The Hindu

Thursday, March 27, 1997

The Sino-Russian detente

By Gerald Segal

China has emerged as the dominant power in its relations with Russia because its reforms have produced a great economic boom. This is the main lesson for India to sustain its own currently impressive economic reform programme.

WHEN the Russian and Chinese Presidents meet in Moscow in April, the ``spin-doctors'' in Beijing and Moscow will be trying to make much of the emerging ``strategic partnership.'' Russian officials will tell us that this is their response to the proposed NATO expansion and their Chinese counterparts will suggest that this is what happens when the United States intervenes in such ``internal'' Chinese matters as Hong Kong or Taiwan.

Believe none of it! There is neither clever strategy nor real partnership in the Sino-Russian relationship. There is much diplomatic acrobatics _ impressive to watch, but with little to show at the end except a sense of theatre. The implications for South Asian in general, and India in particular, are more complex and worth appreciating. What has happened so far after several years of Sino-Russian strategic partnership? Trade was supposed to be well on its way to a $20-billion annual target, but in truth it has stagnated. There is far less complementarity than advocates suggested _ a fact well known from other patterns of trade among developing countries. The fallacy was to believe that Russia was truly a developed country with goods that China needs.

In reality, China and Russia have far more interest in trading with the booming economies of East Asia, and have little to gain from swapping inferior goods out of suitcases along the frontier. This reality of power in the global market economy has implications for South Asia. Those who think that India and China have some huge pent-up trade potential should pay close attention, for the objective trading conditions are more difficult and the potential complementarities are even less obvious than in the Sino-Russian relationship. Neither, is there much potential in India-Pakistan trade. The logic of those who wish to benefit from the global market economy is to take part in trade with much more different countries with far more obvious mutual comparative advantages as the basis for trade. The rationale is for India to look to trade with more developed East Asia and less with less developed China. In short, Indian detente with China will not be built on trade.

There has also been much hype about the potential for Sino- Russian collaboration in Central Asia. The reality has been prosaic. Chinese trade with some Central Asian states has increased, but the absolute levels of trade barely register in comparison to trade with East Asia. China still sees Central Asia as a source of instability in Xinjiang, and all the more so, given the recent unrest on the Chinese side of the frontier. Russia has been of no help in dealing with this problem.

Indeed, Russia also still suffers from the fallout of its failed colonial policies in Central Asia. The failed state of Tadjikistan is proof, if one were needed, that Russia cannot guarantee stability in Central Asia. Russia is a shrinking power with diminishing ability to organise its former empire. The effective loss of Chechnya in 1996 was further evidence that Russia has to choose which territory and issues should benefit from concentrated attention, and Central Asia is least likely to be chosen.

The implications for South Asians are that a Russia-China detente will provide no respite from Central Asian unrest. As Afghanistan and Tadjikistan implode, there is good cause to worry about Pakistani stability. The risk of further shattering in the ``shatter-belt'' of entities bordering South and Central Asia causes long-term concern.

For India, in particular, the conclusion must be that Pakistan and Central Asia represent its diplomatic backside _ a region of problems but with little immediate potential. India needs to worry less about its continental perspective and focus on maritime potentials. The Indian Ocean can be seen as the highway to East Asia and the wider world where the real prospects lie for prosperity and a global role. Pakistan and Central Asia represent a past to be escaped.

A further feature of a Sino-Russian detente is supposed to be much closer military relations. While it is true that Russia has been far more active in selling weapons and military technology to China, there is much misunderstanding about its importance. China is buying the hardware of the 1980s and the technology of the 1990s. Its main adversary in the long-term, the United States, is contemplating a Revolution in Military Affairs of the early 21st century. Russia was the power (as the Soviet Union) which first thought in terms of such a revolution and is more aware than most that if it will have to compete with China in the long-term, it has to seek protection in the form of 21st century technology. As a result, current deals with China matter very little in strictly military terms.

What might South Asians gather from the hype and reality surrounding such arms transfers? The first conclusion is that they should relax. If China's recent acquisitions are seen as a threat by India, they should draw the same conclusions as the West and think more in terms of a Revolution in Military Affairs. India has a not inconsiderable domestic arms industry and an emerging high technology sector. If it continues to see and plan for Pakistan as its major adversary, it will risk falling behind the real long-term game in Asia _ the challenge of managing a rising China. It is a safe bet that China will soon conclude that it must compete in modern military technology. Russia will probably be shy of providing such technology as it recognises the long-term risk. China has the capability to pursue such technology on its own, albeit after a major effort, and will no doubt do so as such disputes as Taiwan remain unresolved.

What might India do? The longest-term logic for India is to seek partners who can help it stay abreast of the Revolution in Military Affairs. A conservative strategy would seek genuine cooperative arrangements with Russia for such technology. A more advanced strategy would seek closer relations with Western firms and governments which are increasingly becoming players in the new Revolution. There is vast scope for a Western incentive strategy towards India in the high technology sector, and work at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London is beginning to identify how it might be done in both Delhi and the Western capitals. The challenge is enormous, but so are the rewards. If, as seems increasingly likely, China emerges as a long-term peer competitor (in Pentagon jargon) with the U.S., the other powers in Asia will have to make some tough choices. Contrary to the current illusions of a Sino-Russian detente, a Russia that wants closer relations with the West (and post-Soviet Russia has become even more primarily a European country) will be likely to have a cautiously cooperative relationship with China. Japan and the U.S. will gradually work more closely with Russia to both integrate China into a more transparent multilateral international system and also be prepared to constrain China's unwanted actions.

As India opens out to the outside world _ and that is the long- term logic of an India that wants to grow more prosperous _ there is an inevitability about closer Western relations with India, including in the defence sector. India is not only culturally more akin to the West, it also has a far more amenable political system. In the long-term, India looks more stable and less aggressive than China. In that longer-term view, India and the West will grow closer. If India is prepared for the Revolution in Military Affairs it will eventually contemplate closer technological cooperation with the West, perhaps even including consideration of a Theatre Missile Defence.

Such a future is some time off, and there are many potential pitfalls and debates along the way. But in the meantime, the main lesson for India from a Sino-Russian detente is an understanding of why China has emerged as the dominant power in that bilateral relationship. The simple explanation is that Chinese economic reforms have produced a great economic boom and Russia has so far failed to undertake real economic reform. No Indian foreign policy ambition will be sustainable, apart from paddling in its own backyard, unless it sustains its currently impressive economic reform.

The potential rewards for India as a constructive great power with far greater prosperity are available, but the reforms have to be sustained and enhanced. The choice is in large part for India itself to make, much as it is for Russia. But as in the Russian case, the West can help, above all by providing incentives for joining a transparent and rules-based global international system. When the West treats India with as much respect as it treats China, we will be well on the way to a more mature and successful relationship.

(The writer is Senior Fellow, International Institute for Strategic Studies, London, and Director of Britain's Pacific Asia Programme.)