of its backing of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge would be an encouraging sign from Beijing.

China-like the USSR-has no tradition of democracy, however, and even the younger generation favour a strong hand at the helm of the Handominated state, with its 51 minorities. Unlike its Soviet counterpart, the ossified Chinese Communist Party has so far failed to produce an enlightened future leader capable of planning and managing the inevitable changes to come.

If it does not do so before the deaths of the old men at the top, the prospect for one billion Chinese may well be utter chaos.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Armada International
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Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Furlong, Robert D.M.
Publication:Armada International
Article Type:editorial
Date:Aug 1, 1990
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