Russia and China begin joint war games Thursday, for the first time adding military muscle to a burgeoning partnership that some experts see sweeping away old strategic verities, from the Taiwan Strait to central Asia and beyond.
The week-long maneuvers off the Pacific coast are widely viewed as Moscow lending a mail-gloved hand to China's efforts to warn the United States away from involvement in any future crisis over Taiwan. But preparations to deal with potential unrest in Central Asia may also figure, some say.
Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao pledged to work together to prepare their armed forces "to deal with new challenges and threats," listed as extremism, terrorism, and separatism.
Further suggesting the war games may be part of a larger agenda is the presence of defense ministers from the six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. Some analysts believe Moscow and Beijing hope to transform the SCO, hitherto a Central Asian talking shop, into a NATO-style security alliance to keep order in their increasingly troubled neighborhood. "Shared security concerns in the far East and Central Asia are driving Russia and China into much closer security cooperation," says Sergei Lusyanin, an expert with the official Institute of International Relations, which trains Russian diplomats. "It's not surprising to see them flexing a bit of joint military muscle for the first time, and I think we can expect much more of that in future."
The war games, dubbed "Peace Mission 2005," will see combined Russian and Chinese forces deploy to reestablish order in an imaginary country "on the territory where riots stemming from ethnic discord have taken place and confrontation between different forces occurred," according to Russian Gen. Vladimir Moltenskoy. Highlights will include amphibious troop landings and paratroop drops on China's Shandong Peninsula, accompanied by antisubmarine maneuvers and cruise-missile launches from high-flying Russian Tu-95 "Bear" bombers.
Alexander Goltz, an independent military analyst, says a key Russian goal is to show the Tu-95 and supersonic Tu-22M bombers off to Beijing, which purchased $2-billion in Russian military equipment last year. Russian armsmakers have already sold Su-30 fighter jets, Kilo-class submarines, A-300 antiaircraft systems, and other Soviet-era weapons, but have little new to offer the tech-hungry Chinese. Though both bomber types are at least four decades old, acquiring them would give Beijing a strategic edge it still lacks. "This is to some extent a marketing ploy, to expand our sales rather than support China's Taiwan policies," says Mr. Goltz. "There is little doubt that in a real Taiwan crisis, Russia would step aside."
It's been a long road for Russia and China, who fought a brief but savage border war in the 1960s and had virtually no relations until the collapse of the Soviet Union 14 years ago. Russia today is China's main supplier of modern arms, nuclear technology, and energy. Trade between the two soared to nearly $20 billion last year and is projected to hit $60 billion by 2010.
Along with leaders of the six SCO states, officials from countries the SCO is courting as possible members - such as India, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Iran - will be present for the joint exercises. "The dangerous situation in Central Asia is driving Russia and China to overcome their mutual suspicions and work together," says Vitaly Naumkin, director of Moscow's independent Center for Strategic and Political Studies. "The SCO is becoming the main vehicle for that strategic cooperation."
A lightning revolution overthrew Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev in March. Uzbek President Islam Karimov suppressed a revolt by alleged Islamic extremists in May, killing up to 1,000 people. The upheavals deeply alarmed Moscow and Beijing, both of which have substantial Muslim minorities that are feared vulnerable to Islamist and separatist ideologies.
In central Asia too, the rising Sino-Russian compact poses a challenge to American influence. An SCO summit in early July demanded the US "set a timetable" for removing its military bases in the region, at Manas in Kyrgyzstan and Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan, which were established with Kremlin approval in the wake of 9/11. "When the US invaded Afghanistan to crush Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Russia and China saw that as desirable," says Mr. Lusyanin. "But now it looks as if the Americans plan to stay forever. The thinking in Moscow and Beijing is that the US has now become part of the problem in central Asia because it's encouraging revolutions down there."
Last month Mr. Karimov gave the US until year's end to vacate Karshi-Khanabad. But in a whirlwind visit to the region, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld persuaded Kyrgyz leaders to let the US keep its 1,000 troops and scores of aircraft at Manas indefinitely. Washington pays about $50 million annually - about 5 percent of Kyrgyzstan's GDP - for use of the base.
Meanwhile, Russia has announced it will double the size of its own Kyrgyz air base at Kant, open a new intelligence-gathering center in Tajikistan, and hold joint war games with the Uzbek military this fall. Kyrgyz Vice Premier Adakhan Madumarov was recently quoted in a Russian newspaper as saying establishment of a Chinese military base in his country has been discussed "at the highest level."
"We're seeing a strategic shift which, if it continues, could change the whole picture in Eurasia," says Lusyanin. "Russia and China have many things in common. It's not just oil and arms; increasingly it's a shared concept of what the regional and global order should look like."