Jiang Zemin

Role reversal

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 November, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 November, 1998, 12:00am


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President Jiang Zemin could be seen beaming while his Russian counterpart, Boris Yeltsin, was visibly ailing in the brief footage released of the Moscow hospital visit the Kremlin desperately tried to dress up as a 'no-necktie' summit.

That contrast speaks volumes about the respective health of their two nations. So too does the fact that Mr Yeltsin could not even last the hour allotted for their meeting and that Mr Jiang ended up spending longer with the man who is increasingly running Russia, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov.

Gone are the days when Beijing was the junior partner in the Sino-Russian relationship. Now it is Moscow which is almost begging China for humanitarian aid to help the country's cash-strapped eastern regions survive the coming winter.

Beijing puts great store by its relations with Russia, which Mr Jiang has invested considerable effort in rebuilding. China's continuing hopes these can provide a counter-balance to US dominance of the post-war world were evident in the summit declaration that the 21st century must not be an exclusively American century.

But the reality which must have become apparent to Mr Jiang during this visit is that this is a country which no longer carries much clout in the international arena. With its economy in tatters and a president too ill to leave hospital, Russia is close to falling off the edge of the world map.

That is a tragedy for many reasons, not least the many millions condemned to lives of poverty as a result. In terms of international relations, it means there is no longer any prospect of Moscow acting as a counterweight to the US.

China would be better off concentrating on its relations with the US, as Mr Jiang has been doing over the past year. For the hard truth is that what Mr Yeltsin thinks is unlikely to matter for very much longer and that Beijing's relations with Russia are no longer nearly so important as they once were.