Flashpoints & Tinderboxes l
ROBERT DAY
© 2014 FrontLine Defence (Vol 11, No 3)

The Western world has watched with growing alarm over the past year, as genial relations between the Western Democracies and the Russian and Chinese Communist governments appear to be in jeopardy.

The major thaw in relations began in the late 1970s with the series of agreements signed by former President Ronald Reagan and Russian Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. They effectively de-escalated the “Cold War” and “normalized” relations between the two nations. This lessening of tension provided China with an opportunity to increase business and trade with the West. The dissolution of the Soviet Union ­followed quickly as submerged nations re-emerged on the political scene and also took part in dramatically increasing the volume of trade and investment between the former Communist states and the Western Democracies. In fact, it had escalated so quickly that the amount of mutual trade become a significant component in fostering growth and innovation in previously stagnant economies.

Notwithstanding outward appearances, not much had changed internally regarding existing controls, with former Communist Party oligarchs still running the state political and economic agencies, albeit with a much lower public profile.

The economic and technological benefits that had been derived did very little to assist the new states to transition to a democratic multi-party parliamentary/democratic state. The West had neither insisted on, nor provided the expertise necessary to effect such major administrative and ­economic reforms. Western powers seemingly assumed that such changes would occur “in due course.”

Sadly, the development of an open and democratic government system framework was not to be. In the case of Russia, many Soviet government leaders and members of the prodigious civil service remained in place. Politicians and administrators with more moderate views and an open outlook remained on the sidelines. Similarly, the Communist party remained firmly fixed in China, although some trade arrangements were made more liberal in terms of reduced tariffs between the West and China. The Chinese economy was quickly expanded by the massive infusion of new money, technologies, products and services that Western manufacturers provided in their quest for cheap labour to maximize their return on investments.

However, as the West was to learn, corruption, crime and violence of the “old regime” had not disappeared. Western economists and political analysts were quick to reveal that these factors had re-emerged in full force. Graft, corruption and criminal activities were a major impediment to Russia’s economic growth. A majority of the former Russian Federation were being led by well-connected former KGB members who became what has now termed as the “Russian Mafia.” Although trade links improved and prospered, enabling the Russian economy to grow, it seemed only to benefit an oligarchic class of former KGB elites and senior Communists who remained in control of their organizations. They remained focussed on high-level benefits of Western trade without seeking improvements to standards of living for the average Russian. Like the previous Soviet regime, the “new” Russian government clung to its existing fiscal imperatives. For instance, extensive funding for improvements to armaments and the development of new extremely capable weapons systems continued unabated. Weapons exports to political “client states” continued, running counter, as always, to Western policy for areas such as the Middle East, South America and Central Europe. In the interval between the collapse of the Soviet empire to the present, the West naïvely thought they were engaging the former Soviet State less as an adversary and more as a nascent democracy.

However, as Russia focused on economic growth, and new raw resources were discovered and exported – bringing in significant income – the new government began a major program of military modernization rather than improving social services. Its military industrial complex also continued to supply modern weapons systems abroad in return for raw materials or established world currencies.

China’s government, on the other hand, undertook a program to clean up the more visible illegal activities of the “Government Elite.” As well, it also ran a program to clean up the corrupt activities of party Administrators and their appointed municipal officials. China reacted violently to the excesses of the leaders of industry, particularly those who ran large corporations or financial institutions after a lengthy career in the Government. The various investigations into corruption were meticulous and many senior officials were subjected to showy trials and even sentenced to death for their often conspicuous displays of wealth and privilege. Once these government and business leaders had been replaced and the Chinese government was firmly in control, the nation offered its significant well-trained workforce to Western manufacturers, providing a means for Western companies to be even more competitive on world markets by significantly lowering labour costs. The shift to the use of Chinese labour was a two-edged sword that eventually cut deeply into the growth of western economies while maximizing profit for large manufacturers. However, all this time, China was pursuing a major weapons development program, exploiting Western technologies and paid for with the profits from those contracts.

The Russian government had also poured significant funds from the increased economic activities into weapons development programs with the aim of equalling or besting the quality of the NATO weapons. This was especially noticeable in the field of aviation and precision guided munitions, where armaments industry experts suspect that China has reached a level of sophistication that now compels the West to quickly address any shortfalls in performance if it wishes to maintain any semblance of military dominance. The same can also be said for their advances in the development of new missile-carrying, nuclear submarines, naval vessels and armoured vehicles. Many believe the Chinese continue to sell military equipment to their client states and to others that cannot afford to buy “state-of-the-art” from U.S. or other foreign suppliers.

