Chinese President Jiang Zemin arrived here today to meet with his Russian counterpart and sign a treaty reflecting their shared opposition to U.S. supremacy and a mutual desire to secure border regions that have been the source of instability for centuries.
The accord, officially called the Sino-Russian Treaty of Good-Neighborly and Friendly Cooperation, is scheduled to be signed Monday by Jiang and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Chinese leader's four-day visit to Russia -- the second of four planned summits between the two this year.
The treaty "opens a new page in the development of Russian-Chinese relations in the new century," Jiang said in a statement distributed to reporters after he arrived at Moscow's Vnukovo Airport.
But while timing and showmanship make this pact important, a wide array of analysts said the accord appears to lack substance. Trade between Moscow and Beijing is relatively low, arms sales are the basis of the relationship and the treaty will not include a substantial security component.
For the past six months, Chinese and Russian officials have attempted to assuage concern in the West that the treaty marks the resumption of the failed military alliance that helped kick off the Cold War and expired in 1979. "I can put you at ease," a Chinese official told reporters in Beijing. "The treaty will not touch upon military cooperation."
In today's remarks, Jiang emphasized that stronger Chinese-Russian relations would create "an atmosphere of stability and development that would be beneficial for peace in the region and the whole world."
Likewise, the Russians denied any anti-U.S. tilt. Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov said it was "absolutely groundless to say that our partnership with China is directed against somebody in the West."
Russian and Chinese officials said the treaty is unusual and reflects an increasingly significant arms trade. The two countries have also drawn closer because of joint opposition to President Bush's missile defense program, which staged a successful test of an interceptor missile on Saturday, although the issue is not expected to be mentioned explicitly in the treaty. The timing of the signing is especially delicate, coming just before Putin's second meeting with Bush at this week's summit meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized countries in Genoa, Italy.
Few analysts in Moscow expect the Russia-China agreement to contain much in the way of concrete provisions. Modeled on the one Russia signed last year with North Korea, the accord will pledge "eternal friendship" and express mutual opposition to a "unipolar world," a common code phrase for American hegemony, officials said. The treaty will commit Russia and China to refrain from hostile actions against one another and to consult in cases of threats to the security of either side -- a section that U.S. military analysts said would be of concern to Washington. It will also restate Russia's support for Beijing's position that Taiwan remains an inseparable part of China.
"There's something childish in it. We want to demonstrate to the West that we can be friendly with other boys," said Andrei Piontkovsky of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. "The paper is needed for psychological comfort of Russian political leaders."
Sources in Beijing said China and Russia decided earlier this year not to include a section about military cooperation. "The defense ministries of both countries have ample agreements on that issue," said a Chinese official.
China constitutes Russia's biggest arms market. Last year alone it is believed to have signed an estimated $1.5 billion worth of weapons contracts, accounting for about 40 percent of Russian arms exports. The dependence of the Chinese army on Russian weapons exports is growing. Already China relies on Russia for fighter aircraft, submarines, naval destroyers and air-defense systems. Russia is believed to have delivered in December the first group of state-of-the-art anti-ship missiles to go with two destroyers that it previously sold to China.
Sino-Russian cooperation has also moved beyond the borders of the two countries. A shared opposition to Islamic fundamentalism -- and U.S. influence -- has been the driving force in the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, spearheaded by Moscow and Beijing. Started in 1996 as the Shanghai Five, it now includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
In the latest summit meeting of the Shanghai group in June, defense ministers criticized the proposed U.S. missile defense system. They also pledged to study holding joint military exercises and operations to combat separatist activities. Russian officials say they face terrorist threats from Afghanistan. Chinese officials say separatist activities in the northwestern province of Xinjiang are supported by Islamic groups in Central Asia.
For China, joint exercises and military operations would be unprecedented and reflect a fundamental change from its policy of eschewing multilateral organizations.
Lu Nanquan, deputy director of the Center of Russian Studies for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the new treaty marks an important change in China's perception about its security. For decades, China's land borders were its least secure. Now, China's 2,500-mile border with Russia is peaceful and, except for two small parts, undisputed. It is improving ties with India. And, ironically, China's long-placid eastern coast has become its biggest concern because of worry about Taiwan.
For China, the treaty also "reflects Beijing's desire to codify its relationship with Russia in a way that would transcend changes in Russia's leadership," said David M. Finkelstein, an expert on Chinese security at the Center for Naval Analyses, an Alexandria-based research organization.
China remains concerned that, as with the withdrawal of thousands of Russian experts working on China's economic construction in 1960, Moscow will again "abandon" Beijing and cut a separate deal with the West -- this time over national missile defense and other issues.
"The government genuinely believed that Russia would oppose missile defense to the end," one Chinese military expert said. "But now we see Putin softening on this issue."
Russians have tried to assuage these fears. "Our positions coincide and we are not going to betray them," Russia's ambassador to China, Igor Rogachev, told the Russian Tass news agency in June.
Nonetheless, many experts said that despite friendly talk, the potential for Beijing's relationship with Moscow remains limited.
History plays a role. Chinese officials still quote China's late leader Deng Xiaoping as saying the two countries that bullied China the most were Russia and Japan. Chinese still smart over what they perceive to be the unequal way the Soviet Union treated China during the heyday of Moscow's relations with Beijing.
"To be frank," Lu said, "it would be easier for China and the United States to improve relations than for China and Russia. After all, Beijing and Washington don't have a huge border."
Trade between the two countries was just $8 billion last year and is expected to reach $10 billion this year -- compared with $120 billion between China and the United States. There is very limited Russian investment in China and visa versa.
Even the much-vaunted security ties could be overstated. Western diplomats said military relations are strained over the Russia's slowness in allowing its weapons systems to be incorporated into China's armed forces.
As a matter of symbolism, the treaty is "very significant. The language all sounds to me like the old Soviet-Chinese alliance," said Michael McFaul, a Russia scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "But I think it is more tactical than grand strategy because in the long run the Russians know they've got more to fear from the Chinese. Both countries need their connections to the West more than they need each other."
Pomfret reported from Beijing.