03/29/2007, 00.00
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Russia and China to explore Mars together

The two countries seal agreement to send a spacecraft to Mars and its moon, Phobos. Contracts worth US$ 4 billion are signed, but there is no progress on the Siberian oil pipeline. Despite sometimes diverging interests both Moscow and Beijing pursue closer ties, partly to counter US influence.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Chinese President Hu Jintao flew home this morning, ending a three-day state visit to Russia. The two neighbours signed trade agreements and made a joint statement about co-operation in space exploration, including a mission to Mars. But no agreement was reached in building a pipeline from Russia to China, an objective much sought after by Beijing.

A Chinese-made satellite will be launched with a Russian spacecraft in 2009 destined for Mars and its moon Phobos where it will collect and return to Earth with soil samples.

The Mars mission is hailed a sign of growing political and technological co-operation between Moscow and Beijing.

In 2003 China was the third country (after the United States and Russia) to send a man into space and is currently planning to land one of its astronauts on the moon and develop and launch a space station.

Experts however view this co-operation as more political since Russia so far has not shared its space technology with China.

Mr Hu yesterday toured Russia's oil-rich Tatarstan region where he met Tatarstan's leader, Mintimir Shaimiyev and university students.

Chinese car maker Great Wall is expected to begin production this year at a plant in the Tatar Republic, turning out 50,000 cars annually for the Russian and European markets.

President HU and his Russia counterpart, Vladimir Putin, also discussed the problem of North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programmes.

On Monday, the two leaders made a joint statement on the Iranian question urging that it be resolved by peaceful means.

During the visit they also signed 21 contracts worth US$ 4 billion, including 460 million for the sale of 94,000 tonnes of Russian steel to China and increased shipment of Russian oil to China via rail. Last year China imported 15 million tonnes of Russian oil, 11 transported by rail.

The attempt to find an agreement for Russia’s second largest oil company to supply three million tonnes to the China Petroleum and Chemical Corp faltered however because of a tariff dispute between the Russian oil giant and Russian railways.

China has been pushing for a direct pipeline between the two countries to ship Siberian oil but Russia is stalling. So far no steps forward have been made on the issue.

The signed contracts include the export of US$ 1 billion worth in Russian goods and services to China over the next eight years. This comes at a time when Russia has complained that Chinese goods have rapidly swamped its domestic market.

According to Russian Customs, Russian exports to China rose 21 per cent to reach US$ 16 billion, whilst China’s grew by 80 per cent reaching US$ 13 billion.

In Russia the media regularly complains that Beijing is only interested in Russian raw materials and weapons and in exchange of which it has flooded the Russian market with manufactured goods.

According to Peter Westin, chief economist at MDM Bank, one of Russia’s leading financial institutions, China’s main interest is Russian energy supplies, whilst Moscow is keen on selling steel and weapons.

Moscow is increasingly turning its attention eastward and wants to increase its economic and political ties with Asian countries.

Along with Central Asian countries both China and Russia are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which is increasingly becoming a forum for military, economic and energy co-operation.

Many experts also note that both powers want to reduce US influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. (PB)

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