A game of triangular geopolitics

Russia's Putin shows Bush warmth - but sides with China on US missile shield.

In the wake of President Bush's first major foreign trip, at least one thing seems clear: Russia, China, and the United States are engaged in a new round of that classic geopolitical contest, triangular diplomacy.

The rules of this game are simple. Two nations, historically at odds, strike up a relationship as a counter to the perceived power of the third.

The last time this particular trio played in earnest was the early 1970s, when Richard Nixon extended his hand to China in part to counter Soviet expansionism. Today it is Russian President Vladimir Putin who is courting Beijing, as he attempts to prevent a unilateral US move toward erection of missile defenses.

Of course, simple rules don't dictate a simple outcome. The warmth of the weekend meeting between Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin suggests that the latter hasn't made a final choice about his partner.

And in any case, there's no guarantee that a new Russia-China partnership would dissuade the Bush administration from pressing forward with a missile shield.

"With the Chinese, the Russians have this marriage of convenience," says Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a senior foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It doesn't stop their ancient grievances and suspicions, but for the moment it suits them, because of their perception of the United States."

Long-nurtured alliance

It may be a marriage of convenience, but it is also a marriage that Russia has been working on for some time. More than half of Russia's arms exports now go to China, which has ambitious plans for military expansion as a counter to US strength in Asia. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesmen talk about the Sino-Russian relationship as being in its most "intensive phase" in decades.

Last week, prior to his meeting with Bush in Slovenia, Putin traveled to Shanghai for a session of the "Shanghai Co-operation Forum," a loosely organized political entity whose members include China, Russia, and four central-Asian states. This semi-summit produced a communique announcing opposition to the introduction of even theater missile defenses in Asia.

And who was the first foreign leader Putin called after his back-slapping chin-wag with Dubya? That's right - Chinese president Jiang Zemin.

Putin briefed Mr. Jiang by phone Monday on the results of his meeting with the US president, presumably skipping the part where he and Bush noted that they had both named their daughters after their mother and mother-in-law.

"Putin and Jiang elucidated the agreement between the Russian and Chinese positions and their readiness for further cooperation," noted the Kremlin afterward, in the kind of brambly-dense verbiage for which the Kremlin is justly famous.

Still, Jiang must have noted the evident warmth of the US and Russian rhetoric over the weekend and felt a little chill himself.

Jiang and Putin share the strategic goal of exerting as much influence as possible on Bush's missile shield plan. Beyond that, their aims are likely very different, US analysts note.

The defense issue

Russia wants to make sure any US defenses do not devalue its own nuclear arsenal. But the relatively large size of its nuclear stockpile means that an initial defense deployment would do little damage to its strategic position.

It is at least theoretically possible that the US and Russia could strike a grand bargain that limits warhead numbers and defense capabilities and satisfies both nations' stated aims.

China also wants to prevent the devaluation of its strategic arsenal. But the Chinese have so few nuclear-strike weapons that even a rudimentary shield would make them less powerful.

Thus Beijing might well be worried that Putin will eventually wave goodbye and forge closer ties with what used to be called "the free world."

"The Chinese are much more concerned about missile-defense systems than the Russians," says Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russian and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Days of 'Red scare' are over

Furthermore, neither Putin nor Jiang likely has any illusions about their national power relative to that of the United States.

The days when the US worried about the rise of a powerful communist Sino-Soviet alliance are long gone. The economic and military influence of the US is such that for both Moscow and Beijing, like it or not, their relationship with Washington is more important than their relationship with each other.

And there's a wild card in today's version of triangular diplomacy that did not exist in the cold war: Europe. The European Union's increasing cohesiveness about everything from monetary to military affairs means that, for the first time in history, it is becoming possible to regard "European diplomacy" as something other than an oxymoron.

In fact, the current struggle over missile defense might be more rectangular than triangular. Bush's recent European swing made clear that many longstanding allies desperately want him to act multilaterally, not unilaterally, on missile-shield plans.

Putin is thus wooing Europe, too. Of course, given Russia's geography, it is inevitable that he would turn to European nations - not necessarily as a counterweight to the US, but as an adjunct.

According to Mr. Kuchins of Carnegie, "the Russians want and need positive relationships with everybody across the board," including China, India, and other states on their periphery.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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