Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 183

Beijing and Moscow used the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the People’s Republic of China this past weekend to underscore yet again the importance that both countries attach to their “strategic partnership.” Amid the more general celebrations organized by China’s communist party leadership, Russian and Chinese officials gathered in both Beijing and Moscow over the weekend to mark another anniversary–that of the establishment of diplomatic relations. On October 2, 1949, one day after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union became the first country to recognize communist China.

Not surprisingly, remarks by both sides over the weekend tended to emphasize the friendly relations between Moscow and Beijing which existed in those early years, and then again more recently in the post-Soviet period. The long years of tension and conflict in between were not much alluded to. The anniversary celebrations included a telephone conversation between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin on the eve of the Chinese anniversary celebration. In Beijing, meanwhile, Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji attended a party on October 2 hosted by the Russian ambassador Igor Rogachev. In Moscow Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had attended a luncheon put on one day earlier by China’s ambassador to Russia, Wu Tao (Reuters, Xinhua, Itar-Tass, October 2; Xinhua, October 1).

Perhaps the most concrete representation of Russian-Chinese cooperation, however, has been a visit by two Russian warships to Shanghai. The two ships–the Varyag (flagship of the Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet) and the destroyer Burgy–arrived in China on October 2 and were scheduled to remain there until tomorrow. The visit afforded an opportunity for Russian Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Mikhail Zakharenko to meet, in Beijing, with the vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, Zhang Wannian. Zakharenko also held talks in Shanghai with the commander of the Chinese Navy’s East China Sea Fleet, Yang Yushu. More to the point perhaps, the two Russian ships were also scheduled to hold first-ever joint naval exercises with the Chinese Fleet.

As always with respect to the Russian-Chinese “strategic partnership,” it is important to separate form from substance. Although the joint exercise is clearly another step forward in efforts by the two countries to boost military-to-military contacts, it appears to be a small and tentative step. There were few details available about the joint exercise, and a Chinese diplomat in Shanghai suggested that the Russian visit had only a semi-official character. He described it as a “friendship visit” and specified that it had been arranged by Chinese commanders and not by the political leadership. “This is a private activity organized by the Eastern Fleet,” the Chinese diplomat said.

Observers, meanwhile, pointed out that the visit and joint naval maneuvers do not appear to constitute a step toward any sort of formal military cooperation. One Far Eastern military correspondent observed that Russia has already conducted naval maneuvers with Japan and South Korea, and he characterized the Russian-Chinese exercises as “essentially a process of confidence-building measures to develop relations between countries that have not had close relations” (AP, October 2; Xinhua, October 2; AFP, October 4).