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China: Clinton's Successful Visit Is Salt In Russia's Wounds

Prague, 3 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton's visit to China was a universally acclaimed success, or so it seems. Cooperation between the two countries could benefit the West and promise a safer and more financially secure Asia, the region where the majority of the planet's people live. For some countries, however, better ties between Washington and Beijing are not entirely comforting. One of these countries is Russia.

Officially, Russia "is positive about Clinton's visit to China," said Interfax on July 1. Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin was quoted to have said "we welcome this development in U.S-Chinese relations." Rakhmanin said closer relations between the two countries, and also Russia and Japan "will play a stabilizing role in the future of the Pacific region and contribute to the prosperity in this important region of the world."

But it is precisely on the issue of "prosperity" that Moscow newspapers seem to have a different opinion.

The headline of an article in Kommersant daily on June 25, the day Clinton arrived in China, read "Clinton Goes To Bargain With China." Political bargaining, of course, but "experts forecast a 'break through' in economic relations between the People's Republic of China and the United States."

Russia's trade with China during the best year, 1996, was $6.8 billion. In April 1997, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin met in Moscow they promised to try to raise that figure to $20 billion by the year 2000, and by the end of 1997 it may even be $8 billion. At the end of 1997 it was just over $6 billion. In the first quarter of 1998 it wasn't even at the level of the same period in 1997.

With this in mind, Izvestiya on June 26 wrote that though U.S.-Chinese trade is about $50 billion annually, America is complaining about the trade deficit with China. "The Chinese assert that the Americans don't register that the balance of exports to America over imports from the country is only $16.4 billion. That is more than two times the total annual trade between Chinese-Russian trade, two countries which share a common border thousands of kilometers long."

Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote on June 30 that "against the background of the US-Chinese trade turnover of $50 billion, the Russian-Chinese $6.8 billion looks like some sort of misunderstanding."

Russia is one of the few countries which sells arms to China following the Tiananmen tragedy of 1989. Arms trade in fact is the cornerstone of Sino-Russian trade. Russia is also helping China build a nuclear power plant in Jiangsu Province and is selling China two of its VVER-1000 generators for the plant. But Russia sells arms and nuclear reactors to other countries. India is one.

In June, a Russian delegation to India promised to honor a contract, originally signed in 1988 between the Soviet Union and India, to supply nuclear reactors to India. This just a little over a month after India conducted nuclear bomb tests. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, again from June 30, wrote that "an extremely unfavorable impression was made in Beijing by Russia's promises strictly to fulfill its obligations with regard to deliveries to India--China's worst enemy--of nuclear reactors....By a strange set of circumstances, the promises were made at the very time when China and the United States decided to curb the nuclear programs of India and Pakistan."

Though the Russian economy continued to show signs of severe strain, there was until last a prospect of an upcoming engagement offering Boris Yeltsin the chance to talk to Jiang Zemin. The heads of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were scheduled to meet in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and discuss their common border. But the opportunity to talk trade was lost when Yeltsin canceled, claiming he was occupied in Moscow with anti-crisis measures. Instead of Yeltsin meeting Jiang in Kazakhstan, Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov will represent Russia.

Kommersant Daily wrote on June 27 that "The presidents of the CIS countries are already accustomed to the unpredictability of the Russian president." And, "It will be far more complicated for Yeltsin to explain this to Jiang Zemin." According to the paper there was at that time not even confirmation that Russian officials had notified the Chinese government of Yeltsin's change in plans. However, the Chinese may have already known as "At the Chinese Embassy in Moscow they don't come to the phone or have switched it over to the FAX machine." The paper said "It is difficult to imagine that the three-day absence of the president in Moscow could catastrophically affect the (economic) situation."

Izvestiya wrote on June 26 that besides visiting China, Clinton had "long prepared" for a visit to "friend Boris," but the Russian Duma has not ratified the SALT-II agreement so there will be no visit by Clinton in the foreseeable future.

Yeltsin is scheduled to make a visit to China later this year. With the Russian economy suffering, strong trade relations with China would have been great consolation if only as the promise of a better future.