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Thursday, May 29, 2008

M K Bhadrakumar, "Medvedev reaches out to China," Asia Times, May 29, 2008.

Russia realizes that it is only one among many big players seriously engaging China and cannot hope to claim a privileged partnership with it.

Kremlinology is back in vogue. Experts and analysts have come out of the woodwork to run a fine-tooth comb through Kremlin events, searching for clues on the direction of Russian policies under new President Dmitry Medvedev.

Often in the Soviet era, during feverish over-analyses by foreign experts, the obvious would get elbowed out in favor of tantalizing interpretations over men and mice. Could history be repeating itself?

Much has been made of Medvedev's choice of Kazakhstan and China as his first destinations after assuming office from Vladimir Putin on May 7. Was it a deliberate signal to Western capitals? Moscow pooh-poohed the suggestion. A prominent Moscow commentator pointed out, "It would be best to go to the East and West at the same time, but that is impossible."

But the disarming explanation overlooked the fact that Medvedev after all did make a choice in traveling to Beijing via Astana last weekend. Eight years ago, in 2000, when Putin went abroad as Russia's president for the first time, he travelled to London via Belarus. At that time, Moscow let it be known there was rich symbolism in Putin's choice, which was intended to convey that Russia wanted closer ties to the West.

Equally, in May 2003, Chinese President Hu Jintao's first foreign visit took him to Moscow. The government-owned China Daily newspaper aptly commented on the day of Medvedev's arrival in Beijing on Friday: "The first foreign trip of any head of state should be a carefully calculated move. The country he or she visits is supposed to be important to his or her own country's foreign relations. Little wonder that Medvedev's two-day China visit has generated much interest ... Clearly, new leaders of the two countries have put their bilateral relations on top of their foreign policy agenda."

Pragmatic cooperation

The Chinese comment stated the obvious to emphasize the bilateral content of Medvedev's visit. In fact, Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Li Hui told the media at a briefing that Medvedev's visit would have four "goals": one, to establish a "working relationship and personal friendship" at the leadership level; two, to oversee the fulfillment of bilateral cooperation in practical terms; three, to increase political trust and extend mutual support on "issues concerning sovereignty, security and territorial integrity"; and, four, to deepen "pragmatic cooperation".

The fourth "goal" - pragmatic cooperation - captures the quintessence of the so-called strategic partnership between the two countries. China would have no difficulty to know that Russia has been and will remain essentially Western-centric (as distinct from "pro-West"). Over two-thirds of Russia's population live in its European part and the locus of economic and political power lies there.

But that does not detract from Russia's abiding interest in China, which is natural and historical as a neighboring country, and combines pragmatically in the present day with the imperatives of China's phenomenal rise. At the same time, Russia realizes that it is only one among many big players seriously engaging China and cannot hope to claim a privileged partnership with it.

No sooner had Medvedev concluded his two-day China visit on Saturday, South Korea's newly elected "pro-American" President Lee Myung-bak arrived in Beijing on a four-day trip. China followed the United States and Japan in Lee's itinerary. South Korea's trade volume with China is four times that of Russia's.

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