BEIJING — BETWEEN Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his nationalistic Communist rivals, China doesn't think the Russian leader looks so bad after all.
Mr. Yeltsin travels to China this week to meet senior Chinese Communist leaders who detest his democratic credentials. But he has also presided over growing diplomatic warmth and military cooperation between the two cold-war rivals, a dtente that worries some Western countries.
During his three-day visit starting tomorrow, Yeltsin will sign agreements to settle decades-long territorial disputes, jointly develop a natural-gas pipeline from Siberia to the Yellow Sea, stop Chinese piracy of strategic equipment from Russia, and other deals.
Chinese analysts say Beijing's Communists may not like the Russian president, but they appreciate his decision to abide by unpopular agreements returning disputed lands to China. They are unsure if Yeltsin's rival in the presidential elections in June, Gennady Zyuganov, would do the same.
"Right now the leadership prefers Yeltsin because they are not sure what kind of person Zyuganov is," says a Chinese analyst, who attended a recent meeting of Chinese Russia experts in Beijing. "They are happy ... because he says he will honor the agreements."
Beijing and Moscow have long had testy ties due to their 2,700-mile border, where they skirmished during their 30-year Communist ideological split. In 1995, however, bilateral trade reached $5.46 billion, although that is down from a high of $7 billion in 1993 and greatly trails China's economic links with Japan, South Korea, US, Taiwan, and Germany.
To put economic ties on stronger political footing, the two sides are easing border tensions. During the Yeltsin visit, Russia, China and three former Soviet states, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, will sign a treaty promising not to attack one another. The accord will also pledge not to target military exercises at each other and provides for observer teams.
"To put it in a nutshell, the treaty is an increase of transparency...." says a Russian diplomat in Beijing.
"China is not only our neighbor, it is a country with which we have the longest border in the world. Geographically, we are destined to be together. We need a very, very friendly, stable, predictable, transparent relationship. We must know what is going on, what will happen, and what it will mean for us."
With less to fear from each other along their long border, China and Russia have boosted their military ties. Along with Moscow aggressively pursuing arms exports to Asia, a modernizing Chinese Army is seeking Russian technology and know-how.
In its quest to build a navy with long-range capability that can help assert its Asian territorial claims, China is buying up to 10 Kilo-class attack submarines from Russia. Submarines have been a major area of military expansion for China as it develops a new generation of submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Russia has also sold China high-performance SU-27 fighter jets and the licensed technology to produce the aircraft in China in a deal valued at $2 billion. Beginning in 1992, Beijing bought 24 fighters and this year reached an agreement to acquire 72 more.
Reflecting Russian uneasiness over China's superpower hopes, the production agreement is believed to carry a pledge that Beijing will not use the aircraft against Russia.
"China wants to secure all its borders, especially the one with Russia, so it can turn its sights to the southeast," says a Western military analyst here.
YET, past irritants continue to cloud the new partnership. A tide of Chinese immigration into the sparsely populated Russian Far East has raised fears of growing Chinese influence. Russian newspapers have estimated that more than 2 million Chinese have settled in the area since the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the easing of border controls.
The Chinese immigrants have acquired a growing share of real estate and other business interests. Their activities have become an increasingly bitter political issue in Russian cities like Vladivostock. During the first half of the next century, Chinese could become the second-largest minority in the Russian Federation, some demographers estimate.
The Chinese presence has made Russian plans to cede land to China particularly prickly. Under the new border agreement, 3,700 acres of territory will be given to China, including some islands in the Tumen River.
As China's population continues to spiral higher and arable land shrinks, Russia fears a Chinese political collapse could send thousands of refugees across the border. "Immigration is one of the problems we have with China. It is a very real, practical problem," says the Russian diplomat.