A historic accord

Print edition : August 04, 2001

The signing of the friendship and cooperation treaty between China and Russia represents a watershed in relations between the two countries.

IN a significant development, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the visiting Chinese President Jiang Zemin, signed at the Kremlin on July 16 "The Good Neighbourly Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation". According to Russian and Chinese commentators, the treaty reflects the national priorities of both countries. Both sides stressed that the treaty, which will be valid for 20 years, was not aimed against any third party.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin.-AP PHOTO/XINHUA, WANG XINQING

The signing, however, highlighted the growing unease of both countries with the policies of the United States. Both Moscow and Beijing want to counteract forcefully Washington's bid to reinforce its role as the only superpower. The Russian and Chinese leaderships want to create a multipolar environment in order to offset the increasing U.S. ability to influence world affairs. According to a Russian commentator, the pact reflects the nature of the emerging relations between the two countries, based on the principles of non-confrontation and non-alignment.

In the last 15 years, Russian-Chinese relations have evolved from a stage of tensions and ideological differences to one of normalisation and strategic partnership. Common goals such as regional security and stability, coupled with similar views on strategic issues, have helped the two countries come together, overcoming the animosities of the late 1960s and the 1970s.

Russia and China share the same perspectives on the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty (ABM), the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the Balkans, and the territorial integrity of both countries. Beijing has extended full support to Moscow on the issue of Chechnya. Moscow for its part has supported Beijing's stand on Taiwan, which seeks the island's reunification with mainland China. According to the new treaty, Russia admits that "there is only one China in the world, the People's Republic of China government is the only legitimate government, representing all China, while Taiwan is its inalienable part". Russia and China have also been cooperating within the framework of the Shanghai Five to combat terrorism and religious militancy.

The signing of the treaty was preceded by high-level negotiations between the leaderships of the two countries. Although Moscow had been keen for quite some time to conclude such a treaty, Beijing was initially reluctant as it thought that it would compromise its independent foreign policy. After Putin took over as Russia's President, negotiations to formalise the treaty started in right earnest. The Chinese leadership was never comfortable with the erratic ways of the Boris Yeltsin presidency. During Jiang Zemin's visit to Moscow in 1999, both sides decided to accelerate the process. When Putin visited Beijing in July 2000, both sides reached an official agreement to prepare the draft of the treaty.

Both Russia and China have emphasised that the new treaty is not a successor to the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship. The 1950 treaty was signed when the socialist bloc was on the ascendant. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was then led by Josef Stalin and China by Mao Zedong. The 1950 treaty resulted in a formidable Sino-Soviet alliance in the Cold War days and lasted until the late 1960s. The clashes between Chinese and Russian forces in 1968 on the Amur river effectively spelt the end of the old treaty which was to last until 1979. Given the circumstances that prevailed in the late 1970s, it was no surprise that China decided not to extend that treaty.

The new treaty, both sides have pointed out, does not have a military component. Both sides have pledged not to use force or the threat of use of force or economic pressure against each other. They have agreed to resolve all contentious issues in accordance with the United Nations Charter and the norms of international law. They have pledged not to use nuclear weapons against each other or target strategic missiles at each other.

The treaty categorically states that Russia and China shall contact each other in case a situation arises, that can in the opinion of either party threaten peace or affect their security interests. Priority is also given to the resolution of the territorial problems that have bedevilled relations between the two countries. The two countries share a 4,250-km-long border. However, only about 58 km of it have disputed stretches. It is in this context that the treaty talks about the need to continue talks until the border question is fully resolved.

The treaty has been signed at a time when both countries are upset with Washington's plans to go ahead with the National Missile Defence (NMD) programme. In fact, the Sino-Russian treaty was signed two days after the U.S. claimed that it had successfully conducted an anti-missile test. Both Russia and China have been insisting that Star Wars II, which the Bush administration seems intent to start, will irrevocably undermine the ABM Treaty and set off another nuclear arms race.

After signing the treaty, the Russian and Chinese sides stressed "the basic importance of the ABM Treaty, which is a cornerstone of strategic stability and the basis for reducing offensive weapons and speaks out for maintaining the treaty in its current form".

At a press conference after the signing of the treaty, President Putin questioned the rationale of Washington's plan to have a missile shield as a protection against potential attacks from "rogue states". "I don't see that there are compelling reasons to create an anti-missile defence system, because nobody is threatening the United States. The countries which are considered to be dangerous would need 20, 30, 40 years to build up a credible offensive system," said Putin.

The summit in Moscow made it clear that both China and Russia were resolute in their belief that the ABM Treaty remained the cornerstone of global strategic stability and strategic security. They pointed out that international agreements on the reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms and the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction were based on the ABM Treaty.

Moscow and Beijing remain united in their view that the scrapping of the ABM Treaty would lead to the proliferation of not only conventional nuclear weapons but also nuclear missile weapons. President Jiang Zemin, speaking about the strategic dimensions of the treaty, said that increased cooperation between Moscow and Beijing would improve global stability. "We believe that more active cooperation between our countries in discussing missile defence and disarmament will enhance our efforts at building a multipolar world and establish a fair, rational international order."

Moscow has the capacity to react to the NMD plans by arming hundreds of its Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) with multiple warheads. Putin, addressing a press conference on July 18, said that if the ABM Treaty broke down, Russia would have the legal right to resort to this option. "This will be the cheapest reply, which no one will be able to counter in the next 50, perhaps 100, years," said Putin. The ICBMs were meant to be scrapped under the provisions of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START-II)Treaty.

Since China has only a few ICBMs, it will be left with no option but to step up its nuclear missile programme. This could lead to a chain reaction in the region. The U.S. State Department recently circulated among its embassies a document that stated that the plans to test elements of the NMD system "will conflict with the requirements of the 1972 treaty within the next few months, not years". The U.S. missile test in July was within the NMD framework.

Sino-Russian relations were further strengthened when, a few days after the signing of the historic treaty, China signed a $2 billion-deal with Russia for the purchase of 38 Su-30 MKK ground attack aircraft. The Su-30s will complement the 70 Su-27s it has already bought. For Russia, China has now become a bigger arms market than India. According to the Russian media, China accounts for between 30 and 50 per cent of Russia's foreign military sales. However, their bilateral trade adds up only to around $10 billion, which is only a fraction of China's $115-billion annual trade with the U.S. But the new treaty is bound to give economic ties a boost. The two countries recently agreed to build a 2,400-km pipeline to carry oil from Siberia to northeastern China.

The Bush administration is trying to play down the pact, characterising it as a reaction to the U.S. missile defence plan. Bush administration officials remain confident that the two countries need the U.S. more than they need each other.

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