Russia and China revive their strategic alliance

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The Independent Online

Russia and China issued a warning yesterday to the Bush administration on missile defence as the two countries' leaders signed a landmark friendship treaty destined to challenge American influence.

President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin, carefully stressed that they were not creating a military pact but they also issued a joint statement supporting the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty of 1972, which America says is obsolete.

After the signing ceremony in the Kremlin, Mr Jiang said: "The friendship treaty will bring Russian-Chinese friendship from generation to generation. This is a milestone in the development of Russian-Chinese relations."

Both nations are worried that President George Bush, by going ahead with his "Star Wars" programme, will compel them to engage in a costly arms race that neither can afford. They also fear that the energy with which Washington is pushing ahead with its plans – as illustrated by the test at the weekend – is a sign that America intends to strengthen its power in the world regardless of their interests.

Mr Putin and Mr Jiang hugged and smiled as they signed the treaty, which the Russian leader said was proposed by China. He congratulated Mr Jiang on Beijing being chosen as the site for the 2008 Olympics. "We watched the joy of Beijing residents on TV and we shared your joy," he said.

The treaty tries to end the centuries-old border disputes between Russia and China that nearly led to war in 1969. Mr Jiang told the Russian news agency Interfax that all border issues had been settled along the 4,000km frontier aside from two sectors in dispute. "I look with optimism at settling the problem of the disputed sectors," Mr Jiang said. Russia also confirmed it supports China's position on Taiwan.

The two leaders said the treaty was not aimed at other countries and had no secret military clauses, but an accompanying statement in support of the ABM treaty of 1972 shows the depth of concern in Moscow and Beijing over missile defence. It said: "Russia and China stress the basic importance of the ABM treaty, which is a cornerstone of strategic stability and the basis for reducing offensive weapons, and speak out for maintaining the treaty in its current form."

Neither Mr Putin nor Mr Jiang, who speaks fluent Russian after training as an engineer in the USSR in 1955, directly referred to Washington. Both fear that a renewed Cold War would set back economic development, which in Russia has scarcely begun. Mr Putin in particular wants to avoid any pact with China being used in America to justify building up its missile defences.

Russia feels threatened both by missile defence and the eastwards expansion of Nato. While Mr Putin might accept small countries such as Slovenia and Slovakia joining, it would be different if any of the three Baltic republics, formerly part of the Soviet Union, also became Nato members. In an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera before he left for Genoa for the G8 summit, Mr Putin said tartly: "When Nato enlarges, division does not disappear, it simply moves towards our borders."

He suggested that Nato should be disbanded, as the Warsaw Pact had been. Mr Putin scorned the idea that American missile defence was directed at "rogue" states such as Iraq, Iran or North Korea. "The countries which are considered to be dangerous would need 20, 30, 40 years to build up a credible offensive system."

Russia has toned down its criticism of the ABM treaty since Mr Putin and President Bush had an unexpectedly friendly summit in Ljubljana. But the speed with which Washington is pressing ahead with its "Star Wars" plan, despite promises of high-levels talks with Russia, may lead Mr Putin to conclude that America intends to go ahead unilaterally. Mr Putin again threatened to respond to the scheme by installing "more atomic warheads on our missiles".

¿ The mummified body of the Soviet Union's founder, Vladimir Lenin, should stay on display in a Moscow mausoleum despite calls for his reburial in St Petersburg, Mr Putin told the Corriere della Sera. He said: "Once I see an overwhelming majority of people wanting to tackle the Lenin question, we will discuss it. But today I don't see it."

Why they fear the 'Son of Star Wars'

¿ China has about 20 intercontinental missiles capable of reaching the whole of the US and a similar number capable of reaching the west of the country. They are in fixed silos and their volatile liquid fuel is stored separately so they cannot be launched swiftly. It also has limited ability to identify incoming missiles. If, in addition, the US has an anti-missile shield, then China might feel that it no longer had a credible deterrent. This would lead it to build more solid fuelled missiles with multiple warheads on mobile launchers.

¿ Russia has a much larger arsenal, but it is ageing and many more missiles are going out of service than Russia can afford to replace. It has 26 nuclear submarines with ballistic missiles but only one or two can be kept at sea. Out of its 350 mobile missiles only nine are being deployed. It may therefore fear that the nuclear balance is swinging against it.

¿ Russian President Vladimir Putin says that technically "Son of Star Wars" cannot work. Some Russian missiles may be shot down but others will get through. But he also says that the US faces no credible threat from the so-called "rogue" states. So if Iraq, Iran and North Korea are ruled out as serious enemies of the US then Son of Star Wars must be directed against Russia and China.