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War Games: Russia, China Grow Alliance

In foreign policy it’s critical to “know thine enemy.” So American policymakers should be aware that Russia and China are inching closer to identifying a common enemy — the United States.

The two would-be superpowers held unprecedented joint military exercises Aug. 18-25. Soothingly named “Peace Mission 2005,” the drills took place on the Shandong peninsula on the Yellow Sea, and included nearly 10,000 troops. Russian long-range bombers, the army, navy, air force, marine, airborne and logistics units from both countries were also involved.

Moscow and Beijing claim the maneuvers were aimed at combating terrorism, extremism and separatism (the last a veiled reference to Taiwan), but it’s clear they were an attempt to counter-balance American military might.

Joint war games are a logical outcome of the Sino-Russian Friendship and Cooperation Treaty (search) signed in 2001, and reflect the shared worldview and growing economic ties between the two Eastern Hemisphere giants. As the Pravda.ru (search) Web site announced, “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.”

Relations between Russia and China have steadily improved since the mid-1980s. The recent military exercises may have helped renew a post-World War II alliance they forged against the U.S. It lasted several years before a bitter split, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (search) denounced dictator Joseph Stalin’s bloody purges and refused Chairman Mao (search) an honor to be a co-leader of the global communist movement.

Today, Moscow and Beijing want to build a multi-polar world. That would require diluting American global supremacy and opposing the U.S. rhetoric of democratization. Both sides are willing to bend to reach those goals. China, for example, supported Russia’s heavy-handed tactics in Chechnya (search). Russia, in turn, supported China’s demands that Taiwan (search) reunite with the mainland.

A sign of their newfound cooperation surfaced during the July 6 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (search) summit in Astana, Kazakhstan. China and Russia demanded the U.S. provide a timetable for withdrawing its troops and bases from central Asia.

Geopolitically, China and Russia share interests as well. They both want to keep insecure central Asian dictators in power, because those dictators are likely to serve as a counterweight to American influence. Unfortunately, the harsh regimes may boost the case of radical Islamists and lead to more extremism and violence in post-Soviet Muslim areas and the Xinjiang province.

Perhaps more alarming from an American perspective is the close relationship both China and Russia have with Iran. China has signed 25-year, $50 billion deals to develop and import liquid natural gas from the giant South Pars (search) field in Iran. Russia benefits from large-scale contracts with Iran, including construction of the Bushehr nuclear reactor (search).

If the U.S. and the three European powers, which failed to negotiate a halt in the Iranian nuclear program, bring the case against Tehran to the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China are likely to block real sanctions. They may threaten to veto a resolution calling for the use of force to terminate Iran’s nuclear-arms bid.

Moscow and Beijing want to work together because each country now views the other as its “strategic rear.” Given this reality, the U.S. should take prudent steps to drive a wedge between Russia and China. To do that, the Bush administration should:

—Work with Russia to battle radical Islamic groups in Central Asia. Opposing Islamic terrorism and militancy is a joint interest for the two powers. Washington should help develop joint energy, services and manufacturing projects in Central Asia among, for example, Russian, Turkish and Indian firms.

—Increase intelligence monitoring of relations between Russia and China, especially in national security areas. Intelligence gathering should focus on the condition of Russian forces in the Far East, including the possibility of the Russian Pacific Fleet’s intercepting the U.S. Seventh Fleet in any confrontation in the East China Sea.

—Strengthen military and security cooperation with India and Japan. The U.S. should work with them to secure shipping lanes and develop Central Asia and the Russian Far East to offset China’s growing economic power.

Despite strides in Sino-Russian rapprochement, Moscow remains nervous about China, especially its intentions in the Russian far east and Siberia. Riding the Chinese dragon may well prove even less comfortable for the Russians than they anticipate.

At that point, they may wish to renew a genuine partnership with the United States. But until then, we must monitor this emerging partnership carefully — and work to keep it from getting too cozy.

Ariel Cohen is a senior research fellow in international policy at The Heritage Foundation.