Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 7

With the U.S.-led war against terrorism and issues related to Central Asian geopolitics dominating the January 7 meeting of foreign ministers from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), it was perhaps no surprise that Moscow and Beijing chose not to dwell publicly on other issues long central to their bilateral relationship. Yet Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov did meet on the margins of the SCO meeting with both Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, and those talks did produce fresh public proclamations of Russian-Chinese friendship, including a declaration from Ivanov that bilateral ties had taken a qualitative leap forward.

Yet the seeming lack of attention devoted to bilateral issues, together with the failure to produce any definitive statements or actions in this area, appeared to reflect the degree to which the two countries have drifted apart since Jiang and President Vladimir Putin signed a Russian-Chinese friendship treaty this past summer. That document had been expected to cap a long period during which tensions between Russia and the United States, related particularly to U.S. missile defense plans, had appeared to push Beijing and Moscow ever closer together. But diplomatic momentum in this direction slowed as Putin began to seek an accommodation with the United States on the missile defense issue, and came to a halt when the Kremlin leapt this past fall to join the U.S.-led antiterror campaign. Moscow has maintained friendly and cooperative relations with China since that time, but has clearly devoted greater attention to rebuilding relations with the United States and Europe.

Not surprisingly, Ivanov and Chinese leaders did use their meeting in Shanghai to reiterate their misgivings over U.S. plans to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and to proceed with the development of a ballistic missile defense system. But, as reported by the Strana.ru website at least, the two sides seemed to have stopped short even of what in the past has been their typical strategy: namely, to announce that they intended to consult and work jointly in order to craft their responses to U.S. missile defense planning. Instead, Strana.ru reported that U.S. missile defense moves had already compelled both Beijing and Moscow “to seek concrete answers to the planned U.S. actions.” China, the report said, would now have to address the problem of improving its small nuclear retaliatory force, and Russia would have to reexamine its position on questions related to strategic arms reductions. That particular formulation may suggest a fresh nuance in Russian thinking on strategic issues–with no elaboration provided it is difficult to say–but the report more generally appeared to suggest that Moscow and Beijing will each go their own way in responding to American actions.

News reports were equally vague on the issue of high-level Russian-Chinese contacts in the new year. The two sides did reportedly agree on a schedule of meetings, and reported that it will likely be “very intensive.” But they provided no details and announced no specific meetings (Strana.ru, Interfax, January 7).