This week will see an ominous precedent: The first- ever joint Chinese-Russian military exercises kick off Thursday in Northeast Asia.
The exercises are small in scale - but huge in implication. They indicate a further warming of the "strategic partnership" that Moscow and Beijing struck back in 1996.
More importantly, they signal the first real post-Cold War steps, beyond inflammatory rhetoric, by Russia and China to balance - and, ultimately, diminish - U.S. power across Asia. If America doesn't take strategic steps to counter these efforts, it will lose influence to Russia and China in an increasingly important part of the world.
Unimaginable just a few years ago, the weeklong military exercises - dubbed "Peace Mission 2005" - will involve 10,000 troops on China and Russia's eastern coasts and in adjacent seas.
This unmistakable example of Sino-Russian military muscle-flexing will also include Russia's advanced SU-27 fighters, strategic TU-95 and TU-22 bombers, submarines, amphibious and anti-submarine ships.
The exercise's putative purpose is to "strengthen the capability of the two armed forces in jointly striking international terrorism, extremism and separatism," says China's Defense Ministry.
But the Chinese defense minister was more frank in comments earlier this year. Gen. Cao Gangchuan said: "The exercise will exert both immediate and far-reaching impacts." This raised lots of eyebrows - especially in the United States, Taiwan and Japan.
For instance, although Russia nixed the idea, the Chinese demanded the exercises be held 500 miles to the south - a move plainly aimed at intimidating Taiwan.
Beijing clearly wanted to send a warning to Washington (and, perhaps, Tokyo) about its support for Taipei, and hint at the possibility that if there were a Taiwan Strait dust-up, Russia might stand with China.
The exercise also gives Russia an opportunity to strut its military wares before its best customers - Chinese generals. Moscow is Beijing's largest arms supplier, to the tune of more than $2 billion a year for purchases that include subs, ships, missiles and fighters.
Rumors abound that Moscow may finally be ready to sell strategic, cruise-missile-capable bombers such as the long-range TU-95 and supersonic TU-22 to Beijing - strengthening China's military hand against America and U.S. friends and allies in Asia.
Russia and China are working together to oppose American influence all around their periphery. Both are upset by U.S. support for freedom in the region - notably in the recent Orange (Ukraine), Rose (Georgia) and Tulip (Kyrgyzstan) revolutions - all of which fell in what Moscow or Beijing deems its sphere of influence.
In fact, at a recent meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (i.e., Russia, China and the four 'Stans'), Moscow and Beijing conspired to get Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to close U.S. airbases.
As a result, Uzbekistan gave America 180 days to get out, despite the base's continued use in Afghanistan operations. (Quick diplomacy by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saved the Kyrgyz base, but it remains on the ropes.)
Moreover, it shouldn't be overlooked that the "Shanghai Six" have invited Iran, India and Pakistan to join the group as observers, expanding China and Russia's influence into South Asia and parts of the Middle East.
What to do?
First, the Pentagon must make sure the forthcoming Quadrennial Defense Review balances U.S. forces to address both the unconventional terrorist threat and the big-power challenge represented by a Russia-China strategic partnership.
Second, the United States must continue to strengthen its relationship with its ally Japan to ensure a balance of power in Northeast Asia - and also encourage Tokyo to improve relations with Moscow in an effort to loosen Sino-Russian ties.
Third, Washington must persevere in advancing its new relationship with (New) Delhi in order to balance Beijing's growing power in Asia and take advantage of India's longstanding, positive relationship with Russia.
And be ready to deal. Russia has historically been wary of China. America must not ignore the possibilities of developing a long-term, favorable relationship with Russia - despite the challenges posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin's heavy-handed rule.
These unprecedented military exercises don't make a formal Beijing-Moscow alliance inevitable. But they represent a new, more intimate phase in the Sino-Russian relationship. And China's growing political/economic clout mated with Russia's military would make for a potentially potent anti-American bloc.
For the moment, Beijing and Moscow are committed to building a political order in Asia that doesn't include America atop the power pyramid. With issues from Islamic terrorism to North Korean nukes to a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, the stakes in Asia are huge. Washington and its friends must not waste any time in addressing the burgeoning Sino-Russian entente.
Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow.
First appeared in The New York Post. Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. E-mail: email@example.com