Russia, China and What's Really on the Table
August 3, 2001
by Constantine C. Menges
This article appeared in The Washington Post on July 29, 2001.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's surprise agreement last week to begin a discussion with the United States on offensive and defensive strategic nuclear forces was widely praised. And indeed, it was good news. Putin's willingness to talk might in time produce the "new framework for peace" that President Bush seeks -- although, as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice correctly cautioned, talking does not guarantee final agreement.
But it was only part of a larger picture. This is the same Putin who on July 16 signed a treaty of cooperation with Chinese Presi-dent Jiang Zemin at their summit in Moscow. While the treaty states that it "is not aimed at any third country," it explicitly seeks to promote a "new international order." This is the phrase China and Russia use to describe international politics when the United States no longer has or seeks what they call "unilateral military and security advantages." Since their first meeting a year ago, Putin and Jiang have met eight times to coordinate what the new treaty describes as their "work together to preserve the global strategic balance."
The two events clearly illustrate a dual-track strategy of Russia and China toward the United States. That strategy should worry the White House.
First, the two countries maintain a sense of normal relations with the United States and other democracies so that they will con-tinue providing China and Russia with vitally needed economic benefits. (Bush noted that he and Putin had also discussed "eco-nomic cooperation" and that he would send Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill to Moscow "to discuss a wide range of topics." These might include concessions on Russia's $ 150 billion foreign debt. Meanwhile, China's yearly trade surplus with the United States is about $ 85 billion -- and growing.)
Second, Russia and China are using mostly political and covert means to oppose the United States on security issues and to divide America from its allies. This was the preferred KGB approach when Putin served there (1975-1991), and this has been China's approach during the Jiang years.
This month's China-Russia summit followed a little-noticed agreement signed on June 15 by the presidents of China, Russia and four former Soviet Central Asian republics establishing a political-military coalition, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Jiang called it the "Shanghai Pact," perhaps intending to evoke the former Warsaw Pact. He said that these six countries had agreed on political, military and intelligence cooperation for the purpose of "cracking down on terrorism, separatism, extremism" and to maintain "regional security." Moscow said the agreement would improve "global security." Then, for the first time in its history, China agreed to participate in joint military exercises, with its fellow Shanghai Pact members this fall.
Together, the Shanghai Pact countries have a population of 1.5 billion; they control thousands of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, and this combined conventional military forces number 3.6 million. Iran, Mongolia and Turkmenistan hope to join the pact soon. They would add another 78 million people and bring the combined military forces to nearly 4.2 million.
Such an arrangement could grant protection to Iran, which continues to support terrorist attacks against Israel and other states. Iran recently sent 8,000 katyusha rockets to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. Iran could also link the Shanghai Pact with the Middle East, where Russia and China already provide political and military support to Syria, Libya and Iraq -- three former Soviet allies that might also be welcomed into the pact.
In addition, Putin reportedly hopes that India will join, while China would like Pakistan to participate. If all these countries became part of the Shanghai group, it would include 40 percent of the world's population and could still be open to North Korea, Cuba and the pro-Castro Chavez regime in Venezuela, which in May became a "strategic partner" of China and of Iran.
Judging by its initial public response, the Bush administration may believe that these new treaties are nothing more than sym-bolic acts -- or it simply may not have taken the time to explore this issue fully. The July treaty, according to State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, "is a treaty of friendship, not an alliance. It doesn't have mutual defense in it or anything like that."
That view ignores two facts: first, mutual defense is implicit in the treaty, which states that "if a threat of aggression arises," the two sides "will immediately hold consultations in order to eliminate the emerging threat"; and second, China and Russia have another agreement for mutual defense in the Shanghai Pact, a point well made by a senior Chinese official who said candidly that the July treaty did not explicitly include military cooperation "because we have ample agreements on that issue."
The new China-Russia treaty marks a complete turnabout from 1992 and 1993, when the previous president George Bush and Russian president Boris Yeltsin met three times and agreed on the need for changes in the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 to permit missile defense against third states. Back then, Russia spoke of strategic partnership with the United States and kept communist China at a distance. After 1996, because of pressures from communists and ultra-nationalists in Russia and the failure of the Clinton administration to follow through on some of the Yeltsin-Bush initiatives, Russia and China formed a strategic partnership, which China steered increasingly in an anti-U.S. direction. Putin has said this month's China-Russia treaty was Jiang's idea, and it seems clear that the Shanghai group was as well.
Over the past five years, the China-Russia alignment has had many negative effects on the United States. Russia has ac-cepted much of China's anti-U.S. world view, and the relationship with China has strengthened authoritarian tendencies within Russia. The two countries have frequently issued joint statements opposing missile defense for the United States or its Asian allies. And the Russia-U.S. discussions proposed in Genoa are unlikely to change that. Moreover, Russia has sold about $ 18 billion in advanced weapons to China; some $ 30 billion more are scheduled for the next four years, all aimed at U.S. forces in the Pacific. Chinese and Russian aid to Iran, Libya and North Korea includes expertise and components for weapons of mass destruction and expertise.
Evidence of the potential new military risks to Washington and its allies came this past February in the form of Russian military exercises that included large-scale simulated nuclear and con-ventional attacks against U.S. military units "opposing" a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, according to a report based on U.S. intelligence published in the Washington Times.
But significant challenge to the United States, at least early on, is more likely to come from Chinese-Russian political and covert actions aimed at reducing Wash-ington's international role. Consider the recent defeat of the U.S. proposal for "smart sanc-tions" against Iraq: First China extracted economic concessions from Washington in return for not using its veto in the U.N. Security Council to stop the U.S. plan. Then Russia stepped in with a veto.
Broader examples of Russian-Chinese political cooperation may well include actions to oppose or delay U.S. missile defense plans; to intimidate and lure Taiwan into accepting China's terms; to continue the North Korean partial or pseudo-normalization; and to use Chinese economic opportunities for financially pressed Japanese businesses, in tandem with the possibility of Russian territorial concessions, to persuade Japan to begin moving away from its U.S. security alliance.
Two months ago, Russian and Chinese officials announced they would coordinate policy toward Colombia and Cuba. Russia and China have political and military relations with Cuba as well as electronic monitoring bases aimed at the United States. This joint policy might well include more help for Castro as he works with the Chavez regime to support anti-U.S. radical groups seeking to take power in Colom-bia and other Latin American countries, now even more fragile due to the global economic slowdown. Jiang and Putin might see this as a way of keeping the United States occupied near its borders and less involved in Eurasia.
The Clinton administration ignored early signs of strategic cooperation between Beijing and Moscow. There is no need for a public sense of crisis at this stage, but the Bush administra-tion should avoid repeating that mistake. It should give the China-Russia axis its immediate attention.
Dr. Constantine Menges, a scholar, author, and university professor, was a Hudson Institute senior fellow until July, 2004.
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