Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 226

Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s erratic health and behavior, for a long time key factors in Russian domestic politics, interjected themselves yet again yesterday, this time into the country’s foreign affairs as well. Following the Russian leader’s departure from a Moscow hospital, the Kremlin press office–with an assist from German sources in Berlin–revealed which of a long backlog of official foreign trips Yeltsin plans to undertake in the weeks to come. The immediate winners appear to be China and the Holy Lands. Those left out apparently include Japan, Germany and France. Yeltsin’s last trip abroad was to Istanbul, where he made a relatively brief appearance at the October 18-19 Organization for Security and Cooperation Europe (OSCE) summit. Yeltsin, who spoke vigorously in defense of Russia’s war in Chechnya on the summit’s opening day, appeared fit enough in Istanbul. But Russian observers later speculated that the trip abroad may have been the cause of a subsequent bout of ill-health suffered by the Russian leader.

The sixty-eight-year-old president is apparently preparing nevertheless to jump back into the saddle. The Kremlin announced yesterday that Yeltsin will depart tomorrow for Beijing, where he will reportedly hold four or five meetings with Chinese President Jiang Zemin. He is to arrive in Beijing on December 9 and will fly back home the following afternoon (Reuters, Kyodo, Itar-Tass, December 6).

Yeltsin’s decision to make the long trip to Beijing reflects the importance which Moscow attaches to its ever-warmer relations with China. The Yeltsin-Jiang talks are to be in the form of an “informal” summit and will undoubtedly be described as yet another step taken by the two countries on the path toward strengthening their “strategic partnership.” The talks are likely to center on joint Russian-Chinese efforts to promote the development of a “multipolar” world order. That is a world order in which the influence of the United States and NATO is reduced and international influence is distributed among a group of regional powers–Moscow and Beijing among them. The two men are likely also to underline their joint support for the primacy of national sovereignty and territorial integrity in the conduct of international relations, and to criticize the notion of humanitarian intervention. In that context, Russia will defend its war in Chechnya and China will nod approvingly. The two will also likely condemn the air war carried out earlier this year by NATO against Yugoslavia.

Arms control is likely also to be an important topic of discussion. China has moved increasingly to embrace Moscow’s own condemnations of U.S. efforts to amend the ABM treaty and U.S. plans to develop a limited national missile defense system. The two countries have repeatedly charged that Washington’s policies in this area pose a grave threat to the entire system of international arms control and could fuel a nuclear arms race. Yeltsin and Jiang are likewise likely to reemphasize their unhappiness over Japanese-U.S. defense cooperation, and particularly over plans to explore the development of a theater missile defense in Asia. Military and diplomatic personnel from the two countries have been conferring of late on this issue in particular, but have yet to move from condemnations to planning any sort of military countermeasures.

Growing tensions between Moscow and Tokyo in this area, together with the inability of the two countries to resolve their differences over the disputed Kuril Islands, are likely the key reasons why Yeltsin chose to defer a visit to Japan yet again. Russian and Japanese officials said in Tokyo yesterday that they are now preparing for a possible visit by the Russian president in the spring of next year (Itar-Tass, Kyodo, December 6). If that comes off, it will be fully one year after Yeltsin was originally scheduled to travel to Tokyo for summit talks with Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. The deadlock over the Kuril Islands territorial issue has stymied broader negotiations aimed at approving a peace treaty that would at last bring a formal close to World War II for Russia and Japan. Leaders from the two countries had committed themselves in late 1997 to work toward concluding the peace treaty by the year 2000. The announcement that Yeltsin will definitely not visit Japan this year means that they will not achieve this goal. Seeing the writing on the wall, some Japanese officials in recent months have started talking in terms of concluding the treaty by the end of next year.