Thu, 04 Mar 1999

Sino-Russian-American ploys but no punch

By Harvey Stockwin

The Chinese and the Russians continue to try and convey the image of close Russo-Chinese amity. But, our Asia correspondent Harvey Stockwin asks, is there beef or bluff behind the Sino- Russian bravado?

As Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji returned to Beijing from a four-day visit to Moscow, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arrived for a two-day stay in the Chinese capital. After Zhu goes to Washington sometime in April, the Chinese anticipate that Yeltsin will be well enough to come to Beijing.

Whatever else these all-too-brief visits do for resolving the many problems facing Sino-American and Sino-Russian relations, they do indicate one curious aspect of China's diplomacy: an almost touching, but surely outdated, faith in the relevance of the Sino-Russian-American triangle as a diplomatic bargaining gambit.

In recent years, Chinese diplomacy has very successfully geared diplomatic exchanges with Washington to exchanges with Moscow -- and vice versa. President Bill Clinton goes to China, but not long after that President Jiang Zemin goes to Moscow, and so on.

If we were back in the old Cold War days of the sometimes tense Sino-Soviet-American strategic triangle, the juxtaposition of Beijing's Russian and American ploys would arouse much excited commentary. But now hardly anyone notices, let alone gets agitated over these arcane maneuvers.

It is extremely difficult to believe that Albright lost any sleep flying across the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 28, worrying about what Zhu had been up to in Moscow and St Petersburg. But Zhu may have been hoping that she would be worried.

On the surface, at least, it is extremely hard to attribute any great diplomatic significance which made Zhu's long journey across eight time zones to Moscow worthwhile, when he could have been at home rounding off the factional maneuvers prior to the annual session of China's National People's Congress starting March 5.

Of course, these days there is never any shortage of Sino- Russian agreements produced at such meetings. Zhu, together with Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, reportedly signed eleven of them on this occasion. But as is often the case, even the controlled Chinese media -- let alone less inhibited foreign news agencies -- was unable to make anything earth-shattering out of any of them. Why did it require Prime Ministerial signatures for a gas pipeline feasibility study? Since some of those agreements involved tie-ups between adjacent regions of the two nations, why didn't the immediate neighboring leaders sign rather than the Prime Ministers?

The latest meeting followed the recent pattern of lots of signings, accompanied by an almost complete dearth of information of what the agreements precisely signified.

Perhaps the Chinese and the Russians hope that the Clinton Administration will be sufficiently naive to get disconcerted by all the secrecy and to think that the two former communist allies are up to something.

Of course, there were the usual high hopes expressed at this Sino-Russian prime ministerial summit, as on earlier such occasions, for a flowering of Sino-Russian trade.

The hard fact remains that Sino-Russian trade has declined for three successive years -- and at its present level total Russo- Chinese trade represents not quite 10 percent of the present Chinese surplus in Sino-American trade. Projected oil or gas pipelines from Siberia to Beijing, or to other more developed parts of China, might one day improve these figures somewhat -- but could either country afford the large investment, just supposing the feasibility studies are quickly completed?

This is not to argue that the Sino-Russian-American triangular relationship is no longer relevant, but that frequent meetings and numerous agreements do not necessarily equate with hard positive substance. Put another way, the lack of substance in current Russo-Chinese ties was illustrated by Zhu having time to visit a Russian military museum. In Washington DC in April, Zhu will be so enmeshed in Sino-American complexities, he will probably not have time to visit the Smithsonian.

The Americans would not be the only ones to sit up and take a lot of notice if a future Sino-Russian summit resulted in Russia selling a hefty amount of its top-of-the-line arms to the Chinese military, in a bid to increase export income. The present plan, to jointly build a nuclear power plant for which there is no financing, is not in that league.

Similarly, the Sino-Russian relationship would certainly grab the world's attention if the Chinese flag suddenly flew on the river bank opposite the Russian Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk. It does not do so. The present degree of Russo-Chinese amity is sustained by the fact that China does not press upon the (nuclear-armed) Russians the same arguments about unequal treaties, which were used by Beijing against Britain and Portugal to secure the return of Hong Kong and Macau.

For now, at least, the Sino-Russian relationship conveys a modest low-profile image despite all the summitry. Zhu and Primakov have agreed to set up a telephone hotline, but there will not be all that much to talk about on it.

Both nations need to develop complex ties with the United States more than they need their relatively low-key ties with each other. Once the two nations anticipated mutual trade of US$20 billion by the year 2000 -- but current trade runs at 25 percent of that level.

So why all the meetings? Why the Chinese effort to convey the image of triangular significance? Could it be that sentiment, for once, plays a part in Chinese diplomacy? President Jiang, NPC chairman Li Peng and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, plus many leading members of their factional coalition, were all educated in Moscow at the time of the Sino-Soviet alliance.