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Russia/China: Analysis From Washington -- A Shift From Politics To Economics Limits Other Values

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 10 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Chinese leader Jiang Zemin's just-concluded visit to Washington and Russian leader Boris Yeltsin's current visit to Beijing mark a turning point in the history of summitry among the major powers.

In the past, world leaders typically met to discuss and often decide on great issues of war and peace. Now, as these two meetings show, they often assemble to see which of them can be most successful in promoting trade and other forms of economic cooperation among their countries.

The high point of Jiang Zemin's visit to the United States was the signing of over $4.2 billion of contracts with American firms. The high point of Boris Yeltsin's visit to China is likely to be a renewed commitment by both Moscow and Beijing to dramatically expand bilateral trade between the two countries.

But while this shift from politics to economics reflects improved relations among the major powers in the post-cold war environment, it has some very serious political consequences for the leaders of major powers, for the standing of their countries in the world, and for the ability of states to promote their non-economic interests.

For the leaders themselves, the consequences of this shift in summitry are the most immediate. As they increasingly play the role of salesmen for their national economies, these leaders inevitably see their political standing decline in both the eyes of their own populations and those of other nations as well.

As important as increasing trade is for the well-being of all countries, it is simply not as dramatic as involvement in meetings where larger political and security issues are at stake. And as a result, neither the meetings which are increasingly regular and thus undramatic nor the participants in them get the same attention that they received in the past.

The shift from politics to economics at summit meetings also has enormous consequences for the international system and for the standing of countries within it. In the past, military might and alliances separated strong states from the weak. Now, they are increasingly defined by the level of trade turnover among them.

Nowhere is that clearer than in the two summits Jiang Zemin has been involved in during the past month. When he was in Washington, Jiang Zemin was meeting with the leader of China's second largest trading partner -- after Japan -- with some $45 billion in turnover between the two last year.

When meeting the visiting Russian president, Jiang Zemin is dealing with the leader of a country that did only $6.850 billion in trade with China during 1996. That made Russia China's eighth largest trading partner, below even its trade ties with South Korea.

Moreover, instead of growing, Chinese-Russian bilateral trade actually fell by almost 15 percent in the first six months of 1997 as compared to the same period in 1996. And that pattern is likely to define how the two leaders deal with each other.

Yeltsin has pledged to reverse this trend and to achieve $20 billion dollars in bilateral trade with China by the year 2000. But despite plans for a gas pipeline from Siberia, for selling more electricity to China, and for building a joint nuclear reactor, neither Russian nor Chinese officials offer much hope that Chinese-Russian trade will reach that level in the next three years.

As a result, whatever Russia brings to the table in political terms for China -- and its value as a counterweight to American power is something both Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin are certain to stress -- Russia will inevitably be less important in Chinese calculations precisely because trade between the two countries is so relatively small.

And that shift in the yardstick for political importance will inevitably have an impact on how Russian leaders see their country and themselves, an impact that may lead them to try to resuscitate political issues at summits precisely because they cannot yet play a major economic role.

The shift from politics to economics at summits has had the effect of limiting the ability of leaders to advance other values. During Jiang Zemin's visit to Washington, many Americans called for taking a tough stand against Beijing's human rights abuses both generally and in Tibet.

But the interests of American firms in gaining access to Chinese markets largely relegated the expression of these concerns to second place, thus limiting the ability of Washington to press the Chinese on this point.

Out of similar calculations, Russian spokesmen in advance of Yeltsin's visit went out of their way to say repeatedly that the Russian president would not press his Chinese hosts on such questions.

And as a result of this shift from politics to economics both in these two cases and more generally, such meetings at the highest levels will have dramatic political consequences, albeit not necessarily ones that all of their participants seek.