It is not an easy task for someone without a background in Chinese culture, including the language and the history, to write about this country. However, this becomes necessary when looking at the Chinese view of the outside world and especially when writing about the emerging Russo-Chinese alliance. There is very little doubt anymore about the reality of such an emerging alliance in the combined West, and rightly so. There is no better evidence of such an alliance than President Putin’s numerous meetings with Chairman Xi Jinping and his recently awarding the Chinese Leader an Order of St. Apostle Andrei Pervozvanny i in Moscow on July 4th prior to President Putin’s meeting with US President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Hamburg.
This understanding, however, comes with a caveat–many Western observers and analysts view China as the senior partner in such an alliance due to her sheer size, both demographically and economically. On the surface this is not a unreasonable assumption, but on the surface only. This belief is mostly a product of recent mythologies and false narratives about both China and Russia. It is also a product of misunderstanding the fundamental processes taking place inside the combined West and of the de facto bankruptcy of methods of socio-economic and derivative analyses. Is China an emerging global superpower? Absolutely! But does China know how to be a fully-fledged one? Not yet. China is learning, but unlike Russia, which has been intimately acquainted for centuries with the peculiarities of superpower status, first as a European and then a global one, she is yet to assert herself as a superpower. Those are not easy lessons to learn and they require more than just a huge economy and population.
Yet many in the West continue to base their conclusions on two false narratives:
1. The gross underestimation of Russia’s economy and capability;
2. The gross overestimation of the same for China.
Objectively, the Chinese economy objectively is already the largest in the world and nobody with even a modicum of common sense denies that. But here is the catch: just the size of an economy does not determine everything. Yes, it is very important, but not all that defines the power of a nation. As Correlli Barnett’s astute and empirically proven definition of power of the nation goes:
power of the nation-state by no means consists only in its armed forces, but also in its economic and technological resources; in the dexterity, foresight and resolution with which its foreign policy is conducted; in the efficiency of its social and political organization. It consists most of all in the nation itself, the people, their skills, energy, ambition, discipline, initiative; their beliefs, myths and illusions. And it consists, further, in the way all these factors are related to one another.
Barnett’s concise and brilliant definition received a further (more quantifiable) expansion when Samuel Huntington recited Jeffery R. Barnett’s 14 points criteria of West’s global dominance by the mid-1990s in his seminal The Clash Of Civilizations. Those criteria are sound and present a good framework within which assessments and comparisons could be made. Most of those 14 points are one way or another related to technological development, moreover–they are related to what can be defined as enclosed technological cycles. The larger the number of such enclosed technological cycles, the better. For many protagonists of monetarist economy and free trade orthodoxy, the whole idea that a nation can make something from scratch may sound as anathema. Yet, only nations that can extract resources, refine them and then manufacture a finished, sometimes extremely complex, product are the ones who are real power players globally. Despite some spectacular progress China has made in the last two decades, China, for all her technological advancements still lags behind in some of the most crucial areas that define national power and this cannot be ignored. It becomes especially important when assessing the roles and weights of the parties in this fledgling Russo-Chinese alliance. Take a look at several points by Huntington-Barnett (in the order they are presented by Huntington):
9. Conducts most advanced technical research and development;
10. Controls leading edge technical education;
11. Dominates access to space;
12. Dominates aerospace industry;
13. Dominates international communications;
14. Dominates the high-tech weapons industry.
This is roughly 43% of those criteria, yet in all those fields China is either a relative newcomer or doesn’t fare that well at all. One of the fields which defines national competitiveness and power is aerospace and high-tech weapons industries. China’s achievements here are not as impressive as many believe and problems with the development of those industries persist to this day.
While much has been made of the first indigenous Chinese airliner, the COMAC C919, with some pundits going as far as declaring this commercial aircraft a competitor to Boeing and Airbus aircraft, this is mistaken. As a competitor, it is not even close. After her maiden flight on 5 May this year, the whole hoopla surrounding one and only flight of this plane fizzled out as was expected. This Chinese aircraft, which had huge problems from the onset, far from being a modern competitor to Western commercial aircraft is a well painted outdated design built entirely with aluminum and it has no indigenous power plant, being powered by Franco-American LEAP engines.
