Russians again snuggle up to the Chinese over trade Yeltsin visit this week marks a warming-up after 30 years of chill

April 21, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- In the 1950s, Russians dominated this city, helping the newly established Communist government with everything from building bridges to organizing universities. Then, after China and the Soviet Union split in 1960, the Russians were thrown out and 30 years of chilly relations set in.

Now, the Russians are back in Beijing, but this time as small-time traders and smugglers, hoping to make a few rubles by shipping low-cost Chinese products back to Moscow.

Enter Boris N. Yeltsin. The 65-year-old Russian president is due to visit China for three days this week hoping to push relations between two of the world's biggest and most populous nations beyond the level of curbside vendors.

While neither side expects or wants a return to the chummy days of the 1950s, both want to show the West that they have other friends who don't always lecture them on how their countries should be run.

China feels battered by U.S. criticism of its human rights records and attacks on its trade practices.

Russia, meanwhile, resents U.S. dominance of the peace process in Bosnia, criticisms of its war in Chechnya, and worries that Western military alliances in Europe are being forged to contain Russia.

In many other ways, Russia is constantly being reminded of the expectations accompanying the West's embrace since the collapse of the Soviet empire.

"The Chinese and the Russians are trying to develop a diversified strategy," said Jonathan Pollack, a senior adviser at the Rand Corp.

"It's far from being lovey-dovey but it's a big change from the past."

Indeed, China has started touting Russia as a model partner of sorts.

Despite the two countries' different systems -- Russia has started down the road to democracy and capitalism while China adheres, on paper at least, to socialism and communism.

Russia scrupulously avoids criticism of China's record on human rights or its policy toward Taiwan. Last year, Russia was instrumental in killing a United Nations censure of China's human rights policies.

China also is grateful for Russian support of controversial technical projects. Russia has sent 4,000 experts to China since 1992 to help China develop industries and may help China build a nuclear power station.

And Russian companies are expected to help build the gargantuan Three Gorges dam and power stations, which some Western countries have boycotted because of its environmental problems.

By contrast, China feels that the United States is a wealthy meddler, able to provide the best technology but also sticking its nose into internal matters, such as human rights.

Both sides argue, however, that the improving relations are not aimed at the West.

"If China says, 'Look, we have different systems but we have good relations with Russia,' then it's their right," said a senior Russian diplomat based in Beijing. "But it's not playing the Russia card, and we are not playing the China card."

Foremost on Mr. Yeltsin's agenda will be trade. The two nations exchanged goods and services valued at just $5.5 billion last year -- vs. $40 billion between the United States and China.

Although Russia has the vast natural resources China needs and China has the entrepreneurial agility lacking in Russia, neither side has the money to make large-scale investments.

To date, Russia's biggest sales have been military, with China buying modern fighters and submarines.

Although trade -- but not weapons sales -- will be talked up in the form of numerous agreements to be signed, political problems are likely to receive the most concrete action.

Their 2,700-mile border, where China and Russia fought a costly war in 1969, will be further stabilized when Mr. Yeltsin, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and the leaders of three other neighboring countries -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- sign a confidence-building pact.

The five nations will agree to pull back large military units from the border, limit the amount of live ammunition they can use in war games and not engage in war games directly on the border.

For other countries, however, this reduced tension means that Russia and China can free up forces for other uses.

China already has begun refocusing its military strategy away from fighting a big land battle toward air and sea conflicts -- such as invading Taiwan or enforcing its claim to control most of the South China Sea.

Russia, too, will have more forces to put down separatists, such as those in Chechnya.

The visit is Mr. Yeltsin's second since taking power in 1991. His 1992 visit came just a year after he put down an attempted coup and declared that communism was dead.

At the time, he represented everything that China's leaders were not: democratic, reformist and dynamic. They dubbed him a new "czar" and whispered that he harbored imperial designs on Chinese territory, said Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who talked with Chinese leaders after Mr. Yeltsin's first visit.

Since then, however, Mr. Yeltsin has sped up Russia's commitment to solving the border dispute, even ceding land to China last year, a move that caused a senior Russian negotiator to resign in protest this month.

With China rising and Russia still finding its way, Moscow is wary of embracing China.

At a conference in Moscow in November, Russian experts on China warned against drawing too close to China, with one Russian official contending that the balance of power in Asia was shifting toward China.

"The Russians have their own experience with China," Mr. Pollack said.

"They don't want a widespread transfer of technology that could come back and bite them."

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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