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Pondering China's Military Buildup

Is China’s military buildup and suspected strategic orientation an unexpected boon for US-Russian relations?

With the latest ominous disclosure of China’s burgeoning military budget - a nearly 18% increase this year over last year, according to the most recent (and undoubtedly conservative) official estimate - security specialists invariably focus on its implications regarding the balance of military power in East Asia, the strategically sensitive Straits of Taiwan, and the concomitant risks to US forces in the region.

Although such a Taiwan-centric perspective on increased Chinese military expenditure is only natural given China’s fixation with Taiwan, not to mention prudent in that it represents perhaps the most combustible “sticking point” confronting US-China military relations, the Pentagon’s 2008 Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People's Republic of China (pdf) offers perhaps a broader interpretation of the rationale behind the build up. Consider the following excerpt from that report:

China's near-term focus on preparing for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait, including the possibility of U.S. intervention, is an important driver of its modernization. However, analysis of China's military acquisitions and strategic thinking suggests Beijing is also developing capabilities for use in other contingencies, such as conflict over resources or disputed territories. [Emphasis added.]

If natural resource considerations also inform the strategic orientation of China’s military, might we witness in the future a rekindling of the Sino-Russo rivalry? Renowned Soviet military scholar Col. (ret.) David M. Glantz does not discount the possibility.

“Two factors are operating here: China’s rapid economic development and the historical precedence of border incidents with Soviet Russia,” Glantz said. “China’s presently on a wild ride of economic development, and there exists grave doubts as to whether she has the resources to sustain her growth. China will be pursuing the resources needed to sustain that growth, and the Far East of Russia, formerly Soviet Russia, could very well be an area to which the Chinese look. Here’s where past border clashes with Soviet Russia play a role. Indeed, China has had border conflicts with other nations over the years, most notably Vietnam and India, but it is doubtful whether either of those offer the promise of alleviating China’s resource needs like the Russian Far East or the newly independent states of Soviet Russia that remain under Russian influence."

Col. Glantz continued, “At any rate, the Russian Far East probably won’t be fully developed and exploited for years. Thus, any talk of potential conflict between Russia and China over this resources rich area must be couched in the context of more a long term, not near term, timeframe. Certainly, the potential for conflict exists but it shouldn’t be misunderstood nor misinterpreted as an imminent potential confrontation.”

What, then, might the threat of a renewed Sino-Russo rivalry portend for the future of US-Russian relations and cooperation? Could it be the issue that cleaves the present China-Russian geo-strategic partnership?

Perhaps, though the existing dynamic—ie Russia and China acting more or less in concert against perceived US interests (see Iran)—is unlikely to change to anytime soon. Awash in oil revenues and at odds with the United States over a myriad of issues ranging from American missile defense components in Poland and Czechoslovakia, the possibility of further NATO expansion et al, contemporary Russia increasingly views the United States through the prism of Cold War lenses.

Still, China’s military and economic ascension, not to mention the mutual threat of Islamic radicalism, represents the makings of a breach that, if exploited by skillful American foreign policy and strategic sobriety on the part of both nations, offers the opportunity for a more harmonious US-Russian relationship in the future.