BEIJING — Pentagon strategists are likely to focus this week on Moscow, where Jiang Zemin and Boris Yeltsin are meeting to map out details of an evolving Sino-Russian partnership.
The two presidents have both hailed strengthening economic, political, and military ties, and have vowed to seek consensus on the changing "world order."
"Sino-Russian relations have never been so healthy," says Igor Rogachev, Russia's ambassador to China. "Our countries are moving to create vast zones of peace in Asia." He concedes that in addition to signing a border troop-reduction pact, Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Jiang are slated to discuss Moscow's sales of high-tech military equipment as part of the two nations' "strategic partnership."
Moscow is already China's top arms supplier, and the flow of weapons is expected to grow if Beijing decides to translate its growing economic might into military force.
Most policymakers in Washington publicly say they welcome an easing of tensions between Moscow and Beijing. But burgeoning arms sales from the world's first to its last Communist giant probably have some American planners worried, especially those who believe that history repeats itself.
For some, the renewed friendship could portend a resurgent "strategic triangle:" the changing war scenarios, countermoves, alliances, and betrayals that for decades marked ties between the US, Russia, and China. Foreign policy analysts say that in the heyday of the triangle, the world resembled a geopolitical chessboard featuring three players - Moscow, Beijing, and Washington - with each trying to checkmate one or both of its rivals.
"During that era, the security policies of each state were basically determined by the relationship between the other two," says Robert Ross, a China scholar at Harvard University.
Although allies throughout the 1950s, China and Russia became bitter rivals for dominance over the socialist bloc the following decade, and both also viewed Washington as a major threat. At the height of hostilities 30 years ago, each side prepared for an Armageddon waged simultaneously by its two rivals.
"The basic rationale for forging diplomatic ties between the US and China in the 1970s was to counter a common enemy - expanding Soviet power," says Mr. Ross.
"But most analysts thought the Chinese military's crackdown at Tiananmen Square and the collapse of the Soviet empire destroyed the foundations of the strategic triangle," he adds.
"The US push for the expansion of NATO closer and closer to Russia's borders, combined with its sales of sophisticated weapons to Taiwan, could push Russia and China together into a new common front," says Ross.
Ambassador Rogachev says that although a "common history and politics" will propel Moscow and Beijing closer, "there is no way back to the military alliance of the 1950's."
At that time, the Communist allies supported North Korea's 1950 attack on the US-backed South, and some American analysts must be trying to predict if the past would be prologue if Pyongyang launched another strike today.
Each side of the triangle, Rogachev says, has learned from the past and adds, "let's try not to divide the world again."
Others agree. "There is an almost perfect symmetry between the Russian and Chinese economies and goals," says a China analyst from a former Soviet republic in Beijing. "Moscow needs Chinese consumer goods, cash, and investment, while Beijing needs Russia's technology, equipment, and arms.... The important thing is they approach each other as equals, and don't criticize each other in public," the analyst adds.
She cites as a prime example a recent resolution against China's human rights policies introduced at the UN in Geneva. "The US strongly backed the motion, while Russia abstained."
She adds that Washington is increasingly perceived in both Beijing and Moscow as having grown "drunk with power" since the fall of the Soviet Union. "When China's leaders come to Moscow, they don't dictate, but the US does. It's natural for China and Russia to unite, if only to check the influence of the last superpower."
Despite the growing bonds between Moscow and Beijing, however, many US scholars downplay the possibility of a new Beijing-Moscow axis aimed at containing the US. "The 1950s alliance was an aberration in centuries of sporadic conflict between Russia and China," says Merle Goldman, a China analyst at Boston University.
"This new 'partnership' can't erase the long history of mistrust that has divided Moscow and Beijing," she says.