Sino-Soviet Summit: Thawing the Big Chill. Beijing to press for Soviet pullout from Southeast Asian base
BEIJING — BEIJING will urge Moscow at a summit next week to clear the way for fully normalized ties by quitting its massive military base at Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay, according to a former vice-foreign minister of China. The call for a Soviet pullout from its largest overseas military base shows that Beijing's chief aim in the summit is to eliminate the strategic threat to China's southern border, says Yu Zhan, former vice-foreign minister for Soviet and East European affairs.
The Soviets, however, have never indicated that they would make a unilateral withdrawal from Cam Ranh Bay.
China's continued concern over Soviet military power shows that despite the probable warmth of the first Sino-Soviet summit in 30 years, the longstanding mistrust between the two Asian neighbors is likely to persist, Western and Asian diplomats say.
China already has made significant progress in checking its foe to the south by pressuring Moscow into extracting a pledge from Vietnam to withdraw from Cambodia by the end of September.
During the four-day summit, which begins Monday, China hopes to solidify this pledge and persuade Moscow to agree to its terms for international supervision of Vietnam's withdrawal and an interim Cambodian government.
The interim government would be composed of the three Cambodian resistance factions and the Hanoi-backed regime in Phnom Penh, Chinese diplomats say.
Unlike Vietnam's withdrawal from Cambodia, a Soviet pullback from the Cam Ranh Bay military base is not a prerequisite for the initial normalization of Sino-Soviet ties, says Mr. Yu, a former ambassador to Canada.
But such a withdrawal would help ensure that Moscow and Beijing can dispel lingering tensions in their relations, he says.
``I think the Cam Ranh Bay issue cannot be avoided if we are really going to normalize bilateral relations'' with the Soviets, Yu says.
The Soviet Union has stationed warships, submarines, a squadron of MIG-23 jet fighters, an electronic-monitoring center, and other facilities at the former US military base in Cam Ranh Bay on the South China Sea, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The Soviet forces have irritated China during its disputes with Vietnam over their common border and the strategically critical Spratley Islands in the South China Sea, Western diplomats say.
China and Vietnam fought a brief war along their common border in 1979. In the past several months, they have also engaged in minor naval battles over the Spratleys.
Beijing has so far raised the issue of the base only in principle, urging Moscow to withdraw its military forces from third-world countries, Yu says. But with Vietnam promising to withdraw from Cambodia, Moscow should contribute to a reduction of military tensions in Indochina and pull out of the bay, he says.
``The Russians supported the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia [in 1978] in exchange for the use of Cam Ranh Bay, so the two issues have been closely linked,'' Yu says. Depending on how Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reacts to Indochinese issues at the summit, Beijing may wait until after the Cambodia problem is solved to fully address the issue of the Soviet base, he added.
Before agreeing to a summit, China required that Moscow remove ``three obstacles:'' Withdraw from Afghanistan, reduce its troop strength along their common border, and compel Vietnam to agree to end its occupation of Cambodia.
During the summit, both sides are expected to applaud greater bilateral trade and expanded consultations over efforts to reform their socialist political and economic systems.
But the main focus of China's diplomacy will be to press Moscow into pulling back its forces from Indochina and its border with China, Yu says.
``The main point of progress we hope from the summit is that we will normalize bilateral relations and put an end to the Russian threat to China that has existed for several years,'' he says.
Yet Beijing will find it a challenge at the summit to end this threat on its own terms, Western and Asian diplomats say.
While making slight concessions recently, the Soviets, Vietnam, and the Hun Sen regime in Cambodia have dodged China's efforts to clarify the makeup of the international group to monitor Vietnam's pullout and the profile of an interim regime that will run Cambodia until the country's election.
Also, the Beijing-backed Khmer Rouge, the largest of the resistance forces, has refused to join the Hun Sen regime in a four-member, interim coalition government. China so far has had more success in persuading the Soviets to reduce tensions along its western and northern border.
In February Moscow eliminated one of the three obstacles to improved ties with Beijing by removing its troops from Afghanistan. And it has pledged to withdraw 200,000 troops from China's northern border.
But ``based on [its] past experience in relations with Moscow and Hanoi, [China does] not attach importance to what they say. One clear act is more profound than 100 beautiful words,'' Yu says.
Although Mr. Gorbachev's foreign policy is more moderate and flexible than that of his predecessors, Beijing is still waiting for additional proof of his peaceful and friendly aims.
``It remains to be tested by practical deeds and time as to whether the Soviet Union can thoroughly correct its deep-rooted, big-nation chauvinism and hegemonism under the guidance of Gorbachev's `new thinking,''' writes Yu Gang of the Beijing Institute for International Strategic Studies in the latest issue of the official magazine Beijing Review.
China's skepticism toward Russian intentions is likely to discourage the two countries from restoring relations to the warmth of their alliance in the 1950s, says Winston Lord, former United States ambassador to China.
``The fact is that history and geography will not change, and that over the coming decades China still has to look warily to its north over the Great Wall and it has to recall, as do the Russians, a certain historical and racial animosity and geopolitical competition,'' Mr. Lord said last month before the end of his tenure as ambassador. ``So these two big empires up against each other with overlapping ethnic populations and disputed borders are not going to become allies the way they were in the 1950s,'' Lord said.