Security partnership

The 1996 security partnership

Obviously, the common threat convinced China and Russia to form a strategic partnership with the robust security aspect, mutually based on equality and trust orienting far toward the 21st century.

The term of “strategic partnership” was first time officially used describing the Sino-Russian relationship, whenChinese leader Jiang Zemin and Russian President Boris Yeltsin held bilateral summit in Beijing in April 1996. Some days later, Shanghai Five coalition was formed. The framework for both bilateral and multilateral aspects of the Sino-Russian relationship was created nearly simultaneously.

The timing of this strategic partnership cannot be more symbolic, because it was one month after the Taiwan crisis and about one week after the US–Japanese joint declaration of strengthening their security alliance. Although China and Russia claimed that their strategic partnership did not target any third party, the joint statement advocated the development of the trend “toward a multipolar world”.

China was obviously a more supplementary than dominant foreign policy priority for Russia till 1996. Primakov’s coming to the Foreign Ministry was the result of the growing frictions that Russia was experiencing in its relations with the West, as well as the obvious evolution of the Russian political elite from the “anticommunist” towards more “centrist” values. Increasing importance of China in Russia’s foreign policy became the benchmark of Moscow’s new course.

Shanghai Five

On April 26, 1996, China and Russia signed a treaty to enhance military confidence-building measures together with three Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, in Shanghai. Thus “Shanghai Five” was created, which later turned to the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The significance of this security arrangement along the borders was to further reduce mutual distrust among these five neighbouring states, especially between China and Russia.

Russia-China Summits

The third Russian-Chinese summit (since 1992) took place in April 1996 in the situation of the growing strain of bilateral relations of both Russia and China with the United States. In Russia’s case this deterioration was caused by the issue of NATO expansion. Moscow considered this expansion as jeopardizing its previous accords with the US. In China’s case, the deterioration of relations with the US was related to the growing tension at the Taiwan straits and the chronic frictions between Beijing and Washington on Tibet and the human rights issues.

The next summit meeting between Russia and China took place in the April 1997 in Moscow. The deepening of the contradictions between Russia and NATO formed the background for the new summit on the Russian side. The Chinese position was strongly influenced by the death of Deng Xiaoping in February 1997. His successor Jiang Zemin entered the critical period of consolidation of power. The new wave of hostilities on the Taiwan straits made the Chinese-American relations even tenser.

Given this background, it was not a surprise that the Russians during this summit were more actively and rather successfully exploiting the “anti-hegemonist” sentiments of Moscow and Beijing. The military and security component of their relations has become more vivid. 

The central document of the 1997 summit was the “Declaration on the Multipolar World and the Formatting of the New International Order”.  The letter of this declaration was later sent to the United Nations on 20 May 1997, jointly drafted and signed by the parties.

The joint declaration reflected a shared perception of external threats from the United States and indicated further security-oriented cooperation between China and Russia.

Incidences go by

One “Asian incidence” in July, 1999 can be added to the overall political picture.  President of Taiwan Lee Deng-hui stated that the relations between Taiwan and China should be treated as “the special relations between two peoples”. This statement was qualified in Beijing as the deviation from the principle “of one China”. The relations between China and Taiwan were deteriorated seriously and the situation in the Taiwan Strait indirectly increases the importance of Beijing’s ties with Moscow, which consistently kept loyal to the principle of “one China” and never hesitated in its support of China’s sovereignty over Taiwan. In August 1999, Russian foreign minister once again confirmed Russian firm standing on this issue.

During his presidency, Boris Yeltsin was the most important promoter of good relations with China. He developed a good personal rapport with Chinese leaders and met nine times with Chinese President Jiang Zemin between 1992 and 1999.

In the following years, Putin went with Yeltsin’s policy of building close relations with China, and stated in 2000 “China for us is really a strategic partner in all spheres of activity.” These views were translated into intensified government-to-government relations surpassing the activity of bilateral relations that existed during Yeltsin’s time in office. Under Putin, meetings between the two countries’ leaders were taking place at least twice a year, with more than 100 other official visits annually.

