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China: Analysis From Washington--Playing Two China Cards

Washington, 8 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- As part of his continuing effort to reshuffle Moscow's foreign policy deck, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov is getting ready to replay the China card -- or quite possibly two of them.

On the one hand, Beijing announced on Thursday that Primakov will make a three-day official visit beginning November 17. During his stay -- which will overlap the scheduled arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher -- Primakov is to hold consultations with his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen.

During these meetings, Primakov can be expected to continue to build on the rapprochement between Russia and China that was sealed in April 1996 during Russian President Boris Yeltsin's visit.

On the other hand, Taiwan's Central News Agency reported also on Thursday that Moscow has dispatched a former Russian diplomat to Taipei in order to establish a representative office there.

Such an office -- similar to the liaison offices maintained there by other countries who have diplomatic ties with Beijing -- will service Russia's growing commercial interests there.

Taipei had set up a similar office in Moscow in July 1993. But Beijing's sensitivities about any foreign contacts with Taiwan, an island that China considers part of its territory, had acted as a restraint on the Russian government until now.

Consequently, the conjunction of these two announcements is significant because it suggests that Primakov now plans to play the China card in a new and more sophisticated way.

Obviously, the Russian foreign minister will continue to push for expanded ties between Moscow and Beijing in order to counterbalance Japanese power in Asia, something Russian commentators have been increasingly concerned about.

And the Russian foreign minister is likely to use this visit to try to block any further expansion in Chinese-American ties, something Primakov himself has indicated would be very much to Russia's disadvantage.

Primakov would have found both of these goals easier to achieve if he had not, as it appears, ordered the establishment of a Russian representation on Taiwan, something Beijing will inevitably see as an unfriendly act.

That raises a serious question: Assuming the reports from Taipei are correct -- and the Taiwanese news service is hardly disinterested -- why did Moscow decide to take this step precisely now?

One answer could be that there is significant disarray within the Russian foreign policy establishment over just what Russia should be doing in Asia. There are in fact many in Moscow who would like to see a breakdown in Moscow's ties with Beijing to further their own nationalist political agendas.

But a more probable answer is that Primakov himself decided to take this step now in order to pursue three goals.

First, the Russian foreign minister is clearly interested in telling the Chinese that Russia as a great power can and will pursue its own interests in the region regardless of Beijing's feelings.

Second, Primakov obviously hopes to tap into Taiwan's enormous economic resources in order to win friends in the Russian capital and to develop the economically depressed Russian Far East. Given the recent deterioration in Moscow's relations with Tokyo, he may find such an opportunity as irresistible.

And third, Primakov probably wants to have a China card in reserve should ties with Beijing falter. Like the United States, whose foreign policies Primakov has studied for many years, he may have concluded that Russia can use the existence of an office in Taipei to enhance its influence in Beijing, whatever Chinese propagandists may play.

Moreover, Primakov, who has always kept a close watch on Russian domestic politics, certainly knows that his stance will play well in Moscow's political circles even if, during his upcoming visit, it may sound offkey in Beijing.