Wednesday, August 3, 2005

U.S. military officials said yesterday they will be watching closely as China and Russia prepare for unprecedented joint military exercises later this month to be staged on a Chinese province close to the Korean Peninsula.

Dubbed “Peace Mission 2005,” the Aug. 18 to 25 exercises between the two Cold War rivals will involve about 10,000 troops, as well as Russian fighter planes and paratroopers and China’s growing nuclear submarine fleet.

Officials from the U.S. Pacific Command hope to observe the games, Brig. Gen. Carter Ham of the U.S. Joint Staff told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday.

“Clearly, there’s interest in anything that affects security in the Pacific region,” the general said.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s something they’re particularly worried about, but certainly as it may potentially affect security, they’re very interested,” he added.

The exercises, seen as hard evidence of a warming alliance between the two powers against U.S. influence in Asia, have sparked concern across the region, particularly in Taiwan, which China claims is a breakaway province.

The Chinese defense ministry said this week that the exercises are designed to “strengthen the capability of the two armed forces in jointly striking international terrorism, extremism and separatism.”

Russian officials have been wary of being dragged into the Taiwan dispute, insisting that the war games are not directed against any third party.

But Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov rejected suggestions that the war games be scaled back to ease the concerns of others in the region.

“If this arouses their interests or concerns, that’s their problem,” he told the Russian Interfax news agency in Vladivostok, where the first part of the joint exercises will take place.

He noted that Russian troops carry out similar training exercises with U.S., NATO and Indian forces. “Why can’t we hold military exercises with China?”

Moscow and Beijing share an interest in curbing U.S. influence in Central Asia, where the Pentagon has established several military bases in the wake of the war in Afghanistan. More generally, both capitals have endorsed a “multipolar world” — an implicit challenge to U.S. economic and military dominance.

Defense ministers from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a new grouping of six Central Asian nations dominated by China and Russia, have been formally invited to observe the games.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, senior fellow at the Nixon Center and editor of the National Interest, said the exercises represented a “qualitative step” in improving China-Russia ties, but said the United States should not overreact.

“Yes, they both would like to reduce U.S. influence in their region, but both also have a strong interest in improving their relations with us,” he said. “It is something for us to monitor, but if we make too much of it, we could end up just pushing China and Russia closer together.”

Asked whether the joint mission signals a closer Chinese-Russian military alliance that could challenge U.S. interests, Gen. Ham said, “I’m not sure we know yet, and that’s why we are interested in monitoring.”

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