Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 12

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

Spin-doctoring by Russian leaders–and the Chinese media–can scarcely change or hide the fact that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership remains deeply troubled by Moscow’s tilt toward Washington and NATO. On the eve of President Jiang Zemin’s visit to St. Petersburg this week, President Vladimir Putin made much of the special relationship between Russia and its neighbor. Putin told the People’s Daily that he and Jiang were good friends who met “at least three times a year.” “Whether it is the political or economic arena, the Russian-Chinese relationship has never reached such a high level [as now],” Putin said. Earlier, on his first trip to China, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov reportedly reassured Jiang and other Chinese leaders that military cooperation between the two countries would not be affected by Moscow’s new thinking about its relationship with the West.


At least from Beijing’s point of view, however, bilateral ties have been overshadowed by clear-cut evidence of Moscow’s pro-West leanings. Last month, Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush signed a landmark agreement on the mutual reduction of missiles. One implicit part of the deal was that Moscow would drop its opposition to Washington’s development of a national missile defense (NMD) system. Beijing, however, still considers NMD and its variant, the theatre missile defense (TMD) mechanism, as integral to America’s “anti-China containment policy.”

Then came the NATO-Russian council on security matters, which, in Beijing’s eyes, underscored Moscow’s acquiescence in NATO’s eastward expansion. For the sake of appearances, however, the CCP leadership has chosen to hide its anxiety about the loss of a potential ally in its longstanding campaign against the NMD and NATO expansionism. Official reaction by the Chinese Foreign Ministry to Moscow’s great leap westward has been muted.

More significant, the state media has come up with a rash of commentaries making light of this momentous development. Typical is the view that Russia’s rapprochement with the West is a short-term marriage of convenience. In an article in the People’s Daily entitled “The NATO-Russian marriage is far from perfect,” commentator Shi Kedong cited “mainstream press opinion” in Russia on the fact that the newfound friendship between Russia and the West is mere illusion. And in a commentary entitled “Can the Russian-American ‘honeymoon’ last long?” Liberation Army Daily writer Wen Hui zeroed in on the selfish motives in both capitals. Russians who harbored illusions about massive American economic aid, he said, would be sorely disappointed.

Apparent sangfroid in the official media notwithstanding, the leadership is greatly disturbed by Moscow’s apparently inexorable tilt toward the West–and Beijing’s loss of a valuable diplomatic card. Party sources in the capital said that, before his departure, Jiang and members of the CCP’s Leading Group on Foreign Affairs (LGFA) had discussed how Beijing should react to Moscow’s about-face. According to the sources, the first thing Jiang mentioned was that China’s Russian experts must come up with a fuller, more in-depth profile of Putin as well as his statecraft and diplomacy. “We are not really sure what kind of a person Putin is–or how he thinks,” Jiang reportedly said. It is understood that while Jiang got on very well with former President Boris Yeltsin, he had fears that despite his KGB background, Putin might be a closet pro-West figure.


China’s Russia specialists had given the LGFA an assessment of Moscow’s gravitation toward the West, the sources added. It cited three reasons for the phenomenon.

–First, Putin is convinced Russia should at least temporarily stop aspiring to regain superpower status. Being a realist, Putin realizes that unless Russia is able to put its economy back on track, trying to take on superpower-style ambitions is pointless. And massive Western support is needed to inject new momentum to the anemic Russian economy.

–Second, Moscow is leaning toward Washington because it thinks it stands to gain–both economically and otherwise–by cooperating on antiterrorism and other security issues. It sees, for example, a quicker solution to the Chechnya imbroglio with tacit U.S. support (or at least acquiescence).

–Third, insofar as NATO is concerned, Putin has come to the conclusion that “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Rather than stop the impossible–that is, more former Soviet Bloc countries joining NATO–Moscow stands a better chance of reducing the alliance’s anti-Russian posture if it can form a working relationship with it.


The big problem for Jiang and the LGFA is, of course, how to reverse this trend. Jiang is putting a lot of store in this week’s summit in St. Petersburg of the heads of state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which incorporates China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. A brainchild of Jiang’s, the SCO–as well as its precursor, the Shanghai Five, which was founded in 1996–was conceived as an anti-NATO bloc.

Beijing has expectations that the SCO can help resuscitate close ties with Russia–and firm up China’s relationship with key Central Asian states such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which border Afghanistan to the north. Jiang hopes the St. Petersburg summit can ratify an SCO charter–and that a permanent secretariat would be set up in Beijing. He is expected to propose that a Chinese vice foreign minister head the secretariat. A meeting of SCO defense ministers held in Moscow last month–which was seen as a forerunner of the St. Petersburg session–proved to be a disappointment for Beijing, however. Uzbekistan, which is receiving copious American aid, failed to send a defense minister to the session. And it is understood that many Putin advisers are cool to the idea of revving up the SCO as an anti-NATO vehicle.

The SCO’s failure to live up to its potentials has wide-ranging implications for Beijing. China is exposed on its northwestern border–with U.S. troops now almost sure to stay on in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for the foreseeable future. Failure to check American preponderance will also hurt China’s “petroleum security,” given Beijing’s earlier plans to invest in oilfields and build oil pipelines across the Central Asian region.

Of course, consummate politicians that they are, both Jiang and Putin will put on a show of comradeship at St Petersburg. Putin has told Chinese diplomats that Moscow is ready to celebrate the first anniversary of the signing of the Russian-Chinese Treaty on Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation, which affirmed the two countries’ quasi-alliance status in defense and other areas. And Chinese officials have indicated their willingness to help SCO members with their application to join the World Trade Organization.

Yet how much in the way of concrete results that the SCO summit can yield for China remains a big question in light of the fast-shifting geopolitical realities of Europe and Central Asia–as well as the changing perception of national interests on the part of countries including Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. What is more certain is that, given Beijing’s relations with Moscow and Washington and Tokyo being afflicted with one difficulty or another, Jiang’s claims about the efficacy of his vaunted “great power diplomacy” seem to ring hollow even as he poises to consolidate his legacy at the 16th CCP Congress.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best-known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.