London (CNSNews.com) - Facing a barrage of global condemnation about the war in Chechnya, Russian President Boris Yeltsin Wednesday heads for China, the one country that has backed Moscow's strategy in the Caucasus, and which itself has been stung by Western criticism this week.
On Tuesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Beijing supported the Russian military campaign in Chechnya, which it called an attempt to protect territorial integrity and a "purely internal matter."
China's endorsement stood in stark contrast to condemnation from around the world, which grew after the Russian military issued an ultimatum to residents of the Chechen capital to leave Grozny by Saturday or face destruction.
"Those who remain will be viewed as terrorists and bandits," warned pamphlets dropped in the area. "They will be destroyed by artillery and aviation. There will be no more talk. All those who do not leave the city will be destroyed."
Western governments reacted strongly to the ultimatum, with President Clinton warning Russia would "pay a heavy price," European leaders threatening economic sanctions, and the Russian ambassador to Britain being summoned to the Foreign Office for a dressing-down.
The Russian Foreign Ministry shrugged off the criticism of a campaign it said "concerns the issue of Russia's territorial integrity and the fight against terrorism," but a senior officer later said the ultimatum was a warning to rebels -- not civilian residents.
Although a Russian government spokesman denied any link between the protests and Yeltsin's Chinese visit, analysts note Yeltsin emerged from the hospital against his doctors' advice to make the trip, while canceling planned talks with French and German leaders.
During his two-day visit, Yeltsin will hold informal talks with President Jiang Zemin.
One Russian newspaper, Vremya MN, commented that "to embrace the Chinese friend in front of the whole world now amounts to cocking a snook at Russia's other friends who have been behaving strangely lately."
"If Russia and China share a worry, it is the prospect of increased terrorism and separatism in Central Asia," said the Texas-based intelligence consultancy Stratfor this week. "Like Moscow, Beijing does not want to see the West continue to intervene in internal separatist struggles."
In an earlier forecast, Stratfor said Yeltsin and Jiang may be seeking a formal alliance, "fairly explicitly directed against the United States."
The analysts noted that "anti-Americanism sells in both countries, where resentment of American power is huge, and many hold the United States responsible for their economic problems."
But a Russian specialist at the University of London, Dr Martin McCauley, said Wednesday China was leery of a restrictive relationship with Russia.
For several years, Moscow had been pushing the idea of a Russia-China-India alliance as a counter to American hegemony, McCauley told CNSNews.com. "But China doesn't want a strategic partnership. They don't want to tie themselves to it, or to antagonize the U.S."
Nonetheless, China was keen on strengthening military ties, focusing on catching up with the U.S. in the research and development field.
An energy-poor country, China also was badly in need of finding energy resources as its economy continued to grow, McCauley said
On December 1, Russia reportedly signed an agreement to double the amount of oil exported to China. Beijing is interested in buying natural gas and jet-fighter aircraft from the Russians.
Russia and China have been moving closer since the two adopted a similar position of opposition to NATO's air campaign in the Balkans. Russia backed its fellow Orthodox Serb allies, while China was incensed after NATO bombed its embassy in Belgrade, apparently by accident.
A Yugoslav government official announced Wednesday that China has agreed to give the country a $300 million credit to help finance reconstruction following the war. Belgrade is subject to strict sanctions, including a fuel embargo.
China's relationship with the U.S. was further jeopardized this year by allegations of nuclear weapons-related spying. China also has faced recent US criticism over its treatment of religious minorities.
In September, China -- along with Sudan, Iran, Iraq and Myanmar -- was cited in an annual State Department report as a major violator of religious freedom. For that reason, the Clinton administration in October extended export sanctions that have been in place since China crushed the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989.
On Tuesday, China demanded that the United States withdraw those economic sanctions.
The official Xinhua News Agency Wednesday reported that "the Chinese side has consistently opposed interference into internal affairs of other countries in the name of protecting religion."
It quoted Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue as saying the U.S. government had "distorted facts, made unjustifiable attacks upon the Chinese government, and even gone so far as to impose sanctions against the Chinese side.
"The Chinese side demands that the U.S. side correct its mistake immediately, and reverse its decision on the sanctions and remove the adverse impact that the decision has made upon bilateral relations with concrete actions."