Wednesday, August 17, 2005

China and Russia begin joint military exercises today on China’s coast, involving the armies, navies and air forces of both nations. China’s Defense Ministry said the war games are not aimed at any country. If you believe that, I have a bridge I’ll sell you cheap.

The exercises will last a week, beginning near Russia’s Pacific Fleet headquarters in Vladivostok, then moving south to the Yellow Sea near China’s Shandong Peninsula. The announcement said the exercises would strengthen the ability of the two countries, “in jointly striking international terrorism, extremism and separatism.”

Combating “separatism” in China means suppressing the opposition in Tibet and Xinjiang, and seizing control of Taiwan. It is highly unlikely Moscow would fight the United States in support of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, but Beijing would like to convey that impression.

For years, China has been trying to establish a strategic partnership with Moscow to confront what it calls U.S. global hegemony. Creation two years ago of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization brought together the governments of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in an alliance against Islamic fundamentalism and alleged American encirclement. They got Uzbekistan to order out U.S. forces that support operations in Afghanistan and tried but failed to get Kyrgyzstan to do the same.

Now the Russo-Chinese partnership has taken on the appearance of an anti-American military alliance, practicing jointly to oppose U.S. forces in the Western Pacific. Beijing says Russian paratroopers will jump on Chinese territory and Russian ships will land amphibious forces. Russian and Chinese SU-27 high performance fighter planes will participate, and Russian bombers will carry out bombing runs and cruise missile attacks.

Last January, Russian Air Force commander Gen. Vladimir Mikhailov said his forces would use “Backfire” and “Bear” strategic bombers in the exercise this summer to demonstrate their performance to China, adding, “If they have the money, we will sell them to them.” Beijing reportedly has expressed interest in buying as many as 40 Backfires.

A report from Moscow says the Backfire, if armed with modern Russian cruise missiles, could reach Taiwan “even from far approaches,” and could “destroy an American aircraft carrier group.” China depends heavily on foreign arms suppliers for advanced technologies and is obtaining increasingly effective weapons from Russia.

These military maneuvers come just weeks after Chinese Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu said China should use nuclear weapons against the U.S. intervention on Taiwan’s behalf. Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing later said it was only Gen. Zhu’s personal view. But Chinese officials are under strict discipline and always parrot the party line with precision. It is inconceivable a general officer at the National Defense University would say anything not been cleared in advance word by word.

That incident followed China’s mid-June launch of a ballistic missile from a submarine in the Yellow Sea several thousand miles to a desert in western China. According to the Chinese press, this test of a JL-2 nuclear missile shows the new Type 094 missile submarine can hit targets on the U.S. mainland from China’s coastal waters. This strategic threat complements the regional threat posed by China’s 730 shorter-range ballistic missiles facing Taiwan. Beijing is removing any ambiguity in its warning to the U.S. to keep out of a conflict over Taiwan.

This geopolitical challenge cannot be ignored. U.S. air and naval forces on Guam and Hawaii, and elsewhere in the Pacific, is already being built up. It is equally important to complete the initial deployment of a national missile defense in Alaska and get missile defenses deployed on Aegis ships in the Pacific. Improved defenses against shorter-range missiles also are needed urgently in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

Finally, new initiatives are important, such as the recently announced Pentagon plan to join an alliance of countries to patrol the Strait of Malacca to watch for pirates who interfere with world trade. It may be only a coincidence, but in a war such patrols could stop shipping in the strait — China’s lifeline for the oil it needs for its military and booming economy.

Washington should show no ambiguity about China’s war games and other provocations. Controlling the Strait of Malacca sends a message Beijing cannot blockade Taiwan or start a conflict in the area without paying a very high price.

James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times and is based in Carlsbad, Calif.

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