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National Perspective | International Outlook

Putin Has China Card Up His Sleeve

March 29, 2000|JIM MANN | Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday

WASHINGTON — Now that Vladimir V. Putin has been elected president of Russia, he soon will confront some questions of no small consequence for the United States and the rest of the world.

They are: How far will Russia go in its deepening military relationship with China? Will the two countries cooperate on developing new, advanced weapon systems? On nukes?

Among the first of the world leaders rushing to congratulate Putin on his successful political campaign was Chinese President Jiang Zemin. He sent a message Sunday urging that Russia and China work together for a "multipolar world." Translation: Let's team up to counterbalance the power of the United States.

Like a good salesman, Jiang followed up his written message with a phone call Monday over the Moscow-Beijing hotline, in which he told Putin they should "deepen the strategic partnership" between the two countries.

Putin is supposed to visit China later this year for his first summit meeting with Jiang. At a time when the United States will be preoccupied with its own elections, Russia and China likely will be determining what kind of world a new U.S. president will confront.

Already, the Sino-Russian partnership has reached levels that would have been unimaginable merely a decade ago. In 1990, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square crackdown and the rupture of U.S. military sales to China, Beijing rekindled its long-frozen relationship with Moscow.

Since then, China has bought billions of dollars in Russian military hardware, ranging from the Su-27 warplanes of the early 1990s to the Sovremenny destroyer delivered earlier this year.

Russia for years held back from selling its best, most advanced hardware and technology to China. However, some of these strictures began to loosen over the last year, after both Russia and China were angered by the U.S. and NATO military operations against Yugoslavia.

Still, there's quite a bit more that Russia and China could do together, if they choose.

"The question is, do the Russians believe that over time it serves their interests to collaborate with the Chinese on things that are now off the weapon screen--things like nuclear weapons, missiles and space-related technologies?" asked Jonathan Pollack, a specialist on Asian military affairs at the Rand Corp.

Already, there are signs of change in some of these areas.

Earlier this month, the Russian newspaper Izvestia reported that during a visit by Vice Premier Ilya Klebanov to Beijing, a deal was reached in which Russia would help China to create an orbital space station.

Underlying this cooperation are larger dynamics. In some ways, the Russian and Chinese military industries complement one another. China has money but is short on technology and trained personnel; Russia has skilled scientists but needs cash.

Moreover, if Russia wants to produce new weapon systems, such as next-generation fighter planes, then China can provide not just money for research and development but also a market after the weaponry comes off the assembly lines.

Russia is especially eager for that China market. In late January, Putin chaired a Kremlin meeting at which Russia decided to push hard to make more money from weapon exports this year.

Afterward, Klebanov told reporters that arms exports brought in $3.6 billion last year, with more than half of the money coming from Russia's two biggest customers, India and China. He estimated that Russia's sales will top $4 billion this year, for the first time in a decade.

Of course, the cooperation between Russia and China extends well beyond weapon sales. China backs Russia's stance on Chechnya in the face of criticism from the West.

And Russia supports China's positions on Taiwan. In their hotline phone call Monday, Putin promised Jiang that Russia will not sell arms to Taiwan--an oblique reference to U.S. arms sales to the island.

What does this deepening relationship imply for American policy toward Russia? The Clinton administration would like to improve its ties to Moscow now that the Russian election is over.

The administration hopes for some agreement with Russia on revisions of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which in turn would pave the way for a national missile-defense system in this country. The White House is also eager for the Russian Duma to ratify the START II treaty limiting nuclear warheads.

The result: Putin, the leader of a desperately weak country, may yet have considerable leverage in dealing with China and the United States. He may try to play the two against one another, seeing if he can get, on the one hand, loans and debt relief from Washington and, on the other hand, weapon sales revenues from Beijing.

The Cold War is long gone. But amid all the talk of an era of globalization, the strategic triangle of ties among Russia, China and the United States isn't quite dead yet.

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