The Love Affair between the Rising Dragon and the Wounded Bear: Jian Yang Comments on the Warming Relationship between China and Russia

By Yang, Jian | New Zealand International Review, September-October 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Love Affair between the Rising Dragon and the Wounded Bear: Jian Yang Comments on the Warming Relationship between China and Russia


Yang, Jian, New Zealand International Review


The Sino-Russian relationship is a continuation of Sino-Soviet relations. The late 1980s witnessed a dramatic improvement of China's relations with the Soviet Union with General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to Beijing in May 1989 and President Jiang Zemin's trip to Moscow one year later. Each visit resulted in a joint communique emphasising the commitment to a good relationship. Agreements were reached on issues like strengthening economic relations, reducing tensions along borders, settling border disputes, and Soviet support for Beijing's sovereignty over Taiwan.

The Russian Federation did not inherit the momentum in the immediate aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union in December 1991. This was partly because the new Russian leadership gave China a low priority in its foreign relations. With liberal values rapidly rising in Russia, China's human rights problem and lack of political reform became a hurdle in Sino-Russian relations. In early 1992, at the meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, the Russian representative voted for the first time in favour of including on the agenda the question of human rights violations in Tibet. For a while China, as the only remaining socialist power, was concerned that Russia might gang up with the West against it.

Both Beijing and Moscow, however, made efforts to keep the contact. In December 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin visited China. The two sides issued a joint declaration on the fundamentals of the bilateral relationship. The declaration restated the main points contained in the Sino-Soviet joint communiques of 1989 and 1990. What was new was agreement not to 'conclude with any third country any kind of treaty or agreement that will harm the other country's sovereignty and security; nor ... allow a third country to use their territory to harm the other country's sovereignty and security interests'.

The bilateral relationship improved dramatically after 1993, an especially turbulent year for Russia. In January 1994, Yeltsin sent a letter to Jiang, proposing a 'constructive partnership aimed at the 21st century'. The two countries have since institutionalised the relationship and maintained frequent high-level contacts, including a number of summits. Of these summits, Yeltsin's visit to China in April 1996 deserves special attention. The Chinese highly value this visit largely because, among other things, Yeltsin suggested on his way to China a revision in the already prepared Sino-Russian Joint Declaration, changing the 'constructive partnership' into 'strategic partnership'.

New height

Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin's successor, continued the momentum and extended Yeltsin's China policy. In his first year as President, Putin paid a visit to China in July 2000. The Sino-Russian relationship reached a new height one year later when the two countries signed the Treaty for Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Co-operation. The treaty covers five important areas of cooperation, including joint actions to offset a perceived US hegemonism; demarcation of the two countries' long-disputed 4300-kilometre border; arms sales and technology transfer; energy and raw materials supply; and the rise of militant Islam in Central Asia. (1)

Improved political relations did result in some impressive accomplishments. Firstly, the two countries no longer perceive each other as an immediate threat. In 1992, Russia completed its withdrawal of forces from Mongolia. In 1994, the two sides agreed to measures that would reduce the risk of dangerous military incidents. In 1996, the leaders of the 'Shanghai Five' (2)--Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan--agreed to a set of confidence-building and transparency measures on their shared borders. In 1997, Russia agreed to reduce the size of its forces in the 100-kilometre border zone by 15 per cent.

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