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
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
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
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