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Every so often there appear claims, not only in the Western press but the Russian one, that (rising but overpopulated) China is destined to fight an (ailing and creaking) Russia for possession of its resources in the Far East*. For reasons that should be obvious, this is almost completely implausible for the next few decades. But let’s spell them out nonetheless.
1. China regards India, Japan, and above all the USA as its prime potential enemies. This is tied in to its three geopolitical goals: (1) keep the country together and under CCP hegemony – an enterprise most threatened by its adversaries stirring up ethnic nationalism (India – Tibetans, Turkey – Uyghurs) or buying the loyalties of the seaboard commercial elites (Japan, USA), (2) returning Taiwan into the fold and (3) acquiring hegemony over the South China Sea and ensuring the security of the sea routes supplying it with natural resources. The major obstacles to the latter two are the “dangerous democracies” of Japan and India, with the US hovering in the background. In contrast, the northern border is considered secure, and more generally, Russia and Central Asia are seen as sources of natural resource supplies that are more secure than the oceanic routes.
2. But let’s ignore all that. It’s true that in a purely conventional war, it is now very likely that Russia will not be able to defend its Far East possessions thanks to China’s (mostly complete) qualitative equalization, (very substantial) quantitative superiority, and (huge) positional advantage. Short of the US and Japan interfering – which is unlikely, if not impossible if Russia were to make big concessions (e.g. on Kuriles ownership, rights to the Siberian resource base) – defeat and occupation are assured. BUT…
This ignores the all-important nuclear dimension. In the wake of post-Soviet demilitarization, it has become clear that any war with either NATO or China would likely end up going nuclear. The official military doctrine allows for the use of nuclear weapons against other nuclear powers in defense against conventional attack; post-Soviet military exercises explicitly model usage of tactical nukes to blunt enemy spearheads as Russian military formations beat a scorched-earth retreat. Though the quantity of Russia’s tactical nukes is now substantially smaller than their 16,000 peak, there are still probably thousands of them remaining (unlike strategic platforms these are not subject to inspection and verification procedures), and it’s difficult to see how a Chinese invasion could effectively counter them.
(But why would the Russians use nukes on their own territory, one might ask? The Russian Far East is very lightly populated, and in any case air bursts – which is presumably what they’ll be using against the enemy divisions – produce little radioactive fallout).
3. Aleksandr Khramchikhin goes on to argue that:
… Unfortunately, nuclear weapons don’t guarantee salvation either, since China also has them. Yes, at the time we have superiority in strategic forces, but it’s rapidly diminishing. Furthermore we don’t have medium range missiles, but China has them, which almost makes null their inferiority in ICBM’s… What concerns a strategic nuclear exchange, then the Chinese potential is more than enough to destroy the main cities of European Russia, which they don’t need anyway (it has a lot of people and few resources). There’s a strong argument to be made that, understanding this, the Kremlin will not use nuclear weapons. Therefore nuclear deterrenece with respect to China is a complete myth.
This is wrong on most points:
(A) As far as is known, China maintains a position of limited deterrence, its nuclear forces being constantly modernized but remaining small in comparison with those of the US and Russia (this may or may not change in the future). The big post-Soviet decline in Russia’s arsenal has largely run itself out and on recent trends is unlikely to resume. This shouldn’t be surprising, since Russia no doubt realizes that it is precisely its nuclear forces that do most to guarantee its current day security.
(B) Apart from the fact that China’s medium-range rocket forces still can’t reach deep into European Russia, even accounting for them it is still very much inferior to Russia: “In July 2010 the Russian strategic forces were estimated to have 605 strategic delivery platforms, which can carry up to 2667 nuclear warheads.” As of 2010, China is estimated to have (non-MIRVed) 90 intercontinental ballistic missiles (i.e. can reach European Russian cities) and a few hundreds of medium and short range ballistic missiles. The latter will comprehensively devastate the populated regions of the Russian Far East, and to a lesser extent east of the Urals, but these aren’t core Russian territories and have relatively small concentrations of population and industry. In any case, if anything these are likely to be used not against Siberian cities, but against Russian military and strategic objects.
(C) One must also include ballistic missile defense, civil defense and geography into the equation. Though China has more S-300 type missile systems and has recently demonstrated an ability to shoot down ballistic missiles in controlled tests, there is little doubt that Russia is still ahead in this sphere. The S-400 now replacing the S-300 has intrinsic anti-ICBM capabilities, and the A-135 system around Moscow – with its nuclear-tipped interceptor missiles – makes it better than even odds that the capital would survive intact.
Both China and Russia have substantial civil defense measures. The USSR in 1986 had shelter space for around 11.2% of its urban population, according to CIA estimates. As of 2001, it was estimated to be 50% in Moscow, and construction of bunkers continues. China too has a large-scale civil defense plan of building bunkers in its larger cities.
At first glance, it would appear that geography-wise, China has an advantage in its huge population, large size, and greater rural population as a percentage of the whole. In contrast, Russia’s population is largely urban, and seemingly more vulnerable. This however is misleading. Most of China’s population, fertile land and industry is concentrated on its eastern seaboard and along its great river valleys. Agricultural productivity will plummet in the years following a large-scale exchange, resulting in famine, and as so often in Chinese history, perhaps anarchy and the end of political dynasties – in this case the CCP. Even if the Russian Far East is “won” in time, it is unlikely that it could alleviate the suddenly critical population pressures, for building up the infrastructure for mass human accommodation in that cold, barren and mountainous will take decades. Since Russian agriculture happens over a greater area, is less intensive / reliant on machinery and fertilizer inputs, and generates a substantial export surplus in most year, it isn’t as likely as China to dip into all out famine.
(D) As things stand, the real result of a nuclear war between Russia and China would be (1) a crippled Russia with 20-30mn fewer people, with many tens of millions more at the edge of subsistence, shorn of its Far East territories, but with an intact state still endowed with a nuclear deterrent, and (2) a collapsed and c.90% deindustrialized China rapidly descending into mass famine and anarchy and knocked out of the Great Power game for the foreseeable future. Two tragic, but nonetheless distinguishable, postwar environments, as Herman Kahn would have said.
4. Obviously Chinese strategists comprehend these arguments, and as such cannot have any serious medium-term designs on Russian territory. This is not the case for Taiwan and the South China Sea, where Chinese interests are greater, and don’t fundamentally infringe on US security to the extent that it will contemplate using its far superior nuclear arsenal against China, as that would risk Los Angeles and San Francisco and a dozen other cities on the West Coast getting annihilated. This fulfills the main purpose of China’s long-range “minimal deterrence” strategy.
5. The strategic balance isn’t fixed in stone, and future developments may make the situation more precarious by 2030-50: (1) The development of truly effective ABM systems, (2) growing sustanance pressures in China due to climate change and the depletion of coal reserves, and (3) the opening of the Russian Far East and Siberian interiors to intensive settlement thanks to global warming. But this remains speculation, and the facts are that since both Chinese and Russians are more or less rational actors, the chances of large-scale war between them in the next few decades is very close to zero – no matter what the sensationalists claim.
* Their other major claim is that Russia is already facing a “demographic invasion” and that Siberia is rapidly becoming Chinese. This is completely wrong, as I’ve pointed out in my old post on The Myth of the Yellow Peril.
EDIT: This article has been translated into Russian at Inosmi.Ru (Почему Россия и Китай не будут воевать друг с другом).