Joint military exercises have helped cement the rapprochement of two traditional geopolitical antagonists, China and Russia. The budding alliance has prompted one senior US State Department official to admit that the balance of power "in Eurasia is shifting against the United States."
The Chinese-Russian maneuvers, dubbed Peace Mission 2005, were due to conclude August 25. About 10,000 troops have participated in the week-long exercises, which have taken place on China's Shandong peninsula, on the Yellow Sea and near the Russian Pacific port of Vladivostok. In addition to practicing joint land and sea operations, Peace Mission 2005 included exercises involving long-range Russian bombers.
Moscow and Beijing have said the maneuvers were designed to promote cooperation in combating "terrorism, extremism and separatism." Western military experts, however, consider the official rationale to be disingenuous, given the type of weaponry involved, including heavy bombers and submarines. Such assets are ill-suited to contend with small guerrilla bands.
Some believe that China sought to use the exercises to intimidate Taiwan, while others believe Russia used the maneuvers as an opportunity to showcase Russian weapons systems that Moscow wants sell to the People's Liberation Army. Still others interpreted Peace Mission 2005 as a message to Washington concerning North Korea, effectively saying; "We can compel Kim Jong Il to toe the line without your interference."
The maneuvers seem to be the logical outcome of the Chinese-Russian Friendship and Cooperation Treaty signed in 2001. It is also the product of a converging world view in the post September 11-era, as well as the outgrowth of strengthening economic relations. At the time of the pact's signing, many Washington political analysts downplayed its significance. They reasoned that the growth of substantive strategic ties between Beijing and Moscow were precluded by the importance of China's economic ties with the United States. American experts also figured that Russia would prefer to seek stronger ties with the United States to counter-balance growing Chinese power, especially in Central Asia.
US experts' faulty geopolitical analysis seems to rest on an underestimation of how Russia and China saw the expansion of Washington's global strategic footprint over the past four years as a major threat to their respective power. American analysts also appear to have been caught off-guard by the extent to which the so-called color revolutions in the former Soviet Union -- producing regime change in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan -- alarmed Chinese and Russian leaders. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A recent commentary posted on the Pravda.ru web site stated that the "the reconciliation between China and Russia has been driven in part by mutual unease at US power and a fear of Islamic extremism in Central Asia."
The steadily improving Chinese-Russian strategic partnership may severely limit US geopolitical maneuverability in Eurasia. Already, Uzbekistan has shown the American military the door, giving US forces six months to leave the Karshi-Khanabad air base. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. US leaders have convinced Kyrgyzstan to keep its air base at Manas open to American troops. But Russian political analysts openly state that Moscow -- with Beijing's blessing, if not backing -- will keep on exerting pressure on Bishkek to send the Americans troops there packing.Following the Communists' takeover of China in 1949, Beijing and Moscow were briefly ideological allies. But by 1956 they had developed into bitter enemies, following the denunciation by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev of Stalin's totalitarian excesses. Relations between China and Russia have steadily improved since the mid-1980s. Today, the two countries share a belief in a multi-polar world, which means diluting the United States' global supremacy, and opposing US rhetoric of democratization. China traded support of the Russian heavy-handed tactics in Chechnya for the Russian support of Chinese demands to reunite Taiwan with the mainland.
China's and Russia's growing willingness to cooperate has helped make 2005 a rough year for US diplomacy in Central Asia. During the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in July, Russia, with China's support, engineered the adoption of a declaration demanding that the United States set a time-table for the withdrawal of American forces from Central Asia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Washington declined to issue an official response to the declaration. China and Russia -- through their unflinching support for Uzbek President Islam Karimov in the aftermath of the Andijan events -- are also believed to have encouraged Uzbekistan to evict American troops from the country. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Policy analysts in Washington believe Chinese-Russian cooperation is capable of creating further strategic complications in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. Staunch Chinese-Russian backing for Central Asian dictators in particular Washington's erstwhile ally, Karimov could destabilize Central Asia over the long term, American analysts suggest. Propping up dictatorships, they reason, will probably strengthen Islamic radicalism in the region, including in China's Xinjiang Province, likely leading to an expansion of militant activity.
China and Russia also could frustrate Western efforts to contain Iran's nuclear research program. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Beijing and Moscow have strong economic ties with Iran. China, for example, in late 2004 signed a 25-year deal, worth potentially $200 billion, to import liquefied natural gas from the giant South Pars field in Iran. Meanwhile, the Russian military-industrial and nuclear complex benefits from large-scale contracts with Iran, including a deal covering construction of the Bushehr nuclear facility, and potentially several additional reactors.
The United States, along with Britain, France and Germany, have sought to halt Iran's nuclear program. If Washington and European Union states bring the issue up for debate in the United Nations Security Council, Russia and China are likely to adopt a soft approach on the possible imposition of economic sanctions. Beijing and Moscow are also seen as likely to veto any initiative to authorize the use of force to terminate Iran's nuclear program, which critics say is designed to produce weapons of mass destruction. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
An important factor in China's actions toward the United States stems from Beijing's need to secure reliable energy supplies. China views Central Asia and the Caspian Basin areas where US and other multinational oil companies are already entrenched as the best available options for securing the energy that the Chinese economy requires to keep growing. Thus, Beijing is interested in containing, if not reducing Western economic influence in the region. In addition, China views Russia as a key energy supplier a consideration that enhances bilateral geopolitical cooperation. In recent years, Chinese entities have signed major pipeline deals with Kazakhstan, while acquiring a major gas company, PetroKazakhstan. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In May, China inked an oil-supply pact with Karimov's Uzbekistan worth an estimated $600 million.
The recent diplomatic setbacks are forcing US policy makers to reconsider Washington's geopolitical strategy in Central Asia, taking into account the rising influence of China and Russia, and the likelihood that Beijing and Moscow will act in concert to frustrate US initiatives in the region.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and author and editor of Eurasia in Balance (Ashgate, 2005)
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.