Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 140

Yesterday’s summit accomplishments notwithstanding, various commentators have continued to insist that the Russian-Chinese “strategic partnership” remains limited at best, or, in the words of a BBC report, a “shallow alliance” (BBC, July 18). This is in part because it is centered far more on negatives than on areas of positive cooperation. Thus, the two countries together oppose U.S. missile defense plans and alleged efforts by the United States to achieve global dominance. They likewise have denounced NATO’s actions in the Balkans and, more generally, what they claim are related Western assaults on the notion of national sovereignty (in favor of “humanitarian intervention”). On another related issue, and for obvious reasons, Moscow and Beijing have also jointly opposed the emphasis which Western governments have put on the issue of human rights.

Their common positions on these issues have led to practical acts of cooperation between Moscow and Beijing at the United Nations and in other international forums. But other concrete, joint actions and policies that might give substance to their proclaimed strategic partnership have been few and far between. As some reports noted yesterday, even yesterday’s joint statement denouncing U.S. missile defense plans contained no concrete provision for Russian-Chinese military cooperation to counter the perceived U.S. threat (BBC, July 18), though that could certainly come later if U.S. NMD planning moves forward. And indeed, yesterday’s summit seemed to sweep under the table differences in this area between Moscow and Beijing which appear to have emerged in recent months. That pertains most particularly to Putin’s apparent admission that a missile threat from “states of concern” (states formerly known as “rogues”) such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq does exist, and his related proposal that the United States, Europe, NATO and Russia cooperate in the development of a European missile defense system.

Most tellingly, perhaps, Moscow and Beijing have failed spectacularly in their efforts to boost bilateral trade, a goal which would truly begin to bind the two Asian giants and which might afford Moscow some slight economic leverage in China. As it is, however, Putin’s talk of increased trade sounds as empty as was that of his predecessor, who pledged along with Chinese leaders to raise annual bilateral trade between the two countries to US$20 billion by the year 2000. Instead, trade fell from US$10 billion in 1994 to less than US$6 billion last year, with no immediate signs of significant improvement (BBC, July 18). To provide some perspective, Russian sources report that bilateral trade between China and Japan in 1999 amounted to more than US$66 billion, while U.S.-Chinese trade for the same year totaled nearly US$62 billion (Itar-Tass, January 21).

What all of this means is that, in practical terms, Russian-Chinese cooperation will continue to be dominated by Russian arms sales to Beijing. Little was said publicly about this topic during yesterday’s summit, but the presence of key Russian defense and defense industrial officials in Putin’s delegation strongly suggested that the issue was high on the discussion agenda and that new military-technical cooperation deals may have been inked. Indeed, there were suggestions yesterday that a recent decision by Israel–made under U.S. pressure–to nix a major arms deal with China could ultimately benefit Moscow. Israel had been planning to sell an Advanced Warning and Air Control System (AWACS) to China. Beijing may now turn to Russia to buy the early warning radar technology (AFP, July 18).