- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 19, 2002

This past week brought to light how much the geopolitical landscape has been transformed by George W. Bush, despite the apparent contrary evidence provided by the China-Russia summit. Most observers have been riveted on the campaign to combat terrorist attacks, while the Bush administration has pulled off a diplomatic coup worthy of the Nixon opening to China 30 years ago. Only this time, the breakthrough is with Russia, outflanking China.

For almost a decade, China has been assiduously cultivating a strategic partnership with Russia. Last July, Beijing laid the foundation for an alliance to counter U.S. superpowerdom. It clinched Russia's signature on the Treaty of Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation, which seemed to consummate a dreaded rapprochement between former rivals. What a difference a year can make in the still-fluid post-Cold War era.

As the senior partner, China benefited most from a burgeoning Sino-Russian bloc as Beijing forged links with the newly independent Central Asian states amid the Kremlin's receding power and influence along its borders. For the past decade, Chinese political and economic fortunes have seemed ascendant so much so that China was on the verge of fashioning an anti-American league. But things look differently now.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin's journey to the former czarist capital for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin is rich in unintended symbolism for no other city is more associated with the Russian tilt to the West. Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great as a window to the Western modernity, last week the city served as the ratification site for a partnership whose time has suddenly passed, because of Moscow's recent tilt toward the West for the Petrine motives of economic revitalization through Western aid and investment.

The Jiang-Putin meeting took place at the occasion for the signing of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) charter by the member states of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. By anchoring Moscow into SCO's precursor formed in 1996, the Middle Kingdom enlisted Russia not only in containing the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in western China but also in aligning Moscow with its designs to break out of the putative American encirclement. By securing its northern frontier, Beijing also gained a freer rein to pursue its South Pacific advances against U.S. allies and interests.

Sino-Russian cooperation against Muslim separatism is still possible. So are the Chinese purchases of Russian arms beneficial to the manufactures' revenues and necessary for China's military buildup. But the anti-American axis suffered a setback, because of Washington's robust diplomacy.

Last month, Messrs. Putin and Bush signed an historic arms-control treaty scaling back each country's nuclear weapons to 1,700-2,200 warheads from some 6,000 by the year 2012. As part of the deal, the Kremlin acquiesced to the White House plan to construct a national missile defense, perceived by China as a means to dilute its strategic weapons at the very time Washington is strengthening ties with Taiwan.

Working with European allies, Washington dissipated Russian hostility to NATO's eastward enlargement. By making the Russian Federation, in effect, the 20th member of the Atlantic Alliance through the establishment of the NATO-Russia Council on May 28, the West reduced Moscow's opposition to membership for former Soviet republics. But from China's perspective, the Moscovite collaboration with NATO is further proof of Russian pro-West leanings.

Mr. Putin, in his turn, obtained enhanced status and improved development prospects from the West as well as acquiescence for war against separatists in Chechnya by reconciling himself to the U.S. pullout from the ABM Treaty and to NATO's membership expansion. Following in Mikhail Gorbachev's and Boris Yeltsin's footsteps, Mr. Putin set no precedent but he may achieve more rewards for Russia than either of his predecessors. His ratification of the SCO charter also preserved his connection with China, thereby placing the ball in Beijing's court to return with an inducement to restore their prior closeness.

The Great Power configuration has momentously shifted, because the new Russo-American connection leaves China out in the cold. Beijing is already concerned about India's deepening friendship with the United States and American forces stationed in Inner Asia.

Seeing the historical process in years, even decades, Beijing will persist in jockeying for position and seek to undermine the ties between Moscow and Washington. It could step up pressure on Taiwan. It may increase its proliferation of missiles and weapons technology to Pakistan, Iran and other rogue states directly or through North Korea. Whatever its actions, Beijing can be counted on to respond to its new isolation. To head off China, Washington will need to exert the same level of diplomatic effort in Asia as it did with Russia. The Bush administration had best not rest on its laurels.

Thomas Henriksen is a senior fellow and associate director of theHoover Institution.

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