China prepares to give Yeltsin warm welcome

In May 1989, as thousands of pro-democracy activists demonstrated in Tiananmen Square, Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in Peking for the first Sino- Soviet summit in three decades. For the Chinese, the visit proved the biggest diplomatic embarrassment in the history of the People's Republic.

Mr Gorbachev was sneaked in through the back door of the Great Hall of the People, and ate his banquet in a room with curtains drawn.

Today, President Boris Yelt-sin arrives in China on a visit that reflects increasingly friendly Sino-Russian relations at a time when both countries have bones to pick with the United States. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Shen Guofang, said yesterday the visit would "inject new vitality" into the relationship.

However, suspicions remain between the two and there is no chance Mr Yeltsin's trip will result in the creation of a formal Sino-Russian security axis.

The Russian President is visiting Peking and Shanghai only a week after President Bill Clinton went to Japan to reaffirm the US-Japanese security relationship and promise that US troops would stay in Asia as long as they were wanted.

Mr Yeltsin's visit will enable Russia and China to show that they, too, can cultivate close ties, while also illustrating limits to the Sino-Russian relationship.

For the Chinese, one welcome aspect of Mr Yeltsin's trip is that, unlike western countries, Russia feels no obligation to raise issues such as Taiwan and Tibet. "One of the major reasons for the good atmosphere is the 1,000 per cent non-interference in internal matters," said a senior Russian diplomat. Nor is Mr Yeltsin's presidential election fight against the Russian Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, likely to affect talks. "The Chinese do not like to see communists lose power, but they separate ideological preferences from state politics and inter-state relations," the diplomat said.

More than 25 years of confrontation between Moscow and Peking gave way to a thaw in the late 1980s, and relations have steadily flourished since despite China's nominal adherence to a Communist doctrine abandoned by Russia.

The good atmosphere will be in evidence in Shanghai on Friday when Mr Yeltsin, President Jiang Zemin of China and the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan sign a treaty on confidence-building measures along their borders.

The sense of Sino-Russian solidarity is enhanced by the fact that both Russia and China have entered a difficult period in their relations with the US. Russia's vehement opposition to Nato's expansion into eastern Europe is matched by Chinese resentment at US policies on Taiwan.

However, while exploiting the propaganda potential of Mr Yeltsin's visit, China also accepts there are limits to playing a "Russian card" against Washington. The Russian diplomat, commenting on his meetings with Chinese officials, said: "There are no facts that make me think China is using us in a game with the US."

Still, not everything is sweetness and light between Russia and China. Earlier this month, officials in Russia's Primorsky region on the Pacific coast protested loudly at the way in which a disputed part of the Russian- Chinese border was being demarcated.

Major-General Valery Rozov, the head of the Russian team marking out part of the frontier, even resigned in anger over what he called the "transfer of Russian territory to China".

Mr Yeltsin may also not get much joy if he tries to persuade Chinese leaders to let Russia join talks on tensions in the Korean peninsula. The US wants the talks limited to China, the two Korean states and itself, and there are few signs China is keen to see Russian involvement.

There also appear to be differences over a complete ban on nuclear weapons tests. China has refrained from supporting a worldwide ban but at a summit on nuclear security in Moscow last week Mr Yeltsin offered at least partial endorsement of a global test ban.

However, the overall political climate of Mr Yeltsin's visit should be warm. A "hot line" telephone link will be set up between the countries and several major economic agreements should be signed.