Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 174

The second most powerful man in China completed an official, nine-day visit to Russia yesterday which was unusual both for the lack of press attention it received and for its dearth of any obviously significant results. Li Peng, the chairman of the standing committee of China’s National People’s Congress, did meet during his stay with a veritable cornucopia of Russian officialdom. Their number included President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, Federation Council Chairman Yegor Stroev, State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev, former President Boris Yeltsin, former Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, and former Russian Prime Ministers Yevgeny Primakov and Viktor Chernomyrdin. In addition, Li held talks with regional officials during visits to Novosibirsk and Vladivostok, stops which came as the hardline Chinese leaders returned to Beijing from Moscow.

Talks with Putin on September 13 which lasted nearly ninety minutes were probably the highlight of Li’s visit, though reports which followed contained little more than stale restatements of Russian-Chinese friendship. Putin did point toward a planned visit by Chinese President Jiang Zemin to Russia next year during which the two sides will reportedly sign a new friendship and cooperation treaty. There was little elaboration on what that treaty will contain, however, or how it will expand on a “strategic partnership” agreement signed by the two countries under Boris Yeltsin. There were also the obligatory mentions following Li’s talks with Putin of Russian-Chinese cooperation on the world stage, of their joint support for a “multipolar” international order and of their common efforts to battle “extremism.” Not surprisingly, the two men also reiterated their joint opposition to U.S. national missile defense plans and defended the continuing importance of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (Reuters, UPI, September 12; AP, September 13; People’s Daily, September 12-13, 19).

According to Kremlin foreign policy aide Sergei Prikhodko, however, these geostrategic issues were not the top items on Putin’s and Li’s discussion agenda. Nor were issues related to Russian-Chinese military technical cooperation. (China is the world’s biggest buyer of Russian military hardware.) The honor reportedly went instead to economic cooperation. The two men reportedly focused especially on the need to back up their many declarations of Russian-Chinese partnership with concrete actions–particularly in the economic sphere (Russian agencies, September 13). Under Boris Yeltsin Russia and China vowed to increase levels of bilateral trade to US$20 billion per year by the year 2000. That effort has failed miserably. Trade turnover fell from US$10 billion in 1994 to less than US$6 billion last year (BBC, July 18). To provide a point of comparison: Trade between China and the United States totaled more than US$60 billion in 1999.

The run-of-the-mill nature of Li’s visit to Russia was probably to be expected. Vladimir Putin had traveled to Beijing in July for a summit meeting with Jiang, and the two countries had perhaps expended their supply of political fireworks for this year at that event (see the Monitor, July 19). In addition, Putin held talks with Jiang yet again just recently at the Millennium Summit in New York. Officials connected with Li’s visit, moreover, suggested that his seemingly low-key talks with Russian leaders were simply an indication of the degree to which contacts between Russian and Chinese leaders have become regularized in recent years.

That does not seem to explain why Li would spend an unprecedented nine days traveling in Russia, however. One reason may be nostalgia. Li studied in the Soviet Union as a young man, at which time he learned Russian and reportedly developed an affinity for the country. There were also suggestions that Li was in Russia to take the measure yet again of Putin. Despite the strong endorsement of Russian-Chinese partnership that the Russian leader offered during his July visit to Beijing, there were rumors in Moscow earlier this year that the Kremlin under Putin might be considering a move to distance itself a bit from the People’s Republic (Segodnya, March 2).

According to one Western report, Li’s purposes in Russia might be something quite different. UPI on September 18 quoted Russian diplomatic sources as saying that the friendship and cooperation treaty which Putin and Jiang are to sign next year could contain a secret addenda aimed at increasing military cooperation, arms sales and military technology transfers. The report suggested that Li might be in Moscow in part to continue discussions on this secret addenda. The same report also intimates that the visit by the hardline communist Li could also be connected to his own political rivalry with more reform-winded figures in the Chinese government (UPI, September 18).

Finally, the timing of Li’s visit might also be connected to Putin’s scheduled October 2-5 visit to India. The summit talks between Putin and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee are to be the occasion for the long-overdue signing of an Indian-Russian strategic partnership agreement. Moscow has at various times in recent years (though not recently) attempted to construct a sort of Moscow-Beijing-New Delhi axis. Given continuing Chinese-Indian rivalries, however, Chinese leaders may now be seeking assurances from the Kremlin that the enhanced Russian-Indian relationship will not adversely affect Moscow’s ties to Beijing.