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Russian-Chinese maneuvers send a message

Philip Bowring

HONG KONG Russia's and China's current joint military exercises are not so much a symbol of trust and friendship between the two as a symptom of American overstretch. The two are reminding the United States of the limits of its unilateral global power.
The exercises are also a way for each country to deliver a message to the other, as well as to their Northeast Asian neighbors.
The U.S. military presence in Central Asia was an inevitable outcome of the Sept. 11 attacks and for a while was tolerated by Russia and China, both eager to see the ouster of the Taliban and a check to archaic Islamism.
But even if the America withdraws from elsewhere in Central Asia, the prospect of a permanent U.S. presence in Afghanistan is viewed as somewhat provocative given Russia's long-held obsession with its southern frontier and China's well-justified long term concerns about its hold on its non-Han western lands.
The question for the United States must be whether it has sufficient long-term interest in this region to justify a presence that has clearly helped incite this show of force and friendship by Russia and China.
To be sure, America has some interest in the oil and other resources of the Central Asian republics, and in a ground as well as naval presence close to Iran. But the strains on U.S. capabilities, now that the budget deficit is running close to record levels, should raise the question of whether it might not be better to leave well alone and let Russia and China compete against each other for influence, particularly in Kazakhstan and Iran.
Russia's interests in Iran and all the Central Asian republics, and China's interests in contiguous Central Asia, are natural and permanent.
China has been stepping up its efforts to build friendly relations with Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan regardless of their troubled domestic politics and to offer itself as preferred outlet for Kazakh oil and gas. But there are frictions too, over water as well as ethnic issues. The nominally Muslim Turkic Central Asians know they have to play off their giant neighbors if the historically expansionist instincts of both are to be kept at bay.
Landlocked Central Asia may also be a distraction from America's much greater interests in the Western Pacific (and to a lesser extent the Indian Ocean). The Chinese-Russian exercises are a reminder of the missed opportunities of a real rapprochement between Russia and Japan. While China has been prepared to make some minor border concessions for diplomatic purposes, the interests of Moscow and Tokyo in much closer cooperation remain stymied by nationalist posturing over their Kurile Islands dispute.
Given Japan's interest in not seeing China gain control of Taiwan and the South China Sea, the prospect of China acquiring more advanced military equipment from Russia points up the failure of Japanese diplomacy to advance beyond Cold War mentality. The underlying reality of Northeast Asian strategic positions is that Russia and Japan are both on the defensive against the rising powers of China and South Korea. China, meanwhile, is reminding Russia as well as the United States and Japan of the importance it attaches to defeating "separatism" - Taiwan, that is.
How much advanced weaponry the Russians are prepared to supply to China remains an open question. The participation of Russian strategic bombers and advanced fighters in these exercises may be as much a reminder to China of Russian technological prowess as a warning to the United States and its allies that Russia is still a military power to be reckoned with, in Asia as well as Europe.
Russia and China began the exercises with a flurry of rhetoric, claiming comradeship over the defeat of Japan 60 years ago.
Ironically, however, the exercises come exactly 100 years after Russia was driven from China, not by the Chinese but by Japan, advancing through Korea and across the Yalu river into Russian-occupied Manchuria. Mutual suspicions remain.
The Russians, in particular, fear that China may eventually want to roll back further their Far East frontier.
A new Great Game between the powers may be emerging in Central Asia. As U.S. strategists contemplate the meaning of Chinese-Russian exercises, perhaps they should be asking whether the United States wants or needs to be a player there - or whether it should focus its gradually declining influence on keeping peace and the balance of power in the Western Pacific.
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