Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 200

The sense that relations between China and Russia have fallen into an uncertain state in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States was reinforced over the weekend during a surprisingly low-profile visit to Moscow by Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao. The 59-year-old Hu has been positioned by the Chinese leadership to succeed Jiang Zemin, the current Chinese president and Communist Party leader. Jiang is expected to step down from his party post next year and from the presidency in 2003, and it appears that Hu is being groomed to succeed Jiang in both posts. Given the nature of Chinese politics, however, it is uncertain either that Jiang will ultimately agree to give up power entirely or that Hu’s rise to leadership will not be challenged by rivals within the political leadership. Those uncertainties notwithstanding, it is clear that Beijing is using Hu’s visit to Moscow–as well as to the four Western European capitals that are scheduled to follow on his maiden foreign tour–to showcase the country’s possible future leader for the first time on the international stage. Indeed, some Western news sources have speculated that the Chinese leadership may intend Hu’s current overseas tour primarily as a public relations and photo opportunity, one aimed in part at raising Hu’s profile in foreign capitals and, perhaps more important, at demonstrating to Chinese elites Hu’s ability to hold his own in meetings with top Russian and European government officials.

But Hu’s visit to Moscow, which was actually scheduled prior to the September 11 events, comes at an awkward time for Beijing. Relations between Russia and China had been steadily warming over the past several years, a process that culminated with the signing this past summer of a Russian-Chinese friendship treaty. Even at that time, however, suddenly improving ties between Moscow and Washington appeared to lower the trajectory of expectations in Beijing and Moscow. The sudden, sharp improvement in relations between Russia and the United States since September 11 has only intensified that process, casting doubt on the extent to which Moscow and Beijing will be able or willing to give substance to the “strategic partnership” that has been the proclaimed basis of their relationship in recent years. The dilemma for Beijing has presumably become increasingly acute since the Shanghai summit earlier this month, when a meeting between Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush appeared to boost the efforts of Russia and the United States to reach an agreement on missile defense. China, which had earlier followed Russia’s lead in opposing U.S. missile defense plans, could now find itself isolated on the issue–particularly if next month’s Russian-U.S. summit produces a breakthrough on a missile defense agreement.

A parallel meeting in Shanghai between Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin did little to change the perception that Russian-Chinese ties have, at least for the time being, entered a period of some uncertainty. Putin and Jiang did join forces both to call for a quick end to the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and to reaffirm their commitment to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. They also lent joint support to their governments’ respective efforts–now being presented under the guise of antiterrorism–to suppress home-grown insurgencies, with a statement that proclaimed “Chechen and separatist East Turkestan (Xinjiang) terrorist forces are part of global terrorism and should be smashed.” But a statement by a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman that “Putin sticks to his stand of supporting the ABM treaty and believes it’s very necessary and conducive to world peace and stability” sounded a bit hollow amid the reports a day later in Shanghai of a potential missile defense breakthrough in talks between Putin and Bush.

Hu Jintao’s visit to Moscow this past weekend did little to clarify either Moscow’s current position on missile defense negotiations or how far it hopes to pursue its partnership with China. Hu met for ninety minutes on October 27 with Putin and then held talks later in the day with Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and with Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov. Statements released to the press after the talks were of a general character, however, and did little to illuminate whether the Chinese leader had engaged in any substantive talks with his Russian counterparts on what were said to be two main agenda items: missile defense and the situation in Afghanistan. There were statements from the Russian side saying that the Putin and Hu had “discussed ways to maintain and strengthen strategic stability, of which the ABM Treaty is the cornerstone.” And Putin aide Sergei Prikhodko told reporters that the two men had also talked about international antiterrorism, Afghanistan and the development of a “post-Taliban period.” There were also some hints from Russian sources that Hu’s talks with Kasyanov and Klebanov had focused in part on military-technical cooperation, but as was the case with the missile defense and Afghanistan, it was unclear whether the arms talks had moved statements of general interest. Beyond a statement proclaiming Jiang Zemin’s satisfaction with the Russian-Chinese talks which took place in Shanghai, Hu appeared to say little in Moscow for attribution by the press.

But the nondescript nature of the reports of Hu’s visit probably should not be seen as a sign that the visit was entirely without significance. With respect to Russian-Chinese relations more generally, it suggested that Moscow and Beijing will continue to work together on a number of issues of regional and international importance, regardless of whether relations between Moscow and Washington continue to improve. And the two regional giants could still pull closer together in the event Russian-U.S. missile defense talks conclude unsuccessfully or if the U.S. antiterror campaign ultimately develops in ways that displease Moscow and Beijing. More specifically, for the relatively young Putin and for Russia’s political elite the Hu visit was probably important because it provided at least a glimpse of what the next line of Chinese leaders may look like once a looming generational change finally takes place atop the Chinese political leadership (AP, October 20; Washington Post, October 21; DPA, October 22; AP, Reuters, October 27; VOA, BBC, Financial Times, October 28; Itar-Tass, October 27; Interfax, October 29).