Washington, 16 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Russia and China took another major step last week toward a closer strategic relationship, a move which could have major implications for both the two countries and the entire international system.
During a visit to Beijing by Russian first deputy premier Aleksei Bolshakov, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Chinese Premier Li Peng indicated that they saw bright prospects for the building of a "strategic partnership" between Beijing and Moscow.
To that end, the Chinese signed an extradition treaty with Russia, the first ever for Beijing. In addition, the two sides finalized a licensing agreement allowing for Chinese production of Russian military aircraft. And they reportedly are close to an agreement on the construction of oil and gas pipelines between the two.
Li Peng announced that these developments would help boost bilateral trade between the two countries up to $ 20,000 billion a year by 2000.
Moreover, both Chinese leaders are going to be heading to Moscow soon. Li Peng is scheduled to visit the Russian capital later this month. Indeed, Bolshakov's primary task last week was to prepare that visit. And Jiang Zemin announced that he was looking forward to meeting Russian President Boris Yeltsin there next spring.
These developments and the upbeat spin being put on them by both sides are only the latest measure of the warming of ties between two former enemies. In November, for example, the two countries signed a cooperation accord aimed at fighting crime and drug trafficking along their common border.
And that agreement in turn was made possible by two accords signed by Yeltsin during his April 1996 visit to Beijing: a border security agreement among China, three Central Asian states and Russia, and an accord calling for broader Chinese-Russian cooperation in the future.
At one level, this expansion in ties represents the simple normalization of relations between two powers that had long been at odds. But there are at least three darker sides to it.
It has a military and even nuclear dimension. A senior Russian defense industry official told Itar-Tass on Thursday that Moscow would use the proceeds from its sales of military equipment to China to finance a new generation of weapons for itself.
Moreover, in recent months, Moscow has publicly backed China's position on Asian security questions, steps that have put it at odds with the United States and Japan.
On Friday, Bolshakov and his delegation visited a Russian-Chinese joint venture in the field of nuclear energy in the Shenzhen Special Economic Area in southern China. While there is nothing necessarily sinister in such an arrangement, the existence of this form of cooperation creates the possibilities for mischief.
This relationship may lead ever more Russian political figures to see the Chinese model of development, one that combines rapid economic growth with authoritarian political controls, as appropriate for Russia itself.
Many Russian political figures already have suggested that China is a more appropriate model for Russia than Western liberalism; warming ties between Moscow and Beijing will make it even easier for them to advance that argument.
This relationship is inevitably directed at the West and at Western values. To the extent these countries can cooperate with each other, they will not need to cooperate as much with others, particularly with Western democratic states.
That will reduce the leverage of the West on developments in both China and Russia. At the very least, it will give each of them greater freedom of action in their dealings with the United States, Japan and Europe.
But there remain three serious obstacles to the further development of these ties.
- Each of these countries remains suspicious of the other's ultimate intentions.
Neither is likely to be willing to accept a relationship that would leave it the junior partner.
Each has economic and political goals that cannot be achieved without ties to third countries.
Consequently, neither country is likely to welcome any kind of relationship with the other that might shut out everyone else.
And that fact, something the latest meetings in Beijing did nothing to change, may be sufficient to mitigate the threats that a genuine partnership between Russia and China might pose to each of these countries and to the world as a whole.