In the past several years, Russia and China have dramatically improved their relations.
At their recently completed summit meeting in Moscow, Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin capped a year of intensive bilateral diplomacy by agreeing to deepen the Sino-Russian strategic partnership, reduce military forces on their border, and stand together on key international issues. Their joint statement takes a swipe at US attempts "to monopolize" international affairs and "to expand and strengthen military blocs" like NATO.
Some observers claim that such words are further evidence that US support for NATO expansion is driving these two mega-states closer together, creating a potential counterbalance to an enlarged Western alliance.
But Russia and China have not formed an effective strategic partnership. All they have accomplished to date is a long overdue normalization of a relationship that had seriously deteriorated in the late 1960s - to the point of massive arms buildups and violent border clashes. The key accomplishments include basic settlement of long-standing border disputes, expanded bilateral trade, and a reduction in military confrontation along the old Sino-Soviet border.
The two countries are burdened with complex problems at home and different ambitions abroad. China is managing a growing economy and a huge population at a time of generational change in the government in Beijing. Its major foreign policy preoccupations are in Asia, not in Europe. In fact, many of China's Russia-watchers are glad to have NATO enlargement as an irritant in US-Russian relations. It makes the kind of US-Russian cooperation feared by Beijing in the early 1990s unlikely.
During hours of talks in Beijing in January, I met no Chinese official or analyst who thought Russia could directly help China in Asia or who believed the Chinese government would seriously intervene in support of Russia in European affairs.
Russia's economy is still weak. Mr. Yeltsin, who has himself only recently returned from months of convalescence, observed in March that "lack of responsibility and incompetence" remain the hallmarks of state power. The military is in shambles, yet it is engaged in various trouble spots throughout the former Soviet Union. It is facing the prospect of NATO expansion in Europe. And it is in no better shape in Asia.
The main obstacle to Sino-Russian strategic cooperation is the potential for future problems within the bilateral relationship itself. There are few in either Moscow or Beijing who believe that the trade relationship can ever meet the $20 billion target set by the two presidents in 1996.
There remain substantial suspicions on both sides, both in the popular sentiment and at senior levels. A substantial number of people in the Russian foreign policy community doubt whether China provides the advantages of an American, European, or even a Japanese partnership. Many in this community are content with China only until a better offer comes along.
In the Far East, a demographic imbalance between 150 million Chinese in northeast China and 7 million Russians in adjacent territories causes senior Russian officials to warn at regular intervals of the danger of Chinese migration. The press routinely exaggerates the numbers of Chinese in Russia illegally, but over time this demographic imbalance will exert pressures of its own regardless of government policies in Moscow or Beijing.
Russian arms for China
There is, however, one aspect of the current relationship likely to have long-term strategic significance: Russian arms sales. Russian defense firms currently provide China with advanced fighters, naval cruisers, surface-to-air missiles, and command-and-control and space-related technologies. These capabilities could significantly enhance China's options in a future Taiwan crisis or elsewhere on the crucial Asian sea lanes near the Chinese mainland. The Chinese military does not have to match US forces system for system in order to alter both the cost of American intervention and the credibility of an American commitment to do so.
The current sales, if they can be sustained and expanded as both parties intend, could eventually meet the most pressing power projection needs of the Chinese military.
But it is too early to tell whether they will do so. To date, Russian defense industries and the Russian government show no inclination to limit arms sales to China. Senior Russian defense officials believe that China will not pose a threat for 15 years. They hope by then to have their Army back in shape, financed in part by these very arms sales.
The real challenge posed by Sino-Russian relations has nothing to do with Europe at all, but with Asia and the flow of arms that will help define China's military reach early in the next century.
* Sherman Garnett is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.