China Less Reliant on Arms and Energy Cooperation with Russia

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Oct. 5 – Russia’s significance to China will continue to diminish according to a report released on Monday by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The report illuminates the current status of and likely prospects for China–Russia relations.

“Russia is unwilling to provide China with advanced weapons and technology primarily because it is concerned that China will copy Russian technology and compete with Russia on the international arms market,” Paul Holtom, the director of the institute’s arms transfers program says in the study “China’s Energy and Security Relations with Russia: Hopes, Frustrations and Uncertainties.”

“The nature of the arms transfer relationship will increasingly be characterized by competition rather than cooperation,” he adds.

A turning point came in 2005, the report states, when China moved from importing complete systems, with China becoming more reliant on its own industry and imports from Russia dropping. In 2010, imports had fallen drastically to the lowest level since 1998.

The authors conclude that while these two countries will remain pragmatic “partners of convenience,” the foundation of their relationship over the past two decades – military and energy cooperation – is eroding.

Since the early 1990s, military cooperation – in the military-political, training and military-technical spheres – has been a cornerstone of the China–Russia relationship.

Between the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and 2010, it has been estimated that more than 90 percent of China’s imported major conventional weapons were supplied by Russia, while China accounted for nearly 40 percent of Russian exports.

According to the report, China remains interested in Russian military technology and components but has not placed a significant order since 2005. There are six factors, according to experts, affecting Russia’s ability and willingness to deliver the weapons and technology that China seeks. Among them are Russian arms transfer relations with India, concerns about Chinese imitating the military technology, and Chinese competition with Russia in the arms market.

During the 1980s, China exported tanks and armored vehicles, aircraft, ships and missiles to Egypt, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Pakistan. And analysts speculate that China will increasingly compete with Russia for orders from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

What is more, China also is working with other former Soviet states, such as the Ukraine. SIPRI notes that “the volume of planned Chinese purchases of Ukrainian arms and military equipment during 2010–12 is approximately US$1.2 billion, compared with US$1.5 billion for all of 2002–2009.”

China and Russia seem rightly matched in the energy sphere considering their geographic proximity and near perfect supply and demand complementarity. However, imports from Russia accounted for a mere 6 percent of China’s total oil imports in 2010.

Despite China and Russia’s US$6 billion “coal for loans” agreement signed in September 2010, Chinese scholars regard the two countries’ energy cooperation as insignificant overall. According to the agreement, Russia will annually provide 15 million tons of coal until 2015, then 20 million until 2035.

Furthermore, some Chinese experts doubt Russia’s ability to transport large quantities of coal to
China because of bottlenecks on Russia’s undeveloped transportation network in East Siberia and the need to change carriages for different railway gauges between Russia and China, the report says.

Analysts say it is popular to characterize China–Russia relations as warm on the governmental level and cold at the grass roots level. Russia ranked only 10th among China’s trading partners in 2010.

At the same time, the two states have a lot in common. First of all, Chinese and Russian leaders share an aversion to a unipolar world and strive to curb U.S. power, in particular trying to limit U.S. influence in Central Asia. However, for now, China and Russia have a greater interest to develop productive relations with the U.S. government than with one another.

“The China-Russia partnership is plagued with problems. In reality cooperation is not as smooth as depicted in official rhetoric by top leaders on each side,” says co-author Linda Jakobson, formerly with SIPRI and presently at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. “Above all, both countries approach the relationship pragmatically. When interests converge, Beijing and Moscow collaborate, but when interests diverge the strategic partnership has little meaning. Genuine political trust is lacking.”

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