Russia should tackle negative socio-economic and demographic trends in the Far East and Siberia instead of reacting to China's continuing rise if it wants to head off the chances of conflict in the region.
Next month will see the Russian armed forces stage an operational-strategic exercise dubbed "Vostok-2010" (East-2010), called “the main event of the combat training” in 2010 in a press release by the Russian Defense Ministry.
Thousands of soldiers from the army, including the CBRN Protection Forces, the navy, air force, airborne troops and other elements of the Russian armed forces will participate in the joint exercise of the Far Eastern and Siberian Military districts in mid-June.
East-2010 will also involve forces and assets from other military districts and all of Russia’s four fleets, including submarines. The country's long-range aviation and the Interior Ministry Affairs troops will also participate in the war game.
According to a 14 May 2010 report in Russia’s leading defense weekly, Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozrenie, East-2010 will exceed in scale even the Zapad (West) war games, during which Russian forces simulate a major conflict with NATO, including a nuclear strike. East-2010, which, according to this daily, is designed to test the new organizational structure of the armed forces, will feature landing of troops from air and sea, crossing of Siberian rivers and seizure of potential foe’s headquarters and rocket positions.
Top Russian commanders would not publicly identify either potential foes or the overall scenario for East-2010. One unnamed, but obvious foe to prepare for is Japan. The Russian leadership is also concerned about the unpredictability of the nuclear-armed North Korean regime.
However, there is one more potential foe in the east whose growing military might require counteraction strategy on the scale of East-2010: China.
Russian officials have in the past avoided explicitly referring to China as a potential foe, perhaps, in order not to anger the eastern neighbor and buy time to prepare for its further rise.
What's left unsaid
More recently, however, the Defense Ministry top brass have begun to edge closer toward acknowledging the obvious.
During a press conference presentation by Chief of the Russian General Staff Nikolai Makarov in July 2009 a reporter for the Defense Ministry’s newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda pointed out that one of the slides in the commander’s presentation “show that it is, after all, NATO and China that are the most dangerous of our geopolitical rivals.”
Two months later Chief of the Ground Forces Staff Lt General Sergei Skokov made what leading Russian military expert Alexander Khramchikhin described as an “epochal statement.” When describing what kind of warfare the national armed forces should prepare for Skokov said the following in September 2009: “If we talk about the east, then it could be a multi-million-strong army with traditional approaches to conducting combat operations: straightforward, with large concentrations of personnel and firepower along individual operational directions.
“For the first time since the early days of Gorbachev, a high-ranking national commander has de facto acknowledged officially that the PRC is our potential enemy,” Khramchikhin wrote of Skokov’s statement in his 16 October 2009 article in the Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozrenie.
A military conflict between China and Russia seems very unlikely in the short-to-medium term. As renowned expert on Asia former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew noted in an October 2009 interview with US broadcaster PBS: “China wants time to grow. If there is going to be any conflict, they’ll postpone it for 50 years.” And before thinking of any conflict with Russia, China will of course want to regain Taiwan and establish its dominance in Southeast Asia.
However, should such a conflict between Russia and China eventually break out, the former should not hope that the conventional component of its 1-million-strong armed forces will be able to stop the 2.8 million-strong People’s Liberation Army. As said above Russia has simulated a limited nuclear strike in a conventional conflict in the West during the Zapad exercises and one may deduce from that that Russian generals have also developed similar plans for conflicts in the East.
While a powerful deterrence tool, nuclear weapons cannot be viewed as a panacea. First of all, even selected limited use of nuclear weapons, which Russian generals hope will demonstrate resolve and de-escalate the conflict, can actually increase risk that the foe may also choose to retaliate with nuclear weapons rather than sue for peace. Even the selective first use of nuclear weapons by Russia may prompt China to respond by launching its intercontinental ballistic missiles out of concern that Russia’s nuclear strike may destroy most of its nuclear arsenal.
And the 2003 Urgent Tasks of the Development of the Russian Armed Forces report rightly notes: “When we speak about the nuclear deterrence factor, especially when this notion is applied to the deterrence of threats associated with the use of conventional forces by the enemy, we should also take into account that under contemporary conditions such deterrence can be effectively carried out only if highly equipped and combat ready general-purpose forces are available.”
As important, neither nuclear nor conventional weapons will be very effective in reducing such risk factors that increase the likelihood of conflict, such as the growing demographic and economic disparity between China and Russia, which is all more evident when one takes a look at the macroeconomic and social data of Russia’s Siberia and Far East.
Economic and demographic disparities
China already has a population of 1.32 billion and its GDP totalled $4,326 billion in 2008, the third highest in the world overall, according to the World Bank. Russia’s population totals some 141 million and its GDP totalled $1,601 billion in 2008, ranking ninth in the world, according to the same source.
As of the early 2000s Russia’s Far Eastern and Siberian districts had a total population of 27 million and their combined gross regional products totalled $110 billion per year, according to then-governor of Krasnoyarskii Krai Alexander Khoponin’s 2006 speech at the Baikal Economic Forum in 2006. In comparison, some 100 million people live in three Chinese provinces that abut the Russian Far East, according to a May 2010 article by Robert Kaplan in Foreign Affairs. The population density on the Chinese side of border is 62 times greater than on the Russian side, according to this renowned expert on China.
China is most likely to continue growing at rates unattainable for Russia while the latter can count only on migration to prevent further depopulation. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that in his 2008 speech Khloponin identified the fast growth of countries of the Asia-Pacific region, which includes China, as the main challenge for Russia.
Russia should use the next several decades to pursue military reform until it produces a conventional force capable of deterring military threats along Russia's perimeter and on par with China’s PLA, while also maintaining a robust nuclear deterrent. Russian authorities should also allocate resources and introduce incentives to reverse depopulation in the Far East and Siberia and facilitate the region’s socio-economic growth to prevent the further deepening of the non-military disparities that increase the likelihood of a crisis in relations with China that may ultimately escalate into an armed conflict
By. Simon Saradzhyan