When President Richard Nixon helped "open China," part of the aim was to counter any alliance between the archrival Soviets, and China. Jokes and friendship toasts between then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Chinese officials in the 1970s always included verbal jabs at Moscow.
In reality, mutual suspicions and animosity between Moscow and Beijing then were so thick that a "Sino-Soviet" alliance never materialized. Yet today, a struggling Russia and a rising China are now exploring a wide range of cooperative ties, including closer military relations. The White House announcement Tuesday to design and deploy a nuclear missile shield could accelerate this emerging comity.
In fact, by proposing to cut nuclear weapons stockpiles and abandon the traditional concept of nuclear deterrence, the Bush administration may be introducing the most significant geopolitical change since World War II.
The US plan comes at a time when relations between the "Bear" and the "Dragon" are in their "most intensive phase in decades," according to a Russian Foreign Ministry
statement. Already, more than half of Russia's growing arms exports are to China, a nuclear weapons state that sees its deterrent as devalued by the prospect of an effective missile defense in the US.
Yesterday, China's Xinhua state news agency warned: "The US missile defense plan ... will destroy the balance of international security forces and could cause a new arms race."
Early this week, Russia and China announced a longterm "friendship and cooperation treaty" to be signed when Chinese President Jiang Zemin visits his counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow this July.
With the US threatening to withdraw unilaterally from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, the keystone of cold-war arms control, the message received in Moscow is that Russia is no longer considered a strategic equal, but rather a second-tier nuclear power such as Britain, France, or China.
"Our leaders have great difficulty accepting this, but the impact upon them is purely psychological," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, an independent Moscow think tank. "We still have over 1,000 nuclear missiles, which would be more than enough to overwhelm the missile shield the Americans are contemplating. Russian leaders should relax and concentrate on the positive elements of Bush's message, such as the suggestion to slash strategic offensive weapons."
Should China and Russia overcome their differences, geopolitics would be significantly altered in the Pacific-Asia region, an area described by Ashley Tellis of the Rand Corporation as "poised to become the new center of gravity in international politics in the 21st century."
A serious Sino-Russian power block could in time challenge the US strategic and military role in the region, backed by the US Pacific Fleet, which for many years has provided security in East Asia. For that reason, the US missile plan is already raising the level of concern among states like Japan and South Korea, experts say.
"There is some reluctance and some concerns, particularly [regarding] China," says Masahi Nishihara, the president of the National Defense Academy in Yokosuka, Japan. "But China will expand its nuclear positions anyway; they're simply using American support for Theater Missile Defense [TMD] as their excuse for expanding it."
The US considers a smaller-scale shield for Japan as necessary to defend it, and US forces based there, against a North Korean missile threat. China considers a TMD shield as the first step in the remilitarization of Japan. It also worries that Taiwan might get such a shield, according to Thomas Bickford, an Asia security specialist at the University of Wisconsin.
Already, China purchases an estimated $2 billion worth of Russian military hardware annually, intelligence reports say - and China may be negotiating secretly to purchase Russian "stealth" destroyers that would give its small navy the capability of sinking US aircraft carriers.
In practical terms, experts say, Russia and China have many embedded layers of distrust to get past before building a real alliance. Moreover, Beijing may need to buy weapons from Moscow, but most of its future talent goes to college in the United States. And US firms like Ford, which last week signed a multibillion dollar agreement to build a new plant in central China, continue to invest here.
"For all the talk of Sino-Russian comity, it's hard to see the Dragon and the Bear entering into a close alliance. There's just too much geopolitical strain between them," says Richard Baum, China specialist at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Still, the more frosty grows the relationship between Washington and Beijing, the more appealing will a cooperative strategic partnership appear.... Left to their own devices, China and Russia would never form a close alliance; but with the US pushing China relentlessly into an adversarial relationship, the Russian Bear must be looking a bit more benign to Beijing's leaders."
Relations between the US and China have been rocky for months. For most of the first 100 days of the Bush administration, Beijing officials have wondered whether the Bush team's early hard-line position of a "China threat" was simply campaign sloganeering - or if it signaled a new confrontational approach.
Chinese leaders are cognizant of a pro-Japan emphasis in the new White House and have spent considerable diplomatic capital to correct what they now feel is a clear pro-Taiwan tilt by the US.
Beijing treats its policy of eventual reunification with Taiwan in almost orthodox religious terms. Last week's multibil-
lion dollar US arms package for Taiwan, including submarines, was blasted officially. Beijing is still not certain how to read Bush's statement that the US would "do what it takes" to defend Taiwan. Such a comment goes far past the so-called "strategic ambiguity" that most US leaders have relied on in dealing with US-China-Taiwan relations, with the US keeping both sides deliberately unclear about how far the Pacific Fleet would go to assist Taiwan, if it were attacked.
In Russia, official and independent experts alike are unhappy about the implications of a US missile shield. "This is going to drive Russia and China together," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a strategic analyst in Moscow.
Most experts don't consider China's current nuclear capability threatening enough to require a missile shield deterrent. The People's Liberation Army is thought to have 10 to 20 intercontinental missiles (each with only one warhead) at "Base No. 54" near the town of Luoyang, in central China's Henan province. How quickly the Chinese plan to expand their nuclear arsenal is unclear.
Washington's stated purpose for the shield is to use it as a deterrent against "rogue states" like North Korea, and secondarily to possibly defend allies.
In this sense, should the US develop missile-shield technology, and should Taiwan be protected by it - a shield could counter some 300 short- and medium- range missiles now reportedly deployed by the Chinese across the 90-mile strait separating the mainland from Taiwan.
Some experts who predict a missile- shield program will create problems for the US around the globe say the strategic calculations made by military planners looking at the future capability of other states don't always account for the short- term feelings and atmospherics that also play into how history is made.
Supporters say leadership requires making bold and controversial decisions. The technology has advanced since the idea was first proposed under former President Ronald Reagan, and it's better to prepare now for a missile threat, than wait until it's too late, they say.
Staff writer Ilene R. Prusher in Tokyo, and Fred Weir in Moscow, contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor