Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Just How Much Time Has Russia Bought?

Much of Russia's policy toward China is clearly an effort to appease China to buy time for Russia to rebuild from their post-Soviet collapse of military and economic power. Is Russia's time over in 2020?

I ask this because the recent DOD China report notes 2020 as an important year for China's development plans:

China’s leaders routinely emphasize the goal of reaching critical economic and military benchmarks by 2020. These benchmarks include successfully restructuring the economy to maintain growth and increase Chinese citizens’ quality of life to promote stability; making major progress in military modernization; and, attaining the capability to fight and win potential regional conflicts, including those related to Taiwan, protection of sea lines of communication (SLOCs), defense of territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea, and defense of western borders. Statements by Chinese leaders indicate that, in their view, the development of a modern military is necessary for China to achieve great power status. These statements also indicate that the Chinese leadership views a modern military as a deterrent to prevent adversaries from threatening Chinese interests or to allow China to defend itself, should deterrence fail.

Russia wants a quiet Chinese border. And China likes having a quiet Russian border given Peking's interest in pushing their core interests at sea in regard to Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea. Russia's once robust arms sales (naval and air power) to China and Russia's disregard for China's theft of Russian technology in the process was one part of their common interest of keeping China focused on the sea and away from Russia.

Something about that year kept nagging at me. What happens after 2020?

Oh yeah, a twenty-year Russian-Chinese treaty that put their border disputes (China lost a lot of land to Russia in the 19th century) on hold becomes subject to cancellation by either party:

As the article notes, both sides have reason to keep the border quiet for now. China is focusing on Taiwan and Russia is too broke to defend it. Russia clearly hopes that the balance of forces will shift its way by 2021. Either Russia is economically strong enough to defend their Far East or China gets blasted a bit by the US and Japan in a war over Taiwan (a war the Russians seem determined to facilitate). China must either hope to own Taiwan by then or be strong enough economically to build a military strong enough to cope with both threats at the same time.

So we need to make sure that China can't achieve their offshore objectives--especially the conquest of Taiwan--before that treaty comes up for cancellation.

And it would be nice to get Russia to stop thinking of itself as a victim of non-existent NATO plots and view NATO as a potential ally against a country that might not want to keep those territorial questions on ice for much longer than 2021.

But Putin and his territorial ambitions in the west make the latter a project likely to last longer than 2020--if it can be achieved at all. The paranoia may run too deep.

The one thing that is subject to our actions is to make sure we can react quickly to a Chinese attack that seeks to conquer Taiwan and pretty much nail down China's influence and control over the South China Sea and East China Sea by the time that Russian-Chinese treaty can be cancelled.

We can't make Taiwan take the threat of invasion seriously. But we should encourage them to pay the price it takes to defend their island democracy.

As for Russia? Well, they've throttled back arms sales to China out of concern for technology theft, well short of 2021. That's smart. If Russia wants to keep China pointed away from Russia and toward the sea, Russia probably needs to focus on making sure Taiwan is too strong for China to solve their Taiwan problem before 2021. Selling submarines to Taiwan would probably be a good idea at this point.

Twenty years probably wasn't enough time to purchase, from Russia's point of view.