Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 137

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Jiang Zemin this week signed a much-anticipated Russian-Chinese friendship treaty aimed at further solidifying the “strategic partnership” the two countries established several years ago. While clearly a significant document, the new pact appears nonetheless to highlight continuing limitations in Russian-Chinese relations as much as it does Beijing’s and Moscow’s hopes of broadening and strengthening bilateral cooperation. That is, the friendship treaty signed in Moscow on July 16 appears to suffer the same weakness as the earlier strategic partnership agreement: It is stronger on symbolism than on establishing areas of practical cooperation. For all of that, the pact does embody joint Russian-Chinese opposition to U.S. missile defense plans and, more broadly, their common efforts to limit American global dominance. It is also aimed at smoothing some enduring rough spots in Russian-Chinese bilateral relations–including lingering border problems–and at boosting still-anemic levels of trade between the two countries. In that last regard, the greatest success of the summit may have been an agreement that could ultimately bring up to 219 million barrels exports of Russian oil to China over the next decade.

This week’s summit talks in Moscow were the highlight of Jiang’s four-day visit to Russia and marked the eighth time that the Chinese leader has met with Putin. Impetus for the friendship treaty–officially called the Treaty on Good Neighborly Friendship and Cooperation–reportedly came from the Chinese side, and reflects a host of recent international security developments. The most important of these, of course, are U.S. plans to deploy a ballistic missile defense system and, since the beginning of this year, the Bush administration’s harsher line toward Beijing. These developments have driven Russia and China to make common cause, a result that even the Bush administration’s recent courtship of Moscow has done little to reverse. Indeed, Washington’s increasing aggressiveness on the international stage appears to have hardened Moscow’s determination to rally international opposition to Bush administration security policies and even, to some degree, to position itself as a defender of Chinese interests against Washington’s efforts to isolate Beijing. In that context it is probably no coincidence that Putin’s meeting with Jiang this week comes just before the Russian president heads off to hold talks with U.S. President George W. Bush at the summit of the Group of Seven countries and Russia in Genoa. Putin also met with Jiang just prior to his first summit talks with Bush on June 16 in Slovenia.

The summit this week in Moscow, meanwhile, produced the expected proclamations of Russian-Chinese friendship and atmospherics appropriate to an event both sides presented as the harbinger of a new and better stage in Russian-Chinese relations. The friendship treaty, a primarily declarative document that replaces a 1950 Soviet-Chinese version and that covers a period of twenty-five years, embodied this same spirit as well. Among other things, the eleven-page document extols the benefits that strengthened Russian-Chinese friendship and cooperation will bring to “the maintenance of peace, security and stability in Asia and the entire world.” More substantively, the treaty speaks of the two countries’ joint commitment to the creation of a “new international order”–shorthand for the multipolar world model that Moscow and others have offered up as an alternative to what they say is Washington’s current global dominance–and to opposing U.S. missile defense plans. Chinese-Russian opposition to U.S. missile defense was also highlighted in a joint statement. The treaty, meanwhile, contains no mutual defense commitments. In one of its more significant sections, however, the two countries do pledge to coordinate their response in the event that either is subjected to pressure or aggression from another country. The pact also contains a strong restatement of Russian support for Beijing’s sovereignty over Taiwan–a significant item, given Washington’s current posture on the matter–and a more vague but still meaningful expression of China’s support for Russia’s territorial integrity–a reference, presumably, directed primarily in support of Moscow’s war in Chechnya.

The text of the friendship treaty nevertheless underscores the fact that the document in no sense constitutes a Russian-Chinese military alliance, and its assurances that the pact is not “directed against third countries” makes clear that, in formal terms at least, Russian-Chinese cooperation is not to be construed as anti-American (Washington Post, New York Times, The Guardian, July 17; international agencies, July 16).

Indeed, initial Russian press coverage of the treaty signing took a noticeably prosaic tone, highlighting not only its essentially declaratory character but also indicating some enduring concerns in Moscow about the wisdom of drawing too close to Beijing. Those concerns reflected ongoing differences between Russia and China over such issues as border demarcation and Chinese emigration into the Russian Far East, as well as some trepidation over Moscow’s policy of selling advanced weaponry to Asia’s most rapidly rising regional power and a country that has been and remains a rival of Russia. Several Russian articles also highlighted a possible motivation for Jiang’s visit and his push for the friendship treaty that reflects concern about the future of relations between Moscow and Beijing, the new treaty notwithstanding. They speculated that Jiang, who both studied in Russia in the 1950s and speaks fluent Russia, is himself aware that a generational change is fast approaching for the Chinese leadership and that the younger generation of leaders is likely to be less interested in and knowledgeable about Russia. The friendship treaty, these Russian sources suggest, is his effort to put relations between the two countries on a sound, long-term footing so as to guard against future neglect of Moscow by emerging Chinese leaders (Izvestia, Vremya MN, July 17; Rossiiskaya Gazeta, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 14).

The friendship treaty signed this week also aims (yet again) to boost Russian-Chinese bilateral trade. Beijing’s and Moscow’s failure over the past half-decade or so to interject any real life into their trade relations is perhaps the most obvious indicator of their parallel failure to add substance to earlier declarations of friendship. Overall trade between the two countries amounted to just US$8 billion last year, well short of the US$20 billion target articulated by the Russian and Chinese leaderships several years ago and all but insignificant compared to a Chinese-U.S. annual trade total of US$115 billion. But the two countries did ink a US$30 million agreement yesterday that clears the way for a feasibility study on the construction of a 1,700 kilometer oil pipeline from the Angarsk, in Russia’s Irkutsk region, to Daling, in China. If built, the pipeline is projected to be able to carry as many as 30 million tons of oil–or 219 million barrels–per year from Russia to China. But while the feasibility study agreement was welcomed by Russian observers yesterday, and could become the first step in opening up a number of energy supply deals to China, experts warn that the plan must still overcome a number of serious hurdles if it is ever to become a reality (Moscow Times, July 18; DPA, AP, July 17; Reuters, July 16).