Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 231

A major component of last week’s Beijing talks between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin were discussions related more broadly to national sovereignty and territorial integrity issues. The resulting joint statement warned against “the replacing of international law with power politics and even resorting to force, and the jeopardizing of the sovereignty of independent states using the concepts of ‘human rights are superior to sovereignty’ and ‘humanitarian intervention.'” The statement reflected Moscow’s and Beijing’s continuing rejection of the principle of “humanitarian intervention” which underlay NATO’s air campaign earlier this year against Yugoslavia. Russian and Chinese authorities profess to fear that the same principle could be used by the international community to justify military intervention in Russia–over its war in Chechnya, for example–or in China–over possible future efforts by government authorities to rein in restive minorities. Recent events have already demonstrated how Moscow’s rejection of human rights considerations have turned the West against Russia’s crackdown in the Caucasus. More generally, the Russian government’s refusal by and large to accept even the principle of humanitarian intervention is complicating its relations not only with the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose recently approved European Security charter enshrines the principle, but also with the leadership of the UN, where Secretary General Kofi Annan has argued forcefully in favor of humanitarian intervention.

The Beijing statement also reaffirmed Moscow’s and Beijing’s commitment to a “multipolar” system of international relations–in which the dominance of the United States and NATO is diminished while power is spread instead among a series of regional power centers, Moscow and Beijing among them. Some have suggested that what Moscow really wants in emphasizing “multipolarity” is a return to a traditional sphere-of-influence system–in which Russia would dominate the territory of the former Soviet Union. Russia’s current behavior in the Caucasus–and its more general treatment of the newly independent states–tends to support such an interpretation of Moscow’s aims. Indeed, the same is true of Boris Yeltsin’s outburst on December 9, when he warned Washington that it “alone cannot dictate how the world should live, work and play” because “it is we [presumably Russia and China] who will dictate.”

The joint December 10 statement also reiterated Moscow’s and Beijing’s joint opposition to U.S. missile defense plans and its efforts to amend the 1972 ABM treaty. It likewise criticized joint U.S.-Japanese research on creating a theater missile defense system in Asia. Russia and China have argued that U.S. missile defense plans and Washington’s efforts to amend the ABM treaty would undermine strategic stability around the world and launch a new arms race. The theater defense project, they say, would have much the same impact on Asia (AP, Kyodo, Russian agencies, December 10).

Several Russian newspaper commentaries hailed the Yeltsin visit to China as an important rebuff to the West and a thinly veiled threat to the West that it should not try to push Russia around. These same accounts tended to present Yeltsin’s December 9 saber-rattling not as a cheap political stunt but as a carefully thought-out warning. According to one account, Yeltsin’s remarks were part of a chain of events orchestrated by the Kremlin–which included the signing of the Union treaty with Belarus–aimed at convincing the West that it could soon be facing something like a “Minsk-Moscow-Beijing axis.” Another more imaginative account said that Yeltsin conveyed a “more important message” “to those smart enough to grasp it.” The gist of this was that “the more the West pressures Russia, the more it pushes Russia into the hands of its domestic militarists” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, Vremya MN, December 10).

A day before Yeltsin’s arrival in the Chinese capital the Russian ambassador to China suggested that the upcoming summit would both mark a “milestone” and signify a “qualitative breakthrough” in Russian-Chinese bilateral relations (Itar-Tass, December 8). The event certainly fell short of those goals. What it did was suggest that Russian-Chinese cooperation could continue to be a nettlesome diplomatic problem for the West–particularly with regard to the functioning of the UN Security Council. Continued Russian arms sales to China could also pose a longer term threat for the West. But the summit appeared also to underscore the fact that the Russian-Chinese relationship remains, for the time being at least, more declaratory than real, and that the West faces no immediate threat of a “Russian-Chinese axis,” with or without the participation of Belarus.