The US-led Kosovo operation and the NATO expansion in 1999, despite Russia’s furious opposition, cornered Yeltsin strategically and politically. In 1999 Russia’s National Security Council drafted a new version of the National Security Concept, which was officially signed by Putin in January 2000 after Yeltsin resigned. The document claimed that “NATO’s assumption, as its strategic doctrine, of the practice of the use of (military) force beyond the alliance’s area of responsibility and without the sanction of the UN Security Council may destabilize the strategic situation in the world”.

Although China originally refrained from direct involvement in the Kosovo war, the embassy bombing incident dragged China into the crisis. Chinese leaders were also deeply concerned that the Kosovo type of “humanitarian intervention” might happen to China’s separatist regions such as Tibet, Xinjiang and even Taiwan. Moreover, Chinese leaders and the general public were furious about the “embassy bombing” incident and the US ‘wrong map’ excuse. Soaring nationalist sentiments triggered large-scale anti-America protests in China, during which the US embassy and consulates were damaged by angry protesters.

Lessons of Kosovo crisis from the Sino-Russian point of view

Europe was the peripheral sphere of China’s foreign policy interests, up to the middle1980s. Around the first half of the 1990s China’s approach to the European realities began to change and China’s European diplomacy became more active. This evolution was stimulated by the obvious globalization of foreign policy interests of China, the rapid growth of its external economic activity as the outcome of the successful course of economic reforms inside the country.

When the news on NATO enlargement became public, the negative attitude of China to this process became explicit. The NATO enlargement was unequivocally assessed by Beijing as strengthening of the American control over Europe. According to Beijing’s view, such developments in Europe actually would block the tendency to global “multipolarity”, that is more beneficial to Chinese interests than the unipolar international system under the control of the US. The Chinese were also concerned, that the US could extrapolate the European mode of behavior to the Asia Pacific. China saw that the NATO enlargement was posing the additional political obstacles to Chinese penetration to the trade markets of Europe. These were the reasons that caused growing solidarity of Beijing with Moscow during the summits of the 1996-1997.

For Russia the most important problem was the growing proximity of the military infrastructure of NATO to its borders, the dramatic decreasing of “buffer” geopolitical space between Russia and the West.

The crisis over Kosovo, in May 1998 – June 1999, marked by itself a critical stage in the international development after the end of the Cold War. The main conclusions, which the two capitals – Moscow and Beijing – have arrived to, are the following:

  • the events that they were fearing most and were trying to prevent, eventually happened
  • the global superpower US has used the powerful military machine of NATO for resolving the urgent international problem according to its own consideration, without the sanction of the world community (represented by the United Nations)
  • the US using almost exclusively the methods of military force but having achieved rather doubtful results
  • NATO actually violated the sovereignty of the independent state of Yugoslavia and created the extremely dangerous precedent in jeopardizing basic values and principles of the international stability

From the Sino-Russian point of view, this is against such type of events both sides have joined their forces earlier, while signing the Declaration on the multipolar world and formation of the new international order (1997), that became the important codification of principles for bilateral relations.

As a result of events in Kosovo, it became explicit, that the world is far from moving towards multipolarity, it is actually moving towards the dictate of one most powerful power – the US.

Moscow and Beijing arrived to the obvious conclusion that both countries have to increase effort at all directions of Russian-Chinese cooperation, including the military sphere (in the defense policies and in the technical development of new weapons systems, including “smart weapons “) and to downgrade the priority of the existing or potential frictions on the bilateral level. 

After Kosovo crisis, the internal political climate about “pluses” and “minuses” of bilateral strategic partnership changed strikingly in both countries. If earlier, foreign policy elites in both Russia and China had serious reservations to the thesis «of strategic partnership» and different understanding of this partnership, now the necessity to develop such partnership for countering “hegemonism” and “military dictate” of NATO outweighs all other arguments.

An additional consequence of the Kosovo events was the growing anxiety of both China and Russia over the potential advance of the NATO and the US to the Central Asian direction. To counteract such tendency, China and Russia demonstrated their great interest to developing relations with the members of the so-called “Shanghai five states”, which process later evolved to the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).