Top Stories from the Editorial/Opionion pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Tuesday, April 8, 1997

Why the West Should Embrace Russia-China Détente

By Jennifer Anderson and Gerald Segal International Herald Tribune
LONDON - As Chinese and Russian officials prepare for a summit meeting of their presidents later this month, the two sides will be emphasizing the importance of their year-old ''strategic partnership.'' The West should remain cool - so cool that it should tell China and Russia that their détente is not only welcome but should be deepened.

Western policymakers can afford to be unperturbed by Chinese-Russian détente because it is so obviously sustained, restrained and complicated by the respective weaknesses of China and Russia. Growth in their bilateral trade has stalled, liberalization of cross-border contacts has been reversed and neither country has a confident policy in Central Asia.

Of course, the West does have some concern about Russia's transfer of defense technology to China. The air and naval weapons sold so far are not Russia's most advanced, nor are they a threat to Asia-Pacific nations that are aligned with the West. But they are directed against Taiwan and provide China with a vital technological advantage that will enhance its long-term plans to achieve self-sufficiency in military production and be able to project power a long way from its borders.

On the other hand, Western interests have benefited from the end of Chinese-Russian rivalry for North Korean favor, thereby making it easier to press Pyongyang to the negotiating table. The improvement in relations between Beijing and Moscow has also helped drive Japan closer to the United States, has ensured that Russia tries to resolve the impasse in its relations with Japan, and has made it possible to enlist Russian support in encouraging China to be more cooperative in international arms control, for example by signing the international treaty to ban nuclear weapons testing.

On balance, Chinese-Russian détente has been good for stability in Northeast Asia. As a result, Western powers can afford to press Beijing and Moscow to go further and faster. But the West has a barely coherent policy toward Russia, is deeply divided about China and has no real policy toward their bilateral relationship.

The main features that Western advocacy of closer Chinese-Russian ties could seek would be improved economic links between the two countries and greater transparency in their defense cooperation.

The current economic relationship is stagnating because it is seen primarily in bilateral terms, and Russia fears being swamped by China. If Moscow and Beijing tried to work their bilateral economic dealings, much of it barter, into a wider multilateral context - including compliance with the norms of international trade and finance - far more would be achieved.

Japan and South Korea would prefer to invest in a more predictable, open and less politicized environment. Given the rising oil and gas imports of China, South Korea and Japan, and the energy projects in the Russian Far East that are starved of capital, the energy sector could be a major area for future cooperation. Agreed goals for developing energy resources would also provide the kind of stability in Central Asia that would make Western firms more confident to invest.

Closer military links between China and Russia would enhance regional stability if they were achieved in an open manner consistent with global arms control standards. Unfortunately, the details of the border demarcation and demilitarization agreements to be signed by the two presidents later this month are expected to remain secret. As a result, they will allow Beijing and Moscow to fudge their differences.

Such secrecy will breed public distrust in both countries, fuel nationalist sentiments within Russia and postpone crucial decisions in China about opening its military affairs more widely to international scrutiny. There would be less international concern about Russian arms sales to China if it were more generally understood that they are no longer cutting-edge technologies.

In advocating closer Chinese-Russian ties, the West would be making the reasonable assumption that Moscow, far more than Beijing, is willing to accept the kind of global norms in economics, politics and security that the West values.

The West also assumes that Russia ultimately fears China, worries about potential Chinese dominance of the bilateral relationship and wants to work more closely with the West, particularly Japan. Such a strategy should include recognition of Russia's claims to membership of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

If the West shows that it does not fear Chinese-Russian collaboration, Moscow may also see that the West does not wish to exclude it from international society. Russia's worries about NATO enlargement could ease as a result.

But the most important outcome would be that Russia would offer the West a new way to meet the challenge of bringing China into the international system as a more cooperative player.

Ms. Anderson is a research associate and Mr. Segal a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in London. They contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.