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Russia: Chinese President Looking To Solidify Ties With Moscow, Central Asia

  • Jeremy Bransten

Chinese President Hu Jintao today begins a six-day visit to Russia. After talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top officials in Moscow, Hu will attend a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Council and then travel to St. Petersburg for festivities marking the 300th anniversary of Russia's former imperial capital. RFE/RL speaks to two experts about the growing importance of Sino-Russian relations.

Prague, 26 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Hu Jintao has chosen Russia for his first official visit abroad since becoming Chinese president. When he begins his visit in Moscow today, Hu will be repaying a courtesy extended by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was the first foreign leader to meet Hu in Beijing last December, after he assumed leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

But experts say there is far more driving the Russian-Chinese relationship than politeness. Key economic as well as geopolitical issues will be discussed during Hu's visit, among them possible agreement on the construction of a 2,400-kilometer pipeline from eastern Siberia to the Chinese city of Daqing.

Aleksandr Konovalov, head of the Moscow-based Institute for Strategic Assessments, explained to RFE/RL why this is the case: "Very important issues will be discussed such as the use of energy resources in Siberia and the Far East, the construction of a gas pipeline to Daqin, and the increasing of oil and gas deliveries from Russia to China. I think the problem of Korea will figure prominently, although that is not a bilateral issue. If you look at the issue, not only from the military point of view and from the standpoint of the unacceptability of the nuclearization of North Korea, I would [underline the importance of] the issue of a transport corridor through both Koreas and China to link up with the Trans-Siberian railroad."

Dmitrii Trenin, at the Carnegie Institute in Moscow, is the author of "Russia's China Problem" and an expert on Russian foreign policy. He told RFE/RL that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has been forced to come to come to terms with Beijing's rapidly growing economic might.

"For Russia, which borders China, this creates a new situation -- a new reality. Russia used to look upon China as a backward, distant country. For a time it even tried to dominate China. But these days, Russia has been forced to acknowledge that China has surpassed it not only in terms of population -- which was always the case -- but in the size of its gross domestic product [GDP], which is now five times larger. China is developing at a much faster pace than Russia," Trenin said.

That makes China an increasingly important economic partner. Both sides have emphasized their desire to boost bilateral trade, which currently stands at some $12 billion a year. China is especially interested in imports of Russian military hardware and Russia, Trenin said, has been relying on arms sales abroad as a key source of revenue.

"Russia needs to sell China weapons technology because the sale of armaments abroad is the only way for industries in the military-industrial complex to survive and receive some kind of profit. When Russia's government is not placing orders for modern technology with these military enterprises, they are dependent on foreign clients. And China is one of the leading clients," Trenin said.

Critics say the policy is short-sighted. They warn that Russia, by selling its superior weapons technology to China, will ultimately undercut its own interests and help boost China's geopolitical influence, to Moscow's detriment. But Trenin said the Kremlin is not worried.

"Russia's military and political leaders consider that in the near-term and foreseeable future, China will not present a military problem for Russia, because Chinese arms purchases and the whole structure of its armed forces are oriented towards other tasks -- above all Taiwan and to a lesser degree towards Chinese-American relations. So, they believe Russia can rest easy on this issue," he said.

Geopolitical questions, especially in the aftermath of the Iraq war, are expected to weigh heavily on the Hu-Putin meetings. After a period of tension over Iraq, Moscow appears keen to repair its relations with Washington. China, Trenin said, sees this as an opportune time to mount a charm offensive.

"China wants to send a message to Moscow and other capitals. China wants Russia to remain a dependable [partner]. China does not want Russia to become part of some alliance whose aim could be to restrict China. China believes that now, when Russian-American relations are emerging from their crisis caused by the Iraq war, is the right time to look for new opportunities," he said.

Those opportunities extend to Central Asia, where China has also been keen to check America's post-11 September 2001 presence. Following his three-day state visit, Hu will remain in Moscow for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which groups together China, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Trenin explained the importance of the organization to Beijing: "I'd say the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is, for China, another name for Central Asia. That is, thanks to this organization, China can take part in discussions and the resolution of questions tied to security and development in Central Asia as an equal to the countries of the region and Russia. This is important for China, because new opportunities have been opened for the Chinese to consolidate their position and raise their influence in a very important region for them, without antagonizing Russia, which has been the traditional power which has long dominated Central Asia."

Hu leaves Russia on 1 June, after attending celebrations marking the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg.