- The Washington Times - Friday, August 19, 2005

As Russia and China began their first-ever joint military exercises this week, the world watched. Since the late 1990s, the two nations have been taking steps to reduce the historic enmity between them. How their relationship could affect the United States needs to be continuously gauged.

The exercises, which are expected to last eight days, began on Thursday, involving about 10,000 troops from air, land and sea forces. The drills will be centered along China’s northeastern coast. As Adm. Gary Roughead, the new commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, noted recently, Washington is “very interested” in the exercises, particularly in what systems the parties use and how they handle command-and-control issues. Adm. Roughead also pondered the motivation behind China’s weapons buildup. “The big question is, what’s it for?” he said. “It’s still a little unclear what their intentions are in developing a military with the type of capability and reach they have.”

Greater clarity from Beijing in that regard would be welcome, given U.S. interests in Asia, particularly the Central Asian territory bordering Afghanistan. “There’s a growing sense in our country and military that our future is going to be very heavily tied to Asia,” said Adm. Roughead. “The imperative of maintaining stability and the prosperity in the region will be the key to our security and prosperity in the future.”

Some analysts believe that the exercises were primarily geared towards reinforcing a Sino-Russian relationship to counter America’s clout, particularly in the Pacific region. Beijing has long sought to create counterweights to U.S. power. Moscow, which has been chastened by U.S.-backed rebellions in countries in its “near abroad,” has more recent motivations to extend its geopolitical reach.

The Kremlin also has a more pedestrian reason to engage in war drills with China. Moscow is China’s top weapons supplier, and Beijing is interested in purchasing some of Russia’s wares used in the drills, particularly TU-95 strategic bombers and TU-22M long-range bombers. According to estimates by the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, Russia has been delivering an annual average of $2 billion worth of arms to China since 2000, including fighter aircraft, submarines and destroyers.

Finally, there is the reason for the exercise that has been asserted by Moscow and Beijing: creating a joint capacity to fight terrorism and maintain stability in the region. The drills are ostensibly geared towards separating two clashing ethnic groups in an imaginary nation that has appealed to the United Nations for military help.

The drills themselves, though, appear to be poorly suited for their stated objective. As Sergei Karamayev noted in a column in MosNews.com: ” … if we’re dealing with a peacekeeping operation, then why the strategic missile launchers and impact ships? Preventing a local conflict… doesn’t exactly call for the use of TU-95 and TU-22M bombers. Instead, the Peace Mission’s scenario looks more like a strategic landing operation against a well-fortified region that is occupied not by terrorists, but by a regular army of a presumptive foe.”

Taiwan has reached a similar conclusion and watched the exercises with alarm. Moscow did insist that the exercises be carried out further away from Taiwan than Beijing originally wanted, but Moscow and Beijing have reached an accommodation on the island: Moscow views Taiwan as Beijing’s problem, and Beijing, in turn, views Chechnya as Moscow’s.

Whatever the mix of Russia’s and China’s motives, it is undeniable that our position in East Asia now faces a better-coordinated and more formidable counterweight. Washington should calibrate its response appropriately.

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