In April 1996, erstwhile antagonists China and Russia unveiled what they termed a strategic partnership for the future. On that occasion in Shanghai, President Jiang said, “China is not posing, and will not pose in the future, any threat to Russia.” President Boris Yeltsin, with customary unbridled enthusiasm, said, “I view the Sino-Russian partnership as a model for relations between two countries I can’t name a single question on which we would have different opinions.”32 Near the end of 1997, both Moscow and Beijing reportedly described the Sino-Russian relationship more fully as “constructive cooperation aimed at strategic partnership in the twenty-first century.” 33 Over the more than 2 years since the term “strategic partnership” was introduced, various versions of the description have been employed. It has been called a “strategic cooperation partnership” and a “strategic coordination partnership,” the latter expression thought by some to be favored by the Chinese. An April 1997 Sino-Russian joint statement that might be seen as a definitive definition of the concept used the words “strategic partnership of equality and mutual trust,” omitting the much-discussed adjectives.
Regardless of the precise wording of the description of the bilateral arrangement, its mere existence and other pertinent factors reveal at the very least a desire in Beijing and Moscow to demonstrate to Washington and others considerable confidence that the bilateral relationship is on a firm footing for the future. First and foremost, there is the repeated attention to extolling the virtues of the purportedly new form of relationship. Other relevant factors are that Presidents Jiang and Yeltsin (despite the Russian’s bad health) have conducted six summit meetings in recent years and that there have been numerous bilateral and multilateral security undertakings and bilateral economic undertakings. This apparent mutual confidence in a stable, positive relationship is not something to be taken for granted. Recent history (certainly on the Chinese time scale) has witnessed abrupt swings in relations between Moscow and Beijing.
Obvious to all was the very close Sino-Soviet cooperation in the 1950s, which gave way to animosity and distrust in the early 1960s, with good relations resumed in the 1980s. Less obvious is that at the end of the 1980s, when then-President Mikhail Gorbachev visited a China on the brink of the Tiananmen Square debacle, the Soviet Union was coasting economically, and the Soviet Communist Party seemed to have found a way to achieve reform and remain viable. Now, the situation is quite different. With Russia’s political and economic reform in peril, unresolved by the recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout, China can gloat over the status of its economy and a Communist Party that has stayed in power through flexibility and adjustment during a time of great change in Chinese society. China smoothly effected the transition of national presidents, with Jiang Zemin consolidating his own power as he replaced Yang Shangkun, and of premiers, with Zhu replacing Li. In contrast, the Russian transition from President Gorbachev to President Yeltsin was tumultuous. With respect to prime ministers, Russia has also experienced turbulence, shifting from Viktor Chernomyrdin to Sergei Kiriyenko and then to temporary limbo, all in a matter of 5 months. It is now the lot of Russian leaders to be envious; yet neither that emotion nor Chinese crowing has been evident as an irritant in the relationship.
The Economic Victors and Vanquished. Another pertinent aspect of these events not lost on Chinese leaders is that national economic developments, not comparative military prowess, have been instrumental in the reversal of roles between China and Russia. The change in the military condition has been an indirect consequence of economic and political developments in both countries. Significantly, as the foreign ministers of China and Russia met in Beijing in July 1998 specifically to discuss security issues and prepare for another meeting between their presidents, they ignored the IMF flurry and deteriorating political environment in Moscow and talked of ways that their countries could cooperate to achieve a breakthrough in the Asian financial crisis. This makes it clear that the regional security tools that are most appealing to China and Russia are economic and not military. Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov reinforced that instinct among Chinese leaders when he effusively praised China’s economic successes. The contrast between the countries could hardly be more stark: Russia’s economic crisis deepens, and China, even with weakening economic growth prospects, seems to be weathering the Asian crisis better by far than almost all its neighbors. China has achieved a secure relationship, even something that can be termed a strategic partnership, almost completely through its national economic progress. All the while, the bested partner, Russia, is benignly cooperating with China in challenging the U.S. role in the region. Many in Beijing must feel that they have succeeded in subduing the bear and that China can be much more secure when it looks northward.
America Bashing. Challenging the United States is another important aspect of the solidarity between Beijing and Moscow that has enhanced the partnership. The bilateral bonds have been strengthened by the perception of having a common adversary on an important matter. Both capitals have taken great satisfaction in directing barbs at Washington. In December 1996, Premier Li Peng and President Yeltsin candidly vowed to forge closer military and economic ties to counter the influence of the United States in the post-Cold War world. Washington is characterized by these partners as coveting its superpower status in a unipolar world, clinging to Cold War thinking, and pursuing confrontation in its relations with China, while Beijing and Moscow show the world a new model for peaceful relationships. The April 1997 China-Russia joint statement on the bilateral arrangement expresses grandly that the purpose of the partnership is “to promote the multipolarization of the world and the establishment of a new world order.” With evident reference to the United States, it explains,
“The establishment of a just and equitable new international political and economic order based on peace and stability has become the pressing need of the times and the inevitable necessity of history No country should seek hegemony, practice power politics, or monopolize international affairs.”
Of course, international economic disparities are not overlooked. On this issue the joint statement reads:
“It is imperative to eliminate discriminatory policies and practices in economic relations and to strengthen and expand on the basis of equality and mutual benefit exchanges and cooperation in the economic, trade, scientific, technological fields with a view to promoting common development and prosperity.”
To be continued in Part – II