PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 December, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 December, 2002, 12:00am

Less than 18 months ago, China and Russia, eager to balance United States power, signed a friendship treaty. To some extent, the Treaty on Good Neighbourly Friendship and Co-operation resembles a military alliance.

It says that 'if a threat of aggression arises' against one of the signatories, the two countries 'will immediately make contact with each other and hold consultations in order to eliminate the emerging threat', without saying how the threat is to be eliminated.

Since then, however, much has changed. Less than two months after the treaty was signed, the United States came under attack by international terrorists, an event that significantly altered the global configuration of power.

Russia and China joined the US-led war on terrorism. In fact, President George W. Bush honoured both the Chinese and Russian presidents by hosting them separately at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. And Russia has formed a partnership with the US-dominated Nato alliance.

It is clear that, in the eyes on both countries, their bilateral relationship with the US is much more important than their relationship with each other. Washington is in a better position to provide what both Russia and China need in their desire to develop their economies.

Although Beijing publicly supports Moscow's improving relations with Washington and does not consider itself to be in a zero-sum game, privately China must wonder whether Russia is a reliable treaty partner. One hint of such doubts surfaced last week when the People's Daily Web site carried an article headlined: 'China-Russian relations remain better than Russian-US ties'.

President Vladimir Putin's visit to China this week gave both sides a chance to restate their desire for a special relationship, even though both value relations with the US a little more.

Although President Jiang Zemin and Mr Putin have met several times at international conferences in the past year, the state visit to China was the first by Mr Putin since the signing of the treaty. It provided an opportunity for the two sides to appraise their relationship.

Interestingly, on world issues the two leaders see virtually eye to eye. In a joint statement, they stressed the importance of resolving the nuclear problem on the Korean peninsula through diplomatic and political means, urging the US and North Korea to continue to observe the Framework Agreement of 1994.

The statement asserts that Russia and China 'will continue to develop good-neighbourly friendship and co-operation' with North Korea, making it clear that they were unlikely to join any US initiative to impose economic sanctions on Pyongyang.

Similarly, both nations called for a peaceful settlement of the Iraqi issue, showing they disagree with Washington's desire for regime change by force.

The joint statement asserts the friendly relations between China and Russia 'represent a new type of state-to-state relations that feature non-alignment and non-confrontation and are not targeted at any third country'. Russia affirmed Beijing's position that it is the only legitimate government of China, which includes Taiwan and Tibet, while China supported Russia's efforts in putting down Chechnya's 'terrorists and separatists'.

As for the oft-stated US interest in setting up a theatre missile defence system in East Asia, Russia and China warned that this 'should not break regional and global security and stability'. This seemed to reflect China's fear that such a defence system might be extended to Taiwan, and that a missile defence system might significantly decrease the deterrent value of China's tiny nuclear arsenal.

Without mentioning the US, the two countries made clear their continued unhappiness with the world order dominated by Washington.

'Peoples of all nations wish to establish a new, just and rational international political and economic order which will ensure the sustained development, equality and security of all nations,' they said.

Again, without mentioning the American penchant for unilateralism, they said: 'China and Russia hold that the United Nations is the main mechanism to safeguard international security and co-operation in a multi-polar world. The two sides agree to further enhancing the efficiency of the United Nations, its Security Council in particular.'

Russia and China have made it clear they remain as committed as ever to balancing American power in the world.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator