Russia And China Relations
Warming With Weapons Sales
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Service

ZHUHAI, China - The scene at the Sukhoi aircraft company's bustling office here at the Zhuhai air show this week reminded a Russian weapons engineer of the ''old days,'' when China and Russia walked together on the road to communism.
In a small room, a Chinese delegation negotiated with officials from the aerospace company. Russian officials said the Chinese were interested in adding the Su-30, Sukhoi's fighter bomber, to their arsenal, which already includes Russian fighters, submarines and anti-aircraft batteries. In addition, the Chinese plan to buy a state-of-the-art anti-ship missile.
''Then, China and Russia were allies,'' said Vladimir Konohov, the designer of one of Russia's top fighters, the Su-37. ''Perhaps that day will come again.''
Fifty years ago, a shared ideology brought China and Russia together in a revolutionary embrace before that relationship degenerated into recriminations and border skirmishes in the 1960s. Today, Chinese cash and a common concern about the United States' domination of world affairs are fueling a renaissance between the two giants.
On Sunday, President Jiang Zemin will travel to Russia for the sixth summit meeting between Russia and China and the first informal ''no-necktie'' meeting between Mr. Jiang and Boris Yeltsin, the ailing Russian president. Mr. Jiang will meet the Russian prime minister, Yevgeni Primakov, as well. Mr. Jiang is expected to offer Russia food as well as cash to aid Russia's ailing economy, Chinese sources said.
Russia's ambassador to Beijing, Igor Rogachev, told the official Xinhua press agency last week that the trip was a sign that decades of hostility between Russia and China had given way to a powerful ''strategic partnership,'' that aims at forging a ''new order'' to challenge U.S. domination of the world arena.
China has backed Russia's stance supporting Yugoslavia's president, Slobodan Milosevic, on Kosovo and echoed Moscow's calls for a peaceful settlement of the standoff with Iraq. Chinese officials have noted publicly that Russia sides with China in its opposition to U.S. plans for a theater missile defense network in Asia.
No one expects Beijing's ties to Moscow to eclipse China's relations with the United States in importance. China's trade with Russia, for example, is only a fraction of its trade with the United States: $4.12 billion with Russia for the first nine months of 1998 compared with more than $60 billion with the United States. Historical distrust also bedevils the relationship, as does China's desire to play a greater role in Central Asia and Mongolia - areas that Moscow regards as its turf.
Nonetheless, the emerging ties between Moscow and Beijing have raised eyebrows in Western and Asian capitals because the bulk of the relationship is founded on Russian arms sales to the People's Liberation Army, or PLA. During the past four years, for example, arms sales from Russia to China alone accounted for roughly one-quarter of the total trade between the two countries, or $1 billion a year. Defense experts are further concerned by Russia's apparent willingness to sell China increasingly sophisticated technologies.
China is Russia's second-biggest arms customer after India. Western defense experts say its main weapons purchases from Russia are designed not to help China fill short-term combat capability but to gain access to advanced technology. China has purchased four Kilo-class submarines, 48 Su-27 fighter jets produced by Sukhoi, along with a licensing deal to produce about 200 more in China. Beijing is believed to have ordered two Sovremenniy-class destroyers, currently being built in St. Petersburg.
More important, Russian media reported in April that the Progress aviation firm in Arsenyev, Maritime Territory, had started production of 30 Sunburn anti-ship missiles for China. The Sunburn can travel at twice the speed of sound while skimming the ocean's surface. ''This one could hurt us,'' said an official at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.
China's shopping spree in Moscow comes at a time when the rest of Asia is reeling from an economic crisis that has gutted arms acquisition programs across the region. This has left China, Taiwan, Singapore and, to a lesser extent, Japan as the only countries actively bolstering their arsenals. Such acquisitions have raised concern in other Asian capitals.
Thailand, for example, can only afford to deploy its newly purchased 11,485 ton aircraft carrier once a month. It has also canceled the purchase of eight U.S.-made F/A-18 fighters. Malaysia has put on hold plans to buy its first submarines and 300 helicopters for its army air corps. South Korea's defense forces postponed the purchase of $1 billion worth of U.S. arms. And Indonesia canceled 12 Russian-made Su-30K multi-role fighters and eight Mi-17V helicopters.
Russian officials have told their Western counterparts that Russia is not supplying China with its best technology.
''The line out of the Russian Embassy is that anyone privy to all the details of these deals is not that uncomfortable that Russia is giving away the farm,'' a Western diplomat in Beijing said. ''Also, they have a pretty healthy contempt for the Chinese military.''
Lieutenant General Vladimir Mikhailov, the vice commander of Russia's air force, said: ''We are selling the Chinese very little.''
General Mikhailov was standing in a plush function room of the Zhuhai Hotel, having just exchanged toasts and bearhugs with several Chinese officials associated with the arms trade. ''But if they want to buy the Su-30, we will sell it to them,'' he added.
Defense experts think the Su-30 fighter-bomber would mark a significant upgrade for China's air force. Richard Fisher, a specialist on the Chinese military at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, said the sale to China of the Su-30 would give Beijing ''the basis of a modern strike capability.''
Eric McVadon, a former U.S. Navy admiral and defense attaché in Beijing, agreed that ''Washington should worry about more advanced fighters and quiet diesel submarines that China might purchase from Russia.''
He added: ''However, we should keep all this in perspective. China can use these things to make our lives more miserable in a future Taiwan crisis. Nevertheless, these purchases will not allow the PLA to surmount all its shortcomings and become a power able to threaten American power in Asia. The PLA is coming from a position of truly extraordinary backwardness and obsolescence.''