Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 14

Defense Minister Chi Haotian’s meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergeev followed similarly predictable lines. The two men signed a memorandum aimed at boosting military–and military-technical–ties, but there was little information as to precisely what the agreement entailed. The two also restated Russian and Chinese opposition to U.S. calls to revise the ABM treaty and Washington’s plans to develop a national missile defense system. Sergeev warned that a U.S. departure from the ABM accord would undermine international stability. Chi pointed with alarm to the possibility that Taiwan might be included in a U.S.-Japanese theater missile defense system now under consideration. He warned that any such development would be viewed in Beijing as “serious interference in China’s internal affairs” and vowed that it would be “repulsed by the Chinese people.” He did not elaborate in public (Reuters, AP, Russian agencies, Xinhua, January 17).

But, despite the joint denunciations of the United States and the loud rhetoric of cooperation, there was nothing to indicate that Chi’s visit had brought Russia and China any closer to concrete, joint military actions aimed at countering U.S.–or U.S. and Japanese–missile defense plans. Over the past year or more there have been suggestions that Moscow is pushing for closer cooperation with China in this area. Indeed, there have been indications of a Russian effort to promote some sort of joint Russian-Chinese-Indian “axis” as a diplomatic and military counterweight to the United States and NATO. But such plans have apparently been rebuffed by the Chinese leadership, which remains mindful of the need to maintain Beijing’s extensive economic dealings with the West. That Chi’s talks in Moscow followed roughly the same lines was suggested by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who told reporters following his own talks with Chi that issues related to military-diplomatic cooperation had been discussed “only in general.” Klebanov also revealed that there had been “no in-depth discussion” of U.S. plans to deploy a national antimissile defense system.

Even on the issue of Russian-Chinese military-technical cooperation–that is, Russia’s extensive arms dealings with China–Klebanov suggested that little new ground had been broken during Chi’s visit. “We discussed this issue in sufficient detail,” he was quoted as saying, “and now nothing new is being added to the agreed structure of deliveries.” Klebanov did suggest, however, that the two sides had discussed boosting their cooperation in space, and said that they had also agreed to step up joint efforts in the fields of civil aircraft-building and fuel and energy machine-building. He provided few details, but said that agreements in these areas could be signed within the next two months (Itar-Tass, Xinhua, January 18).

That little of a concrete nature appeared to come out of Chi’s visit appeared to be the result of several factors. One is simply the broader reality that Beijing and Moscow have had difficulty giving substance to their declared strategic partnership with more tangible acts of cooperation. Russian arms sales to China are substantial and the two countries have increasingly coordinated their positions on a host of international issues at the UN, but commercial relations remain undeveloped and trade levels anemic. More to the point, perhaps, is the fact that China and Russia remain as much geopolitical rivals as partners in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Chi visit may have been uneventful also both because Russia is in a bit of a holding pattern while it awaits the expected anointing of Putin in March, and because key issues raised during Chi’s visit may also have been the subject of talks during then President Boris Yeltsin’s trip to Beijing in early December. Indeed, the Yeltsin visit, it may be recalled, provided at least several months’ worth of symbolic significance for Russian-Chinese relations. The Russian president made the long journey to Beijing despite his poor health, and in the process pointedly snubbed German and French leaders. He had been scheduled to meet with them also in December, but clearly preferred to be feted in Beijing than to face more criticism of Russia’s Chechnya crackdown in Europe. Yeltsin also used the China trip to engage in a bumptious bit of saber-rattling aimed at the United States (see the Monitor, December 10, 14, 1999).

Assuming that he does in fact win election, Putin seems likely to continue Yeltsin’s policy of seeking improved relations with China. But it is unlikely that he will bring quite the sense of high adventure–whether he is traveling to Beijing or another foreign capital–that Yeltsin brought any time he ventured outside Russia.