View Point



By Ralph A. Cossa

Friday, January 17, 1997


Russia and China:
A marriage of convenience?

Unwarranted fears of U.S. power
bring two old rivals together

Chinese Premier Li Peng returned from this late December visit to Moscow proclaiming a new Sino-Russian "strategic partnership" that will "adjust the balance of world power" and thus "offset the influence of the United States."

Some in the U.S. (and elsewhere) see this as cause for alarm. But if China and Russia decide to get in bed with one another, the appropriate U.S. response should be to wish both "pleasant dreams," since each will surely feel compelled to sleep with one eye open.

It is not difficult to discern the motivating factors behind this partnership. Both China and Russia object to what Li describes as a "world dominated by one power." This mindset incorrectly asbscribes motives and capabilities to the United States which are out of sync both with stated U.S. foreign policy goals and with America's ability to achieve them unilaterally, even in a "unipolar" world.

Nonetheless, it says volumes about how both nations, and particularly China, currently see the world.

For Russia's part, the partnership appears, at least in part, to be a reflection of Russian President Boris Yeltsin's continued frustration over his inability to get the West to pay serious attention to Moscow's concerns about NATO's expansion. Therefore, the Kremlin may be trying to play a "China card" as an attention-getting device, even though concern over such a strategic partnership could increase Eastern European incentive to join NATO.

There are important economic considerations for Moscow as well, since part of the new partnership is an agreement between the two nations' central banks that will facilitate bilateral trade. Old enmities aside, Moscow tends to see China today primarily as a source of much-needed investment and hard currency; the latter to be provided in significant measure through the sale of advanced Russian weapons systems.

Beijing continues to benefit from the high priority Moscow attaches to improved Sino-Russian relations. Yeltsin has been to Beijing twice, most recently in April 1996. Yeltsin willingly echoed old Chinese themes, railing with Chinese President Jiang Zemin against "hegemonism, power politics and repeated impositions of pressures on other countries" - against U.S. "domination," in other words.

The Chinese no doubt view their strategic partnership with Russia as a counter to the long-standing U.S.-Japan security alliance. The Chinese consistently argue (incorrectly) that the U.S.-Japan alliance is now aimed against China as part of America's new containment strategy and that the "revitalization" of the defense relationship, embodied in the April 1996 Clinton/Hashimoto Joint Declaration, portends Japanese remilitarization.

(This, despite personal assurances from both Clinton and Hashimoto to Jiang that neither wants to contain China and specific reference in the Joint Declaration to the importance of maintaining cooperative relations with the PRC.)

Ironically, nothing will convince the Japanese more that China needs to be contained, or that its own military (less than 1/10th the size of China's) needs to be expanded, than the proclamation of a strategic partnership between Tokyo's two historic enemies - nations with whom Tokyo has been trying to improve relations.

In reality, both China and Russia no doubt understand the limits of their partnership. Even during the early days of the Cold War, neither a common ideology nor a common enemy proved capable of sustaining their previous strategic partnership (Remember our fears of monolithic communism?). Already today, some Chinese security specialists privately caution that, while relations with Moscow have improved markedly, it is only a matter of time before Russia regains its "big power mentality" and becomes a force to be reckoned with once again.

What China really seeks is some assurance that the poles centered in Beijing and Moscow do not become overshadowed by the pole emanating from Washington. China's Xinhua News Agency hinted at this during its widely broadcast account of Li's visit to Moscow.

"The world is moving toward multipolarization," Xinhua declared, and "both Russia and China well deserve to be two important and independent poles in a multipolar world." Leaders in Washington, Tokyo and elsewhere should have no trouble with this view, since they realize that the world already is multipolar, that China and Russia are already important poles (and will certainly become more so in the future) and that cooperation between and among all the poles is essential to global stability and prosperity.

While balance of power practitioners in Beijing or Moscow may be trying to play a Russia or China card, the best they can realistically hope for is a somewhat tentative marriage of convenience. A long-lasting true strategic partnership, such as that enjoyed by the U.S. and Japan or the U.S. and NATO, does not appear likely.

Neither of these U.S. security linkages are currently aimed at either China or Russia. However, if the Chinese or Russians continue boasting about a new strategic alliance aimed at Washington, this could cause the United States and its allies to rethink current strategies, thus turning unwarranted fears in Beijing and Moscow into a self-fulfilling prophesy.



Ralph A. Cossa is executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based, nonprofit foreign policy research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.




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