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Russia: Analysis From Washington--No New Sino-Russian Alliance Likely

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 22 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Despite a build-up in the world's press, the meeting between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin on Wednesday is unlikely to lead to a new strategic partnership between their two countries.

But it will produce a number of less global agreements with consequences for both of their countries and the world at large.

Although the two may use similar rhetoric, they have very different agendas for this meeting, and neither is prepared to defer to the other to the extent necessary for a new alliance.

Yeltsin obviously hopes to use the meeting as a signal to the West that Moscow has options to the East should NATO in fact expand, but he is not prepared to subordinate that concern in ways that would attract the Chinese.

When he speaks out during the summit against "attempts by anyone trying to play the role of supreme leader in international affairs" -- as his press secretary promised on Monday he would do -- the Russian president is clearly thinking about Washington.

And to the extent that Yeltsin continues to think of the Chinese as a card to be played in Europe rather than a force in their own right, the Russian leader is unintentionally highlighting Russian weakness as well as downplaying any independent role for Beijing.

Jiang, in contrast, clearly believes that talk in Moscow about a "multi-polar" international system now and in the future represents a confirmation of his country's expanding status as a world power, one that does not have to defer to either Moscow or the West.

That is presumably what the Chinese leader meant when he said the Moscow meeting this week would promote "a just and rational new order."

But the Chinese claim of equality or even superiority to Russia as a power will not sit well with Yeltsin or other Russian leaders.

Consequently, the meeting will not live up to the expectations first generated by the April 1996 declaration of the two presidents calling for a "strategic partnership" between Russia and China.

At the same time, however, the meeting will generate three important agreements of a less dramatic but possibly more serious nature.

First, the two presidents will use the occasion of their meeting on Thursday to sign along with the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan an accord that will reduce troop levels along the former Sino-Soviet border.

That agreement will further lower tensions on both sides and will permit Yeltsin to reduce troop levels there and expenditures for the military as a whole.

Second, the two men will call attention to and thus promote the rapidly expanding trade between their countries. Russian officials have suggested that total trade between the two should increase beyond 1996's figure of $7 billion.

And third, the two will likely agree to increase cooperation in the manufacture and sale of military equipment. China already accounts for more than one-third of all Russian arms sales abroad, and its share is now likely to increase still further.

One indication of this is that China recently purchased 72 more Su-27 combat planes, on top of 48 it bought earlier. And Beijing has also opted to buy an anti-missile system and two destroyers from Russia.

While some may see such purchases as an indication of a move toward a military alliance, they in fact are the ultimate reason why no such accord will occur.

Moscow is no longer in a position to be the political leader of the two that it was in the past, and China has the resources to purchase arms and also to set policy for itself.