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China watches as Russia cosies up to NATO

DAWN, Thursday 30 May 2000; 17 Rabi-ul-Awwal 1423

BEIJING, May 29: Beijing is watching warily as Moscow cosies up with its old foe NATO, concerned that Russia's newly forged alliance could in the long run bring the US-led coalition right up to China's borders.

Analysts and diplomats say Beijing has taken the formation of the new NATO-Russia security council very quietly - perhaps resigned to having little say on Russia's bear hug with Europe and the United States in the wake of the September 11 attacks. But as the relationship was still in its early stages, and NATO remained largely focused on Europe, they said China was unlikely to be too concerned in the short term.

China would, however, keep an eye on how far Russia pursued its military cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and whether the US dominated security grouping made any movements to expand toward Central Asia.

And Beijing would seek to mute the impact of the NATO deal through other avenues of consultation and influence such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which links China, Russia and four Central Asian states.

Chinese media coverage was largely neutral, and analysts said it was too early to tell how Russia would behave in its new role.

The founding of this forum is essentially different from Russia joining NATO. It's just a start for the two and it is very hard to predict how far Russia will go in military cooperation with NATO, said Guo Zhenyuan of the China Institute for International Studies.


But Western diplomats in Beijing said the move would be a concern for China. It's probably something that is very much worrying because there is a risk of isolation of China, said one.

China was eager to see where Moscow's motives lay - was it truly cosying up to NATO or would President Vladimir Putin use the relationship to pursue a long-term goal of a more independent foreign policy?

Before September 11, China and Russia had been forging a new strategic relationship based mainly on their opposition to Washington's planned missile defence systems and their opposition to international meddling in other countries' affairs.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Putin signed a friendship treaty last July that was supposed to cement that partnership. But that changed after September 11.

China was caught by surprise by Putin's swift backing of the war on terror, and disturbed months later as Russia made only mild protestations against US plans to abandon the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and pursue missile defence.

Beijing worries that a US missile shield could neuter its small nuclear arsenal and be stretched to cover Taiwan, which China regards as a wayward province.

China also warily watched as the war on terror brought US troops into its backyard - in Afghanistan, other Central Asian states and even the Philippines.

Russian participation in the NATO forum - bringing four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council together leaving China on the outside - was the latest turn and Chinese officials were struggling to make sense of it.

There is some confusion here about what the Russians really want, said a Beijing-based diplomat.


Some in China view Russia as firmly tying its colours to the mast of the West and eventually shifting significantly toward the Western camp, the diplomat said.

Another camp sees Putin pursuing a long-term goal of returning Russia to a more significant international role with a separate and independent foreign policy.

That would be preferred in Beijing, which has courted Moscow less out of economic and trade interests than as a balance to the United States, he said.

China and Russian trade remains a trickle - except for Beijing's imports of military hardware from Moscow.

The real test for China would come should NATO seek to expand even further east - perhaps into Kazakhstan in its Central Asian back yard. A few years ago, Chinese officials told skeptical Western diplomats that NATO will border China very soon.

They are trying very, very hard to make sure that never happens, one diplomat said.

Meanwhile, analysts expect Beijing to court its neighbours to counter the US presence, and attempt along with Moscow to breathe some life into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

In the wake of the Afghan conflict, China embarked on a flurry of diplomatic activity with its neighbours to shore up ties and balance the uncomfortable US presence in Central Asia.

As for the NATO deal, Russia was largely motivated by its economic interests and it was highly unlikely Moscow would see eye to eye regularly with its new found allies, analysts said.

Leaning West or leaning East, Russia bases its relations with NATO upon its national interests, Guo said.There is no denying that Russia is bettering its links with the West. But the process is bound to be rife with all sorts of ups and downs.-Reuters