The unprecedented Sino-Russian first joint military exercises on
Aug. 18-25 have raised concerns in Washington. "The correlation of
forces in Eurasia is shifting against the U.S.", says a senior
State Department official.
Moscow and Beijing view U.S. predominance in the post-Cold War world as a threat to their power. A steadily improving Sino-Russian close partnership may lead to severely limiting, if not denying, U.S. strategic presence in the Eurasian land mass from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea.
"Peace Mission 2005", as the maneuvers are called, is taking place on the Shandong Peninsula, on the Yellow Sea, and involve nearly 10,000 troops, including Russian long-range bombers, the army, navy, air force, marine, airborne and logistics units from both countries.
Moscow and Beijing have disingenuously called the maneuvers aimed at combating "terrorism, extremism and separatism," in a not-so-veiled reference to Taiwan. Additionally, the rulers of China and Russia blame Washington for the "multicolor" revolutions, such as in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
The exercises are a showcase for complex Russian weapons systems, which Moscow is anxious to sell to the People's Liberation Army. This may also be a message to Washington on North Korea: "we can compel Kim Jong-il to toe the line -- without your interference."
Now that the Cold War is truly over, however, the "Peace Mission 2005" is seen in Washington as a historic rapprochement between old rivals, which the terrorist attacks of September 11 interrupted. Then, President Vladimir Putin backed George Bush, while China remained aloof and insecure as the U.S. troops appeared in its Central Asian "back yard."
The maneuvers are a logical outcome of the Sino-Russian Friendship and Cooperation Treaty signed in 2001 and the shared worldview and economic ties between the two Eastern Hemisphere giants. At the time, Washington pundits pooh-poohed the treaty, saying it will lead to naught, that China's economic ties with U.S. are too important, and that Russia wants the U.S. as a counterbalance to the growing Chinese power. The armchair strategists were proven wrong.
Pravda.ru Web site recently stated: "The reconciliation between China and Russia has been driven in part by mutual unease at U.S. power and a fear of Islamic extremism in Central Asia."
Today, the two countries share a belief in a multipolar world, which means diluting American global supremacy and opposing the U.S. rhetoric of democratization. China traded support of Russia's heavy-handed tactics in Chechnya for Russian support of Chinese demands to reunite Taiwan with the mainland.
This has proven a tough year for U.S. diplomacy in Central Asia. During the July 6 Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, China and Russia instigated a demand from the United States to provide a timetable for withdrawing its bases from Central Asia.
On July 31, Uzbek President Islam Karimov notified Washington the U.S. had to leave the Karshi-Khanabad (K-2) air base. The anti-American axis is beginning to work.
The growing geostrategic cooperation of Russia and China against the U.S. also has an important geo-economic dimensions. Both China and Russia have a close relationship with the nuclear-arming Iran. China has signed 25-year, $50 billion deals to develop and import liquid natural gas from the giant South Pars field in Iran. And the Russian military-industrial and nuclear complex benefits from large-scale contracts with Iran, including construction of the Bushehr nuclear reactor.
If the U.S. and the three European powers bring the case against Tehran to the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China may threaten to veto a resolution for using force to terminate Iran's nuclear arms bid -- or for imposing economic sanctions.
While U.S. and other multinational major oil companies developed large energy projects in the Caspian Basin in the 1990s, today China eyes oil and gas in Russia and the Caspian for its own rapacious appetite. It has already signed deals with Kazakhstan for building oil and gas pipelines, has signed multibillion-dollar deals with Russia on long-term oil and gas supply, is looking for an oil pipeline from Siberia, and recently signed a deal with Islam Karimov for supply of Uzbek gas. To achieve these strategic goals, China is interested in keeping U.S. companies out of Eurasia.
Moscow and Beijing's are willing to take part in joint maneuvers because each now views the other as its "strategic rear." Given this, prudent steps can be taken to curtail either side's temptation to enter an even closer alliance. Specifically, the Bush administration may offer the Russians U.S. cooperation against radical Islamic groups in Central Asia.
As radical Islamic subversion in Central Asia threatens regional and global security, opposing Islamic terrorism and militancy is a joint interest for the two powers. The Bush administration should encourage development of joint energy, services, and manufacturing projects in Central Asia together with Russian, Turkish, and Indian firms.
Further, the U.S. may try again to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an observer. A member, such as Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan, should suggest U.S. participation.
America is likely to strengthen military and security cooperation with India and Japan, provided U.S. technologies do not benefit rogue states such as Iran. Washington and Tokyo may expand military exercises and intelligence gathering focused on Russia and China.
The United States may attempt to focus its public diplomacy on problems inherent in closer Sino-Russian relations. Russians historically have had many apprehensions regarding China, especially its intentions in the Russian Far East and Siberia.
Riding the Chinese dragon may prove less comfortable for the Russians than they thought. At this point, a renewed interest may emerge in a genuine partnership with the United States. Careful policy development toward this emerging challenge will require U.S. monitoring of Sino-Russian "peaceful missions."
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow, and William Schirano is a researcher, in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
First appeared in the Washington Times