The assumption that Beijing was becoming more moderate in its outlook towards the West seemed to be borne out with the increasingly larger trade volumes. It was felt that this represented a step towards friendly relations with the Chinese mainland. Championing this softening of “Cold War” stances allowed former enemies to enter into lucrative trading agreements, international monetary exchanges and new markets for all former communist states bar one – North Korea.

Once again, the West was learning that the leopard had indeed not changed its’ spots and the illusory promise of “Peace in our time” remained as elusive as it had in 1939. Nothing had really changed, but the West, believing the Cold War had truly ended, began reducing standing military forces and disposing of surplus equipment. In contrast, both Russia and China have lavished the profits from their increased trade onto their military. The two countries have, with solid research, commercial ­espionage and copious amounts of money, produced extremely effective weapons ­systems that are more than a match for the latest Western armaments.

Actions of both Russia and China demonstrate that they have not changed their “world view”. As Western (particularly American) presences began to scale back, reducing foreign military forces within areas regarded by Russia and China as their “Spheres of Influence,” this signalled a freedom to pursue specific Russian and Chinese aims without impediment.

The aggressive policies exhibited by Russia and China have finally shaken the belief that the world had attained a workable political agreement where the prospect of a nuclear war had been minimized to near extinction. With the compounded military reductions in Western nations over the last 20 years, military pundits believe it is entirely conceivable that both Russian and China have closed the quality gap and in some cases have produced weapon systems that are more capable than those of the West.

However, Western governments have not yet begun to take reverse actions that will enable them to regain weapons that will be capable of destroying these new generation weapons systems. It is no secret that Russia and China have invested heavily in the development of “Fifth General Plus” aircraft – in quantity. They have also developed new naval weapons systems and enlarged their naval fleets with new submarines in sizeable numbers. China recently announced the pending deployment of a new type of nuclear submarine that will be able to launch long range nuclear missiles. Russia has also announced the building of new types of naval vessels and the complete modernization of their strategic fleet of major combat ships. Ground forces of both nations have also introduced massive equipment upgrades – everything from full spectrum combat clothing, to new tanks and personnel carriers, and artillery capable of reaching 300 kilometers behind the line.

Did the illusion of “friendly” relations between Democratic and the Communist powers blind Western leaders to these developments? No doubt a case might be made for such a supposition but there has to be other, equally important, reasons for why Western Governments ignored the Russo-Sino programs. Many analysts suspect the most prevalent reason to be the massive collapse of America’s financial institutions. The bustling economy of the late 1980s and 90s led U.S. banks and lending institutions to provide funds for investments, mortgages and to leverage buyouts. However, much like a “Pyramid Scheme” there had been no creation of substantive wealth to support these loans on inflated value properties, eventually ­collapsing the entire U.S. financial structure. The resultant loss of billions of dollars in American and global economies caused a world-wide recession that forced Western governments to borrow heavily to keep their economies moving by creating massive public works programs. Only now are most of these economies finally digging out from their fiscal difficulties. Focussed on repercussions of this financial crisis, almost all Western nations embarked on massive reductions in government spending. Often the easiest target being the Armed Forces, based on the notion that the “Cold War” was no longer a threat. Equipment acquisition was reduced, Bases and military training areas shut down, and the new priority became finding systems that require less personnel to operate. Hence the major cuts across the board in defence spending.

Russia and China, however, used the respite and the new access to Western markets to fund massive weapons research, which is now producing extremely capable weapons, equipment and various support systems to “defend” against any Western encroachment.

It should be clear to Western leaders that their nations can no longer extract a “Peace Dividend” from reduced military spending. The West and NATO will need to redirect their allotments of funds to becoming combat-ready once again. This is the minimum that can be done domestically.
 
Internationally, the West will need to significantly reduce its economic dealings with both Russia and China. Canada has recently instituted sanctions against Russia, though an argument could easily be made to add more. The next step should be the repatriation of all sub-contracted work back to Canada. The availability of the West to provide resources such as oil and gas may take some time to set into place but, once achieved, could force China and Russia to abandon their current strategies and face the realities of having to exist within their economic capabilities.

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Robert Day is a military analyst based in Ottawa. His next article will explore the impact of Russia and China’s apparent “reversion”on political / economic structures.
© FrontLine Magazines 2014

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