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Saturday, June 15, 2002

Russia looks both East and West, for now


HONG KONG -- Last July, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin, solemnly signed a landmark Treaty on Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation that was little short of a military alliance. Shortly before that, the two countries, together with Kazakstan, Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic and Uzbekistan established Central Asia's first security organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO.

Clearly, China and Russia were planning closer cooperation in all fields, in part at least to counter American influence. The two countries in their treaty stated their determination to foster a new multipolar world order, replacing one dominated by a single superpower. A new strategic partnership had been launched.

Much has changed in the intervening months. In late May, Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush held a summit meeting and signed a treaty that announced that they were embarking upon the path of "new relations for a new century" that required the construction of strategic relations between Russia and the United States.

Russia, therefore, now has a strategic relationship with the U.S. as well as with China. Russia, the world's largest country, straddles Europe and Asia and, not surprisingly, has historically focused sometimes on one continent and sometimes on the other. Its national emblem, after all, is a two-headed eagle, looking in opposite directions. It was Peter the Great who, in the late 17th century, opened Russia to the West and moved the capital to St. Petersburg.

Putin's recent moves can be described as Russia's new opening to the West. Indeed, the Russian president said at a press conference in Rome, where he signed an agreement to set up the Russia-NATO Council, that "Russia is now returning to the family of civilized nations" after a long period "in which Russia was on one side, and on the other -- practically the rest of the world."

China should certainly understand Putin's actions. After all, like China, Russia wants to modernize its economy and, like China, it needs Western investment and Western markets. Like China, Russia is now applying to join the World Trade Organization.

For now at least, both Beijing and Moscow are playing it cool, each acting as though there is no contradiction between Russia's new ties with the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its existing ties with China. Putin, interviewed by the People's Daily on May 30, said that although Russia is paying attention to its relations with the European Union and the U.S., "this does not mean that we would neglect Russia-China relationship."

"The nature of Russia-China cooperation stands above the Russia-U.S. relationship in various respects," Putin said. "We should say Russia is a European-Asian country having cooperation with both the East and the West. In the future we will continue to develop ties with the West and the East, particularly the Russia-China relationship."

For the time being, at least, China is content to take Putin at his word. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, asked if closer ties between Russia and the U.S. may lead to estrangement in the Sino-Russian relationship, welcomed the improvement in relationship between Russia and the U.S. and voiced the hope that this would be conducive to world peace and stability.

The spokesman also formally welcomed Russia's new partnership with NATO. However, he added that China had "always opposed any form of military alliance," a clear sign that Beijing was less than happy.

China and Russia had jointly opposed the abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty of 1972. Together, they opposed the development of a missile defense system by the U.S. They supported the emergence of a multipolar system. And they are the joint creators last June of the SCO.

So far, Russia has not backed down officially from any of these positions. The ABM treaty becomes void on June 13, six months after it was renounced by the U.S. Putin continues to maintain a critical attitude toward the American decision, but he has publicly said that the abrogation did not constitute a threat to Russia's security. And, even after signing a treaty with the U.S., he has continued to speak of the need for a multipolar system.

Putin and Jiang met in St. Petersburg on June 6, on the eve of a summit meeting of the SCO, where the six countries were to sign documents to consolidate the structure of the organization. However, now that the U.S. is deeply involved in Central Asia, the whole future of the SCO has been put in doubt.

So far, therefore, Russia has been meticulous in honoring its agreements with China. As long as China's relations with the U.S. are good, Russia will have little problem in handling its two strategic relationships. However, when Sino-American relations deteriorate, as they are bound to at some point, Russia may find itself straddling two ships going in opposite directions. At that point, Russia will have to make a choice, and China cannot be too confident of the outcome of that choice.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.


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