When the new US ambassador arrives in Beijing this week to begin guiding US-China ties into the 21st century, he might feel as if he is moving ahead into the past - to a 1950s world where Washington faced a formidable Sino-Soviet axis.
Ambassador Joseph Prueher will be forced to wait for an audience with China's top leaders while Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin holds a two-day summit with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The Chinese and Russian leaders are expected to discuss weapons transfers and other measures aimed at containing the globe's sole superpower.
"The Russian-Chinese strategic partnership is growing closer," says June Treufel Dreyer, an expert on the Chinese military at the University of Miami.
Growing arms sales from Moscow to Beijing "could be matched by joint military maneuvers and mutual troop withdrawals from the Chinese-Russian border," adds Professor Dreyer.
Beijing has already voiced support for Russia's military campaign in Chechnya, and Yeltsin is trying to form a united front against potential Western intervention in either country's ethnic conflicts.
US military superiority since the breakup of the Soviet Union nearly a decade ago, along with Washington's increasing willingness to use that power to solve ethnic or human rights problems within other nations, is alarming Russia and China.
Resisting West's interference
"The expansion of NATO toward Russia's borders and the attack on Yugoslavia on so-called humanitarian grounds are pushing Russia and China closer together," says Yan Xuetong, a scholar at the Chinese Institute for Contemporary International Studies.
Military officials here warn that Washington's criticism of the Chechnya campaign could portend its interference in Russia or China's drive to crush pro-independence movements.
In response, China and Russia seem to be moving toward a quasi-alliance to check Washington, say defense analysts in all three countries.
Russia has already sold or agreed to sell China approximately 90 SU-27 jetfighters, destroyers equipped with Sunburn missiles, 4 kilo-class submarines, and 30 to 50 advanced SU-30 aircraft, says Dreyer.
The US has banned arms transfers to China since the Army crushed massive pro-democracy protests in Beijing in 1989, but "those sanctions create the impression here that the US defense establishment is hostile toward China," says scholar Yan.
Moscow is in the middle of a battle against Chechen rebels, while Beijing is facing its own potential insurrection by Muslim guerrillas in northwest China. Both are apprehensive that a US-led military coalition could one day intervene to protect out-gunned ethnic minorities in Chechnya or Xinjiang, just as NATO did in Kosovo.
Vladimir Zakharov, a spokesman at the Russian Embassy in Beijing, says one of the main purposes of the Yeltsin-Jiang summit "is to discuss Chechnya and the struggle against international terrorism. Like Russia, China is very serious about fighting religious-inspired separatist movements."
While the West has condemned Russia's scorched-earth assault on Chechnya, China's foreign ministry yesterday said it "supports Russian efforts to maintain its national unification and territorial integrity."
Russia and China are also unified in opposition to US plans to create a national antimissile shield. They issued a joint UN resolution in October warning that the move could spark a new arms race.
After seizing power in 1949, China's Communist leaders quickly forged a military alliance with the Soviet Union for mutual protection against the Western bloc. But the two sides later engaged in a bitter struggle for leadership of the international communist movement, and a series of border skirmishes ended the alliance in the 1960s.
Ironically, the end of Communist rule in Russia helped end Chinese fears of Moscow's expansionism and paved the way for a renewed defense relationship.
"Russian officers are now attending Chinese military academies, and vice versa," says Dreyer. "Perhaps hundreds of Russian scientists are already in Chinese weapons research programs." But "I think it's going to be awhile before a Russian-Chinese military alliance takes place," she says.
Anger over NATO
Tentative defense links between the US and China literally exploded when NATO jetfighters mistargeted Beijing's embassy in Belgrade with missiles that killed three people in May during the Kosovo conflict.
"Reaching an agreement on US compensation for the embassy [building] is one of the biggest obstacles to unfreezing defense ties," says a Western official.
Mr. Yan says "The Chinese people will remember the embassy bombing for a long time, but they understand the importance of military contacts with the US to prevent a conflict between our two countries."
Yan and US defense analysts say Prueher, a retired Navy admiral and former commander in chief of US Pacific Command, could be the perfect figure to set US-China defense ties, along with the overall relationship, back on an even keel.
A Western defense analyst says that while hard-liners in the US and China might perceive the other side as a growing threat, Prueher realizes "China's armed forces now don't have the capability to project power beyond their borders."
Yan says Prueher could help launch a permanent dialogue between the US and Chinese armies aimed at reducing mistrust and building on the two sides' common interests. Yan says he was heartened during a mid-1998 meeting with the admiral, when "Prueher said that his top priority as head of the Pacific fleet was not to fight a war, but to prevent a war."
And while the reemergence of a Chinese-Russian axis could counter current American dominance in the global arena, it is far from clear that the widening Eurasian defense ties will ever become an alliance.
"There is a significant level of discontent in the Russian military over stepped-up arms sales to China," Dreyer says.
"Some Russian officers are saying 'China is a rising power and Russia is a declining power - are we not selling China weapons they could one day use against us?' "
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society