Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 44

Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan wound up two days of talks in Moscow yesterday during which he met with both Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin. As with so many high-level meetings between the two countries in recent years, this week’s talks were long on rhetoric but short on substance. Comments to the press by both sides contained what have now become a standard series of pledges and buzz words. The two countries reiterated, for example, their joint commitment to the formation of a “multipolar” world order–that is, one in which Washington’s alleged efforts to dominate the world are counterbalanced by the efforts of various regional powers. They also restated what they say is their support for the UN and a strengthening of its global authority.

In addition, Russian and Chinese officials reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening the Russian-Chinese “strategic partnership” and, as was no surprise, asserted yet again that the two countries see eye-to-eye on virtually all international problems. During his talks with Tang yesterday, Putin said that relations between the two countries are of both “a global nature, because they allow us to solve problems of stability in the world, and a regional one.” He underscored the high priority which Russia attaches to its relations with Beijing.

Several other statements by the Russian and Chinese leaders reflected more specific and substantial commitments. The two countries reportedly continued arrangements for a planned visit to Beijing by Putin shortly after his expected election on March 26. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin had himself cold-shouldered the West last December by opting, despite a series of ailments, to travel to China for a summit meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Shortly after Putin’s assumption of the presidency the Kremlin indicated that the new Russian president would give a similar pride of place to Russian-Chinese ties by making a visit to China one of his first post-election foreign policy priorities. That visit is expected to take place this spring.

The two countries also reaffirmed their mutual support for each other’s “territorial integrity.” That is, China offered full backing for Russia in its war in Chechnya, while Moscow reiterated its adherence to a “one-China” policy which backs Beijing’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan. In the same vein, the two countries joined to warn the United States against any sort of military intervention on behalf of Taiwan in the event that Beijing does invade the island nation. Indeed, Tang used his visit to Moscow to restate the warning that Beijing might use force to settle its dispute over reunification with Taiwan. That, in fact, appeared to be the one issue on which there may have been some dissonance during this week’s talks. Despite their own bloody and brutal war in the Caucasus, Russian officials appeared to hold back from explicitly endorsing any possible Chinese military move against Taiwan. In remarks on February 29 Ivanov intimated that Beijing should settle its differences with Taiwan peacefully.

On a related matter, the two sides also made clear yet again their distaste for the notion of “humanitarian intervention.” That is the principle–one embraced most forcefully by Washington but backed by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan–that the international community has the right to intervene militarily in cases where governments badly abuse portions of their own population. Moscow has denounced the principle insofar as it was used to justify NATO’s military operations against Yugoslavia in 1999, and had earlier expressed anxieties that the same principle might be used by the West as a reason to intervene in Russia’s war against Chechnya. Russian and Chinese officials were quoted yesterday as saying that they shared the opinion that any attempt or practice to destroy the territorial integrity of a sovereign state is unacceptable and that the argument about alleged “humanitarian intervention” is very dangerous (AP, February 28-29; Reuters, February 29; Russian agencies, February 28-March 1; Xinhua, February 29-March 1).

The two countries also signed two minor intergovernmental agreements–on mutual trips by citizens and visa-free group trips–and discussed ways to boost bilateral trade and economic cooperation. Trade between Russia and China remains anemic, despite regular pledges by both sides to increase it. Total trade volume last year rose to nearly US$6 billion, up by approximately seven percent over 1998. But that still left Russia ranking only ninth on the list of China’s top trading partners, well behind the US$66 billion in trade racked up between China and Japan, and the US$62 billion between China and the United States (Itar-Tass, January 7; Kommersant daily, February 15). In the mid-1990s Russia and China pledged to raise their own bilateral trade levels to US$20 billion by the year 2000, but they have clearly failed to fulfill the plan.

Russian arms sales to China have been anything but anemic, however, and that subject is expected to play a major role in talks between Russian and Chinese officials scheduled to start in Beijing today. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, whose responsibilities include oversight of Russia’s arms industries, arrived in China yesterday at the head of a high-level Russian delegation that includes Trade Minister Mikhail Fradkov, Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov and Russian Space Agency Director Yuri Koptev. Klebanov is expected to meet not only with Chinese military leaders, but also with Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji (Agence France Presse, February 29; Itar-Tass, March 2).