For all the smiles and camaraderie, the Bush-Putin summit had moments of palpable tension. One of these occurred during a joint Moscow press conference in connection with Russia’s alleged assistance to one of the three “axis of evil” states, Iran, in the areas of nuclear power and ballistic missile technology. Bush said he was certain his Russian counterpart shared his worries about the intentions of Tehran’s ruling “radical clerics.” Putin flatly denied that Russia’s $800-million deal to build the Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran represented any military threat, comparing it to the American participation in a project to build a nuclear facility in North Korea. The Russian president also tried to deflect the persistent allegations that Russia had leaked ballistic technology to the Iranians by responding in kind, charging that the United States was helping various countries develop missiles, including Taiwan.

This latter remark may have been something of a Freudian slip. DEBKA, the Israeli website, was reporting that Russia had recently approved sales to the PRC of a ship-born air defense system that Beijing planned to use as part of a build-up “geared towards a near-term Taiwan invasion.” While there was no way to judge the DEBKA report’s accuracy, it was noteworthy that just a day after Putin signed the NATO-Russia Council agreement came word that his defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, was heading to Beijing for meetings with top Chinese officials, including President Jiang Zemin. According to RIA Novosti, Ivanov and the Chinese leadership planned to discuss, among other things, military-technical cooperation and a “strategic partnership in the political and military spheres.” As an unnamed Russian military source told the Interfax news agency, Ivanov’s visit, coming as it did on the heels of the NATO-Russia Council signing ceremony, was meant to demonstrate “the equilibrium of Moscow’s policy, which has several vectors.” Or, roughly translated: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”