Friday, 9 March 2012

9 March 2012

You probably remember that when the UN security council voted on a resolution about Syria last month, Russia and China vetoed it.

But why was it Russia and China, in that order, rather than China and Russia? Perhaps it's time to re-evaluate the nature of the relationship between these two Eastern giants, one post-Communist, and the other -- well, what's the right term -- neo-Communist?

Ever since the end of the Cold War, we've tended to assume that Russia was the dominant one in the Moscow-Beijing partnership. After all, the Russians were used to behaving like a super-power, perfectly happy to play a major role on the world stage.

How different from the Chinese, quiet, diffident even, concentrating on expanding their economy at terrifying speed and keeping the lid firmly on any signs of domestic unrest or dissent.

These days, it's rather different. The Russian foreign policy analyst Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, calls what's happened a "historical role reversal". As he wrote in an article this week: "In 1979, China's gross domestic product was a mere 40 per cent of that of the Russian republic within the Soviet Union. Nowadays, China's GDP is between four and five times bigger than Russia's."

What's more, he wrote, at the height of the Sino-Soviet confrontation, the Soviet Union was a military superpower and the Chinese People's Liberation Army was doing little more than preparing for a "people's war". Today, China's defence budget is the second largest in the world, far ahead of 5th-placed Russia.

And while we're on the subject of defence budgets, the International Institute for Strategic Studies reported this week that on current trends Asian defence spending is likely, for the first time, to exceed that of Europe during the course of this year.

And yes, Chinese spending makes up a whopping 30 per cent of the regional total, having more than doubled over the past decade. European defence spending, on the other hand, has been sharply cut back.

According to the defence industry consultants IHS Jane’s, by 2015 China will be spending more on defence than the combined total of Nato’s top eight members, excluding the US: that's the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Canada, Spain and Poland.

Now, I wouldn't want you to get this out of proportion. According to the latest available figures, in 2010 the US was still spending nearly six times as much on defence as China -- and more than the next 15 top-spending countries combined (including the UK, France, Russia, India, Brazil and Turkey).

But the trend is clear: China is catching up. And it's interesting to wonder why.

If I were suddenly to invest in a new high fence round my house, with security guards on duty around the clock and an armoury of high-powered weapons on hand in my bedroom, what would you assume?

That I'd developed a bad case of paranoia, or perhaps that I was frightened of my neighbours? Or that I wanted you to sit up and take notice, say to yourself "I'd better not push that Robin around -- he looks as if he means business"?

My hunch is that China has realised that its economic clout can now be parlayed into military clout. It has regional interests that it is determined to protect, and it's prepared to spend some of its newly acquired wealth on purchasing the means with which to protect them.

China, after all, has a proud past as an imperial power (so does Japan, but that's a rather different story). I'm not suggesting that it wants to re-create its imperial past, but it may well be ready to use its regional muscle to get what it wants.

Above all, it needs to keep its fuel supply lines open, as it's now increasingly dependent on oil imported from the Middle East -- and, like the US, it regards guaranteeing energy security as a top national security priority.

And for that, you need modern military hardware, and the technological know-how to keep ahead of the game. China is clearly prepared to pay for both.

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