Enter the Russian-produced MS-21. Since her maiden flight on 28 May, this state-of-the-art aircraft hasn’t spent much time on the ground and continues to fly non-stop. It has already completed its first phase of tests and flies for the second phase (in Russian). The MS-21 features a very high percentage of composite materials in its fuselage and has the only “black wing” in its class –a wing made out of carbon fiber with vacuum infusion. Moreover, the new state-of-the-art Russian engine PD-14 is undergoing certification after confirming its high parameters on the tests. Here, the technological gap between China and Russia cannot be starker. Unlike the COMAC C919, the MS-21 is real competitor for Western aircraft. Hence China accepted Russia’s United Aircraft Company (UAC) as a lead in designing the perspective Russo-Chinese wide body aircraft COMAC C929.
The situation is even more unequal between Russia and China in combat aviation, where Russia is simply on a different plane when producing state-of-the-art combat aircraft such as SU-35, whose engine and avionics are a very hot item for the Chinese (and not them only). As with commercial aviation, here China also doesn’t have a world-class jet engine. Recently China took delivery of the first SU-35s in a Russian-version. More are coming, and the same goes for S-400 air defense complexes and other weapon systems. At this stage China is simply unable, unlike Russia, to develop a truly modern competitive combat aircraft. In layman’s lingo, China needs Russia to take her “for a ride” before getting even close to the parameters of modern Russian combat or commercial aircraft, or tanks or, for that matter, nuclear submarines and other weapon systems and sensors. The disparity between Russia and China is there. Yes, PLAN is building its second aircraft carrier and nobody argues with China’s massive shipbuilding capacity, yet, this fact cannot eclipse a serious Chinese deficiency with their own nuclear submarines, which are notoriously noisy and are nowhere near even the third generation of American or Russian nuclear submarines. This is a dramatic weakness which makes Chinese large surface fleet’s even venturing beyond the First Island Chain an extremely risky business when facing the US Navy’s world-class submarine force.
Are the Chinese improving? Yes, they are–they are very smart and capable people with a great history and culture. Their progress is undeniable and commands much genuine respect. Yet, despite the colossal size of her economy China remains dependent, when it comes to a world-class quality, on others and one of the first among them is Russia. It is not a secret to anyone that the Chinese space program is a virtual clone of the Soviet one. The fact that many Chinese combat aircraft look like Russian SU-27s or SU-33s is also not accidental; they are Chinese knock-offs, sometimes with very shoddy quality and capability, of Russian aircraft.
Once one considers these disparities and the actual sizes of the Russian and China economies are compared within the proper context, the whole myth of China as the senior partner in this alliance evaporates completely. In the end, the Chinese themselves admit that: China’s conversion of economic power into military is a relatively slow process [经济实力向军事实力转化的速度相对更慢] resulting in a lag, even as its economic ascendance is more obvious.
But that is what matters in the modern and highly unstable world. Apart from competitiveness, the ability to reorient resources and achieve a breakthrough in the fields that matter is one of the most important qualities a superpower has to possess. What Russia has achieved both economically and militarily since 2008 hasn’t been lost on the Chinese. China must understand, and there are reasons to think that she does, that in this Moscow-Beijing Axis she could neither be senior nor junior but only equal partner if she chooses to be part of this emerging Axis. But she also has a lot to learn if she wants to be able to convert economic power into military power without any lag. So far, China has not performed well here and quantity hasn’t yet converted into quality. It hasn’t convert in the field that matters most–power. Yes, the world probably will continue to go to Walmarts to buy Chinese assembled iPhones, furniture or toys. But until the world sees world-class Chinese commercial aircraft powered by world-class Chinese-designed and built jet engines, until China can demonstrate her ability to build state-of-the-art combat aircraft or any other weapon systems, until China can claim her equal place in space, among many other fields, any talk about China being a “senior” partner in any possible alliance with Russia is just that–talk. Both Russians and Chinese are keenly aware of that.