WASHINGTON — China is engaged in an extensive effort to buy advanced military hardware from hard-pressed Russian defense industries and to obtain technology from Russian scientists, say concerned U.S. officials and some Russian and Chinese defense specialists.
In a major effort by China to modernize its military capability, the country is in some instances buying military supplies by dealing directly with individual factories throughout Russia, rather than by going through Moscow.
The Russian supplies in some cases are enabling Beijing to get sophisticated military technology that it has been unable to buy from the West since the Bush Administration clamped down on sales of such technology to China after the bloody army crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing in 1989, observers say.
The most visible part of the new Russian-Chinese military cooperation was a sale recently completed by Moscow to Beijing of 24 Sukhoi 27 warplanes, aircraft that are far more advanced than anything the Chinese air force previously owned.
And according to U.S. officials, the often-clandestine Chinese campaign for military acquisitions in Russia now extends well beyond the Sukhoi 27s. "They're looking at MIG-31s and a whole set of new weapons and technology of mass destruction," including missile-guidance systems and nuclear-fusion technology, one senior official said.
Increased military power resulting from these purchases could make it easier for China to intimidate its neighbors in Southeast Asia, Taiwan and Japan and, some U.S. experts say, could eventually pose a threat to U.S. interests in Asia and the Pacific.
"There are strategic consequences to the idea that Russia would become a principal arms supplier to China," said Jonathan Pollack, an expert on Asian military affairs at RAND Corp.
"It may give them more options, more of a power-projection capability than they had in the past," Pollack said. "Depending on the kind of China we're dealing with, that could have major implications for our security interests in the Western Pacific."
Speaking of the Chinese defense buildup, another senior American official said the Bush Administration has recently been going out of its way to reassure officials in Beijing that the United States does not view China as an enemy, despite hostility voiced in Congress about China's policies on human rights, trade and weapons proliferation.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has often voiced concern about the possible outflow of advanced Soviet military technology. However, it is not clear how much control the government of President Boris N. Yeltsin has over the sales to China.
"The producers are now more or less independent. And they have their own independent lobby," Andrei V. Kouzmenko of Russia's Institute of World Economy and International Relations said at a recent conference in Hong Kong sponsored by UC San Diego's Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.
The current conditions in Russia are giving China a rare chance to obtain some of the sophisticated military items that the People's Liberation Army was seeking from the West before 1989.
"After the Gulf War, Chinese leaders pushed very hard to modernize (the PLA). They saw the importance of high-tech weapons," one knowledgeable Chinese source says. "The U.S. government had sanctions (on military sales to China), and there was no way the Chinese government could buy new weapons from the West."
Moreover, the Russian wares are now selling at what Pollack and several other analysts termed "fire-sale prices."
"If you can buy a $20-million aircraft for $15 million and your military modernization is already overdue, then it's a good time to do so," observed Paul Kreisberg, an Asia specialist at the East-West Center in Honolulu. In addition to China, a number of Southeast Asian countries have been seeking to buy new military hardware, usually from the West.
Military cooperation between Russia and China had its origins when then-Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev visited Beijing in May, 1989, in the midst of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tian An Men Square. Gorbachev announced a series of cutbacks in Soviet troop deployments near the Chinese border.
"By early 1990, exchange visits of military officials began in earnest," and the two sides began to discuss arms sales, Tai Ming Cheung, a specialist on Chinese military affairs for the Far Eastern Economic Review, wrote in a detailed academic study of the new Sino-Russian military ties.
In the spring of 1990, China canceled the most ambitious and far-reaching of several agreements made during the previous decade to purchase American military technology--the $550-million Peace Pearl program with the Grumman Corp. to modernize China's F-8 fighter plane.