January 3, 2005

January 3, 2005 | Commentary on Europe

Beijing Bear Hug

With each passing week the news from Russia be comes increasingly glum. First, there was Moscow's meddling - and blustering - over the recent Ukrainian presidential elections.

Then, there was the sell-off and nationalization of Yukos, one of Russia's largest private oil companies. And now the latest bad news: Russia's growing military cooperation with Asia's rising superpower, China.

According to Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Ivanov, "For the first time in history, we have agreed to hold quite a large military exercise together with China on Chinese territory in the second half of the year."

Ivanov, who just returned from his second visit to Beijing in three months said Russian exercise forces will include limited ground troops and "state-of-the-art weapons" from the navy and air force "to practice interaction with China in different forms of military maneuvers."

The unprecedented nature of these military exercises - and the possible long-term implications for American interests in the Pacific - is mind-boggling. After years of relative stagnation, a troubling sea change in Sino-Russian strategic relations is underway.

But why the change? From the Russian perspective, cuddling up to Beijing has more to do with Russia's frosty relations with the West than the chill of the Russian winter.

Decrying the American "dictatorship of international affairs" during a December visit to India, Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to gently remind Washington (and the West) of Russian power - and trouble-making potential.

Bristling against NATO's expansion in Europe, Russia is looking for some way to increase Moscow's sagging global standing, as well as balance Western power.

(The election of Western-leaning Viktor Yushchenko in last week's Ukrainian presidential run-off certainly increased Moscow's sense of international impotence.)

So, what better way to fortify Moscow's increasingly weak strategic position in Europe than by teaming up with China to bolster Russia's standing in Asia?

As China's No. 1 arms supplier, Russia is already a player in Asia. Moscow has sold over $5 billion of advanced fighters, missiles, submarines, and navy destroyers to Beijing over just the last five years.

The upcoming military exercises provide an opportunity for struggling Russian arms merchants to strut their wares before lustful Chinese buyers - undoubtedly enamored with the prospect of additional sales.

But what accounts for China's warm embrace of Russia? Plenty.

China has been seeking closer strategic cooperation with Russia for some time to balance - and eventually supercede - America's unparalleled post-Cold War power in the Pacific.

In a recently published defense report, China warned that it faced growing "uncertainty, instability and insecurity." Beijing (naturally) blamed the situation on the American military presence in the Pacific region.

China is also looking for support on the Taiwan unification issue. In the same report, China said that relations with Taiwan are "grim," vowing to accelerate its military buildup (unquestionably with Russian assistance).

China wants to ensure Taipei's eventual unification with Beijing, but a peaceful union may not be in the cards. If Beijing opts for force in dealing with Taiwan, it would have to deter, delay or deny American intervention in a cross-Taiwan Strait military contingency.

And what better way to complicate an American military response than to garner active Russian support for a Chinese decision to attack, or coerce, Taiwan into accepting unification?

In addition, Beijing is betting that a cooperative Sino-Russian military partnership will improve Chinese clout throughout East, South and Central Asia, making "the Middle Kingdom" once again the regional hegemon.

And no doubt that Chinese intelligence will consume Russian military doctrine and tactics like dim-sum, preparing the Chinese People's Liberation Army for possible future clashes over disputed territory with regional rivals such as Japan.

Until recently, the Sino-Russian strategic partnership has been a relatively hollow construct, confined to political rhetoric, trade and weapons sales.

But after Putin's October visit, Chinese President Hu Jintao asserted that "Sino-Russian strategic coordination has attained an unprecedented high level, " while Putin proclaimed that the relationship had reached "unparalleled heights."

For some time, there was broad agreement among foreign-policy elites that both Beijing and Moscow were more interested in developing good relations with Washington than with each other. This may no longer be the case. Recent developments indicate that the tectonic plates of Sino-Russian relations are shifting. We better pay attention.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. E-mail: peterbrookes@heritage.org

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Europe

First appeared in the New York Post