In Beijing, the signs of a new strategic partnership
3 March 2000
In China on 2 March, the state-run People's Daily ran several articles touting the benefits of strategic partnership between Russia and China. The publication appears to endorse little noticed negotiations between Moscow and Beijing, which are exchanging top- ranking officials in preparation for a summit. Details have been closely guarded, but the talks involve oil and weapons. The timing of the state press coverage suggests that there has now been a breakthrough in the talks. And it appears that a more vigorous strategic partnership between Russia and China - one that will worry the West - is beginning to take shape.
Until now, China's official press has remained relatively quiet about a flurry of diplomatic activity between Beijing and Moscow, leading up to a long-delayed summit between the two governments this summer. But on March 2, the state-run People's Daily ran a series of articles touting the benefits of strategic partnership between Russia and China. The articles also called for a multi- polar world, instead of one in which the United States is the dominant power - calling for the "establishment of a just and reasonable new world order." The timing does not appear to be coincidental.
Right now, one high-level meeting between Russian and Chinese officials is concluding in Moscow and another is beginning in Beijing. They are part of a string of talks - eight exchanges in recent weeks - in preparation for a summit between Chinese and Russian leaders. The People's Daily articles appear to signal a possible breakthrough, both in the talks and the leadership strategies of both nations. It now seems that a more vigorous strategic partnership is forming between Russia and China. Alone each is too weak to challenge American power, but together the two nations can coordinate strategy and ultimately create simultaneous problems for the West on disparate parts of the globe.
China and Russia have claimed to be strategic partners since 1992. But in reality, the two nations have made little real progress other than to ineffectively challenge US policy in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans. The two governments have most recently been preparing for a summit between acting President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Jiang Zemin of China. The summit has been discussed, reported and tentatively scheduled. The repeated postponement suggests that the summit is serious, a matter of considerable advance negotiation, and not merely a photo opportunity.
Most of the hesitation has come from Beijing, as Chinese officials petitioned for international recognition and strength based on economic growth, attempting to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO). With its economy in much worse condition, Russia appeared less an asset to Beijing than a liability. Throughout the talks, Beijing appears to have kept Moscow at a distance both to keep the door open to the United States and to remain dominant in negotiations with the Russians.
Quite suddenly, China has turned public attention toward its relationship with Russia. Aside from mentioning future bilateral visits, the articles emphasised the idea of fostering "global strategic stability and regional security" through Chinese and Russian cooperation. Clearly looking back at US military action in both the Persian Gulf and Kosovo in the last 14 months, the articles also call for respect for territorial integrity of sovereign states and opposition to "humanitarian intervention." China and Russia are clearly considering this recent history as they regard Taiwan and Chechnya.
This endorsement of the relationship appears timed to coincide with intense, high-level diplomatic activity and suggests that some sort of breakthrough has been achieved in the talks. In recent weeks, Beijing and Moscow have had no fewer than eight exchanges of officials to prepare for the summit, now tentatively set for June. While the People's Daily was publishing its articles, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan was concluding his visit to Moscow and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov arrived in Beijing on 1 March.
In addition, the two nations are studying a deal that furthers their common goals by advancing their individual interests. A deal may involve both Russian oil and advanced weapons systems bound for China. A main topic of Klebanov's visit to Beijing is Russian arms sales and energy for China. On the table is a renewed proposal for an oil pipeline from the Russian Far East through Mongolia and into China, nuclear fuel for a Chinese reactor and continued sales and cooperation on advanced weapons systems. In turn, Russia would receive some hard currency and the benefits of increased economic activity within its energy and arms industries.
This evolving relationship suggests a series of important developments. In China, it appears that the centre of gravity within leadership circles is shifting. Until now, China held Russia at arm's length and elements for economic reform had the ear of Jiang. But Jiang's ambitions and the deteriorating domestic situation have fostered a resurgence of the old guard - those who want a strong China without needing to appeal to the United States or the western world. On a global scale, both Russia and China are increasingly squeezed by international pressure in areas they consider to be within their respective spheres of influence - and this is driving them closer together.
The strategic partnership now taking shape is not a formal military alliance with either hostile intent or desire for global conquest. Rather, it is based on a simple, common fact. Individually, China and Russia are weak - economically, politically, and militarily - in comparison to the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia.
Together, however, they can present a formidable counter to the United States and its allies. Today, China is unable to project military power far beyond coastal waters - but increased energy and military supplies will help mitigate this over the coming decade. This plays into China's increasingly short timetable for the return of Taiwan repatriation; in the space of only years China will be able not only to threaten the island but US forces if they intervene. In return, by boosting the Russian defence industry, Russia gains much-needed cash and a way to revitalise at least a portion of its domestic economy.
Even in the very short term, China and Russia can - if they choose - present the West with a very difficult proposition: simultaneous crises in Taiwan and on the Russian periphery. In such an extreme situation, the West would be hard-pressed to respond. The US military is now stretched thin by increasing global commitments and static post-Cold War force levels. Over the next decade both Russia and China will only attempt to expand their military capabilities.
In knowledge we trust!