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U.S. Experts Fear Russia-China Axis

Chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army Liang Guanglie (L) listens to his Russian counterpart Yuri Baluyevsky (2-nd R) in Vladivostok, 18 August 2005. Longtime adversaries Russia and China launched their first-ever joint wargames in a show of military might they insisted was not aimed at any other country after the United States expressed concern. AFP photo.

Washington (UPI) Oct 04, 2005
Recent joint military exercises between Russia and China have prompted fears that a new axis is emerging in Asia.

There is a real possibility of a sharp deterioration in Sino-American relations, Igor Zevelev, Washington bureau chief for Russia's RIA-Novosti news agency told United Press International.

If the Bush administration misinterpreted Chinese signals of self-assertion as belligerent expansionism, then the prospect of a new hostility between the United States and China reminiscent of the Cold War was not far off, he said.

Zevelev was speaking after a panel last week at Washington's conservative Heritage Foundation. The panel looked at Russia and China's recent joint military maneuvers on China's Shandong peninsula.

The Russian and Chinese governments described the 'Peace Mission 2005' joint military maneuvers, the first large-scale omens the two nations have ever held together from Aug. 18-25, as an anti-terrorism exercise. Coming at the same time as Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and New Orleans, the maneuvers received relatively little attention in the U.S. media.

"The scale of the operation suggests something more than anti-terrorism, as was claimed," said Stephen Blank, professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, in a statement to the conference.

The war games involved nearly 10,000 troops including 1,800 Russian military personnel, scores of advanced aircraft including Russian TU-95 and TU-22 heavy bombers, which can carry cruise missiles, and army, navy, air force, marine, airborne, and logistics units from both countries.

The nature of the exercises, involving amphibious landings on a theoretically hostile coast and mass drops of more than a thousand paratroops, raised some concerns that they were a dress rehearsal for a possible future Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

However, Taiwan is not China's only concern and of no significance at all to Russia, said Heritage fellow Harvey Feldman. "Russia has scant interest in Taiwan and no interest in getting entangled with the United States," he said, echoing Blank, who suggested the operation had a number of strategic aims.

The maneuvers were a chance for Russia to showcase advanced weapons for sale to China, he said.

Most important, though, was North Korea, Feldman said. "Any account of these exercises must consider the Korean dimension," he said.

North Korea is currently locked in international negotiations, aimed at persuading its government to halt its nuclear weapons program.

"The missing factor that should not be overlooked is that if negotiations break down, the United States might intervene," said Blank, suggesting that 'Peace Mission 2005' was meant as a deterrent to American involvement in the region.

According to Balbina Hwang, Heritage's Korea analyst, China is also preparing for the prospect of the downfall of the North Korean regime. Although strengthening economic support from China ensures this is unlikely, the Chinese were sending a "very strong signal" to South Korea and the United States about the future of a unified Korean peninsula, she said: China would not allow the straightforward incorporation of the North into the pro-Western South.

But geopolitics was not the full story, said Igor Zevelev, Washington bureau chief for Russia's RIA-Novosti news agency. There was a clear message behind the maneuvers, he said. But the two countries were not addressing the United States; nor were they addressing each other: Each had a message for internal consumption.

"Foreign policy is the process of continually reinventing states," he said. According to Zevelev, China and Russia both see themselves as great powers. The military exercises were aimed at affirming this status in the minds of their governments.

But how the message is received in Washington depends greatly on how the United States government chooses to decode it, Zevelev said and he urged a cautious U.S. response.

"Both Russia and China are interested in good relations with the United States. They are geared much more toward the United States than each other," he said, citing China's huge volume of American trade compared to its limited trade with Russia.

The United States has a tendency to automatic nervousness because Russia and China represent different and more centralized models of development to that privileged in American political thinking, he said.

"The United States sees itself as the source of universal values. China and Russia feel a right to chose their own path of development," Zevelev said.

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