Since China and Russia recently signed a treaty of friendship in Moscow, supposed by some to be a response to US president George W. Bush’s missile project, trade and military contacts between Moscow and Washington have mushroomed. The tension has also been taken out of relations between Beijing and Washington, following US secretary of state Colin Powell’s visit to China and the release of US-based lecturers who had been tried in China on charges of spying.
The treaty’s main provisions have turned out to be designed to strengthen and coordinate efforts by Moscow and Beijing to suppress Muslim independence movements in Chechnya and in Eastern Turkestan (officially Xinjiang province), and Islamic movements in Central Asia. That this last preoccupation had been uppermost in the minds of the Russian and Chinese leaders was confirmed by events in their respective countries: president Vladimir Putin presided on August 2 over a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), to discuss “security issues”, and in China the Peoples Liberation Army (spectacularly misnamed) on the same day began one of its largest-ever war-games in Eastern Turkestan.
The CIS summit discussed international issues, such as the US missile projects and the aftermath of the G8 summit in Genoa, Italy, but it concentrated its attention on “the threat of terrorism to the entire region posed by fundamentalist Afghanistan”, and on disputes between member-states. Putin stressed mainly the Azerbaijan-Armenia war and feuds in Abkhazia and Moldovia. But he also emphasised the importance of protecting the interests of the 20 million Russian residents of the CIS, particularly the Muslim countries.
On the very day Putin was calling for the protection of Russian residents in CIS countries, Mufti Radhi Ain-Uddin, the head of the Council of Muftis in Russia, issued a statement in which he accused Russian authorities and media of being obsessed with the “need to combat Islamic terrorism”. The statement particularly deplored the tendency of the office of the Russian attorney-general to jump to conclusions about the “threat of Islamic terrorism”. It cited recent reports about a meeting organised by the office and attended by officials from the ministry of the interior, and others, as the latest occasion on which the discussion concentrated on “combatting Islamic extremism”. The statement also deplored the tendency of Russian local authorities to reject applications for permission to build new mosques and to issue orders to demolish existing ones.
But it is not only Russians and other members of the CIS that are obsessed with “combatting Islamic terrorists”. The Chinese have been engaged in the largest war games that they have ever held, in Eastern Turkestan to intimidate the Chinese Muslims fighting for independence there. Several hundred armoured personnel-carriers, tanks and other military vehicles were manoeuvred into position on a plateau about 20 kilometres north of Kashgar for the four-day exercises. Thousands of troops were deployed to carry out a live-fire war-game, seldom undertaken in China in this northwestern region. The exercises were intended not only to intimidate but were planned also to enhance the Chinese army’s ability to resist the Muslim fighters’ efforts to free Eastern Turkestan.
While preparing to fight Islam and Muslims, the Russians and Chinese were also improving their relations with the US at an unprecedented pace, and indeed appeared at times to be competing in doing so. Both, for instance, released Americans whom they had held and tried on suspicion of espionage, whose detentions had created friction in bilateral relations. Beijing released two Chinese-American scholars just before secretary of state Colin Powell’s visit to China at the end of July. On August 3 Moscow parolled John Tobin, an American Fulbright scholar, from jail after he had served half of his one-year sentence for possessing marijuana. Russia clearly did not want the case to poison relations with the US. Similarly Moscow also released Edmond Pope, an American businessman sentenced to 20 years in December for spying, but speedily pardoned by Putin.
Relations between Beijing and Washington became tense when NATO warplanes bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosova war with Yugoslavia. The Chinese were also shocked last year when Bush called Beijing a “strategic competitor” to distinguish his policies from those of Bill Clinton, who had said that China and the US should aim to be “strategic partners”. Relations between the two suffered further setbacks in April when a US spy aircraft and a Chinese fighter jet collided. But Powell’s visit to Beijing eased tensions considerably. He said in an interview on Chinese television that Sino-US relations were too complex to be summed up in one word, but that ‘cooperation’ was apt enough to describe them. He said that he came to convey the message that Bush “wants to develop constructive onward-looking relations with the People’s Republic of China”. Bush will meet Chinese leaders at a conference of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Shanghai in October, and then go to Beijing for separate talks with them.
Relations between Moscow and Washington have developed even more swiftly, with Bush often saying that “Russia is not an enemy of the US” and exchanging compliments with Putin. The two men have heaped praise on each other since their very friendly meetings in June and late July. They are due to meet again in October, when Bush travels to Moscow with a large business delegation. How far the two sides have come to trust each other was seen on August 7, when a Russian team were met at the Pentagon by a US briefing team and given technical and strategic information that “in the cold war would have been stamped with the highest secrecy classification”, as a newspaper report put it the following day. The British army is also sending a team of soldiers to Russia to advise officers there on how to combat the growing number of suicides (about 3,000 a year) among military personnel. According to a report in the Sunday Telegraph on August 5, the team, led by Major Schofield, will visit Russia later this year at the request of Russian officers.
In these circumstances, Russia cannot be described as an enemy of the West, and the Sino-Russian treaty cannot be deemed to be directed against the US. In fact the treaty provokes a strong feeling of deja vu. In December 1999 president Boris Yeltsin, faced with parliamentary and presidential elections, and stung by Western criticism of the war in Chechnya, flew into Beijing to forge a new strategic partnership with China. The resulting treaty concentrated on preventing Chinese-Russian rivalry and border disputes from getting out of hand, and on cementing their cooperation to combat “Islamic extremism and separatism” in central Asia, including Eastern Turkestan and the Caucasus.