At Large

The Protege Takes the Stage

Dmitry Medvedev takes his first official trip -- east.

By 5.27.08

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Last week's two-day trip to China by Russia's new president, Dmitry Medvedev, was heralded by the Russian press as an important political gesture in that his first trip abroad was to the east and not to the west, as has been expected in the past.

Medvedev included a first stop in Kazakhstan, underlining Moscow's particular interest in maintaining special relations that encourage Russia's continued role in development of that Central Asian country's energy resources. That the Russian president decided to make this stop before rather than after his visit to Beijing has significance that is not satisfied by the official Kremlin explanation: "It was simply on the way."

The Chinese chose not to consider the stopover to be a diplomatic slight and nothing was made of it in any press coverage. That, in itself, was an interesting non-event in a part of the world that -- when it wants to -- can take umbrage at practically anything. One Western diplomat did mention that Beijing was far more concerned with Szechuan's devastating earthquake than the sequence of stops on the Russian president's itinerary.

As important for Moscow as was the visit of Medvedev to China, it did not have a similar status in Chinese foreign political calculus. The Russians were the ones who have been angling for some time for a nuclear cooperation agreement with China. They want to stay active in the developmental aspects of Beijing's nuclear plans. As part of this goal, a one billion dollar agreement was signed for the Russians to build a new nuclear fuel enrichment plant.

The nuclear theme of the visit included a round condemnation of American plans to create missile defense systems. The joint communique agreed to by Medvedev and the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, specifically stated that such systems "do not help support strategic balance and stability," but rather harm "international efforts to control arms and non-proliferation process."

In other words, Russia and China don't have an anti-missile capability, and as long as that is true they don't want anyone else to have it. They obviously wish to continue their strategic deterrent through massive missile potential as the basis of their defense systems.

They also are sending the signal that they are not worried, at this time, of rogue nation nuclear use. The Chinese want to maintain the missile initiative in regard to Taiwan, and the Russians have already made clear their objection to U.S. systems based in Poland and the Czech Republic aimed against Iran.

THERE WAS A STRONG economic component driving President Medvedev's choice of going first to China rather than Western Europe. China's exports last year to Russia rose to be nearly fifty percent higher than Russia's to China. This was a historical trade surplus shift, amounting to an approximately $10 billion advantage on the Chinese side. The economic-minded Medvedev wants to balance that out with future sales of nuclear technology, air transport, and, of course, military equipment, among other things.

In spite of the emphasis placed on their agreed position that deploying anti-missile systems at key points around the world is a destabilizing factor, the real intent was aimed at shoring-up Moscow's own strategic relations with Beijing.

The Russian fear of growing Chinese economic, political and military power on their eastern borders remains ever present. Balancing the increasing American interest and involvement in China is something Vladimir Putin sought to develop during his presidency, and Dmitry Medvedev obviously wants to indicate that such ambition will continue under his.

As Putin's protege seeks to define himself during these early days in the job his mentor arranged for him, Medvedev will be careful not to outshine his predecessor. Not only is this the politic thing, it is the practical thing. Putin remains in the wheelhouse, and everyone knows it.

Certainly the Chinese leadership is well aware of the realities of Russian politics. Medvedev's visit was carefully calculated to show that Beijing will have a serious relationship with the young new Russian president. But in the end the Chinese will still be making sure everything discussed and agreed to passes the Putin test beforehand.

The Chinese are always sensitive to power and its use. Medvedev's job during the trip was to show he understood this in all its ramifications -- and he did.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.