Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 52

Any downgrading by Moscow of its ties to China, or any effort to back out of previously agreed-upon arms agreements, would indeed mark a significant discontinuity in Russian policy from Yeltsin to Putin. The bulk of the evidence, however, still appears right now to point in the opposite direction: namely, that Moscow and Beijing are working to further improve relations and to strengthen cooperation in the defense sphere. Indeed, the two sides have held a flurry of high-level talks since Yeltsin traveled to Beijing in mid-December and then chose unexpectedly to pass presidential power to Putin on December 31. On January 16-18 Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian traveled to Moscow for talks not only with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, but also with Putin. That was followed in late February by Tang’s visit to Moscow. Almost simultaneously, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, whose responsibilities include oversight of Russia’s defense industrial complex, traveled to Beijing for several days of talks with top Chinese officials, including the Chinese president and prime minister (see the Monitor, January 20, March 2).

None of these meetings produced any obvious evidence that Moscow was in the process of rethinking its relations with China, that it was looking to back away from the concept of “strategic partnership,” or that there were new tensions emerging over restrictions on Russian arms sales to China. Indeed, Klebanov has in recent weeks been notably optimistic in predicting a significant rise in Russian arms sale revenues this year, and his bullishness appears to be related at least in part to an expectation that Russian arms sales to China will rise, or at least continue apace. More to the point, perhaps, Klebanov made it clear during his visit to Beijing earlier this month that the two countries expect to sign a “very important document” this year which will further strengthen their “strategic partnership.” That signing, he said, will come during a summit meeting in Beijing between Putin and Jiang expected to take place this summer. He also said that military cooperation between the two countries is “undoubtedly on the rise [and] going very successfully” (Bridge News, Itar-Tass, March 2).

That Beijing is in a similarly buoyant mood was suggested late last week when the Chinese foreign minister appeared to confirm that Putin would indeed visit Beijing this year for a summit meeting at which the two countries would cement their strategic partnership. Although he mentioned no specific date, he apparently did not contradict Klebanov’s claim that the summit will take place this summer (Reuters, March 10).

The notion that Moscow may be trying to distance itself from Beijing appears also to fly in the face of evidence–noted with concern by some Western analysts–that Russian and Chinese defense cooperation may actually be picking up speed. They suggest that relations between the two countries moved beyond simple weapons transactions following NATO’s air war operations against Yugoslavia last spring and may now be evolving into something more complex and far-reaching. Indeed, with regard to military-technical cooperation, analysts say that the two countries overcame a significant hurdle late last year when they reached a compromise over Beijing’s desire to pay for weaponry and technical assistance with goods as opposed to Moscow’s demand for hard currency. Asian officials are said to believe that as many as 2,000 Russian technicians may be working in Chinese research institutes on a host of advanced weaponry projects (Washington Post, February 10).

Russia’s willingness to deal advanced weaponry to China is also abetted by what some believe is Moscow’s determination to counter alleged U.S. and NATO global domination by finding new strategic partners in Asia. At least one report has even argued that Russia and China could turn a 1996 cooperation agreement on the peaceful uses of space into a “military political agreement with all its ensuing consequences” should the United States deploy a national missile defense system (The Russian Journal, January 24-30).

For all that, it is worth noting that hints of opposition to the Kremlin’s policy of selling China modern Russian weaponry have surfaced from time to time in Russia over the past several years. It is not clear that those concerns about Beijing’s ultimate aims–and its potential as a future military threat to Russia–have been entirely quieted, even after the two countries’ common response to the Kosovo conflict.

Equally important is the fact that Putin’s expected election later this month is likely to usher new people–and possibly new policy orientations–into key decisionmaking posts. The acting president is already making noises about improving relations with NATO and the West. While that shift, if genuine, will clearly not come without a price for Western leaders, it may also signal a reordering of Russian foreign policy priorities elsewhere. Whether Russian-Chinese relations will be adversely affected will probably not be clear for some time yet. The Russian-Chinese summit will likely provide some indication. Earlier this year Russian officials suggested that Putin would put a trip to China at or near the top of his post-election foreign travel itinerary. A failure to finalize those plans soon after the election might suggest the emergence of some new tensions in Russian-Chinese relations. An early and successful summit, on the other hand, would suggest considerable continuity with the Yeltsin era in this area of Russian foreign policy.