Medvedev Must Seize the Moment in China

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President Dmitry Medvedev's two-day state visit to China has important symbolic significance. The visit, which starts Friday, will be the highlight of Medvedev's first foreign trip since taking office in early May. Medvedev visited Kazakhstan on Thursday.

By accepting Chinese President Hu Jintao's invitation to go east to Beijing, Medvedev is signaling the continuity of former President Vladimir Putin's policy of maintaining close ties with China and further strengthening a strategic partnership. But the visit also provides Medvedev with an opportunity to chart a new course in relations, as well as to develop personal rapport with Chinese leaders.

Medvedev, who previously visited China as the co-chair of festivities celebrating the Year of Russia in China and the Year of China in Russia, will return to a country eager to expand cooperation in defense, trade and energy. Medvedev would do well to seize the moment.

Boris Yeltsin began paving the way for warmer relations with a visit in December 1992, a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Beijing and Moscow have grown increasingly close in subsequent years, resolving boundary disputes, forming a strategic and cooperative partnership, and cooperating on key international issues, such as mutual support for multipolarity and a leading role for the United Nations, the promotion of a new world order, and opposition to unilateralism and power politics. In 2001, the two countries signed a Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation. They also have spearheaded the establishment and development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO.

Beijing and Moscow maintain close consultations and cooperate on issues driven by their shared interests of safeguarding and promoting national interests in an era of U.S. dominance. For instance, China and Russia for years have called for the negotiation of a new international treaty banning weapons in outer space. Both are opposed to missile defenses, whether they are deployed in Europe, Northeast Asia or continental United States. The two countries have coordinated their Central Asia policies and actively support the SCO as a regional organization against ethnic separatism, religious extremism and international terrorism. They also promote economic cooperation among member states.

Perhaps the most salient and tangible aspect of the partnership is the defense relationship that was initiated in the final days of the Soviet Union, nurtured and blossomed during the Yeltsin and Putin years, and is expected to continue under Medvedev. This unique relationship encompasses not only Russian military sales but also joint military exercises, high-level consultations and other exchange programs.

China has become an important customer of Russian weaponry since the early 1990s, with major imports of fighter aircraft, destroyers, submarines, missiles and aerial early-warning systems.

In addition, Beijing has been able to secure military technology transfers from Russia as part of arms trade arrangements. China has benefited from this relationship because Russian weapon systems fill important gaps in the People's Liberation Army's existing inventories of equipment and thereby improve aerial and naval capabilities for offshore military operations, especially in the context of a possible military conflict over Taiwan.

For the strategic partnership to prosper, however, it is imperative that the two neighbors increase and strengthen their economic ties. This is an area that has yet to see major progress. While China and its other partners are seeing trade soar, trade with Russia has rarely if ever met its relative modest goals. Last year, trade reached $48 billion, making China Russia's second-largest trading partner after the European Union, while Russia ranks a distant eighth for China. There is obviously much room to expand economic ties.

An area that could potentially expand trade is the energy sector. For years, China and Russia have negotiated, signed agreements on, but in the end have had to cancel or suspend major pipeline deals that could provide China with much-needed oil and natural gas. Granted, Russia needs to make the best of its natural resources given rising energy prices in the global market. But the experiences and setbacks in energy cooperation have sent mixed signals to Beijing and are not congruent with a strategic partnership.

The pursuit of national interests at times trumps the rhetoric and substance of the partnership. The substance of relations is still largely defined by anxiety about aspects of international relations that they both dislike rather than something they value and share. The apparent gap between rhetoric and substance can be further explained by concerns in some Russian circles over China's rise as a major global power and issues affecting the Russian Far East, such as migration. Despite efforts by Beijing and Moscow, the affinity between the Russian and Chinese people remains lukewarm if not distant.

Medvedev's visit should reaffirm common interests and identify new areas to expand cooperation. China and Russia have benefited from a stable relationship for over two decades. It is now time to move that relationship to a higher plateau.

Jing-dong Yuan is associate professor of international policy studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.