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War games
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 25 - 08 - 2005

Joint Chinese-Russian military exercises bring back memories of the Cold War, writes Gamal Nkrumah
Every new broom likes to do a little sweeping, and China asserting itself as a fast rising power in Asia wishes to dispel its image as a third rate military power playing second fiddle to the United States. The People's Republic is now insisting on buying the best defence technology. Joint military manoeuvres with Russia in the Yellow Sea, Beijing reckons, is a good place to start.
The whys and the wherefores of the Sino- Russian military manoeuvres are on the political agendas of the US, Japan and other Asian powers as never before. The joint exercises, involving 10,000 troops (1,800 Russians and the rest Chinese), were carried out on both Chinese and Russian territories.
Peace Mission 2005, as the first joint military exercises between China and Russia are dubbed, is a thought provoking venture with significant short-term ramifications for the two countries, for their Asian neighbours and for the US. The unprecedented exercises, which commenced on Thursday 18 August, focus on the transportation and deployment of troops, decision-making as well as the organisation of coordinated actions between the two most powerful armies of the Asia- Pacific region. This is a development to watch.
Post-Soviet Russia, too, wants to prove its mettle. The immediate outlook in Russia is rather bleak. The Chechen crisis, rampant unemployment and the general economic malaise, and a host of other social problems have all dogged post-Soviet Russia. The country is eager, therefore, to prove that it is still a power to be reckoned with.
Across the continent, Russia and China have a vested interest in presenting a common front. Both countries have an interest in regional stability, economic development, border security and coordinating the fight against terrorism. Both Moscow and Beijing are trying to win influence in the Asia-Pacific region and in Central Asia, in particular. American influence is growing. Both China and Russia are uneasy about the presence of American military bases -- the Karshi-Khanabad airbase in southern Uzbekistan and the Manas airbase near the Kyrzyg capital Bishkek. Each has roughly 1,000 US military and civilian personnel and are considered by Washington as essential for the smooth running of its post-war operations in Afghanistan.
China and Russia are also apprehensive about pockets of resistance to central government rule from Islamist militant groups and separatist movements in Xinjiang province, far-western China, and adjacent areas in the Central Asian republics and Russia. China and Russia, therefore, have legitimate strategic interests in Central Asia. But the geographical locations chosen for the Sino- Russian joint manoeuvres shed light on the real purpose of the exercise.
The Yellow Sea separates mainland China from the Korean peninsula and Japan. Taiwan is also in close geographical proximity to the venue of the exercises. "China insisted from the outset that the joint manoeuvres be held in an area not too distant from Taiwan and the Korean peninsula," military strategist Ahmed Ibrahim Mahmoud of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies told Al-Ahram Weekly. He said the exercises were planned a long time ago, and they were very well thought out.
"The two giants have much in common. They are both weary of American hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region. They share a similar strategic global outlook," Mahmoud added. "They both want to curtail American military and political influence in Asia."
Post-Soviet Russia has long aimed at creating a strategic alliance with China and India. Perhaps the best known of these initiatives is that proposed by Yevgeny Primakov, former foreign minister (1996-98) and prime minister (1998-99), for forming a grand Asian alliance to counterbalance American predominance in the continent. China was at the time ambiguous and India flatly rejected the idea. Russia and China, however, worked hard to keep relations on an even keel.
The ties -- economic, political and military -- binding the two countries were strengthened with Russian President Vladimir Putin assuming office. Both Moscow and Beijing believed such ties were the best way to defang the US but could never quite work out when the time was ripe. It appears that they have reached an accord that now is the time to come out in the open about their strategic alliance.
The Americans, for their part, are closely examining the turn of events. "We are following the exercises," said US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. US officials often express deep concerns over the pace of China's military build- up. The Russians and Chinese, however, were quick to assure that they did not have malevolent intentions against the Americans.
On the eve of the exercises, General Liang Guangilie, chief of general staff of the Chinese People's Liberation Army said the manoeuvres were designed to "protect peace and stability in our region and the whole world". He stressed that the manoeuvres were not directed against the Americans, or anyone else for that matter. "The exercises are not directed against a third country," he said.
The Russians concur. "Our exercises don't threaten any country," General Yuri Baluyevsky, head of the Russian armed forces general staff, said on the eve of the manoeuvres.
Still, the exercises have a strong air of psychological warfare. The Sino-Russian manoeuvres commenced in Vladivostock, Russia's far east, and ended in China's Shandong peninsula with an amphibious and paratrooper landing -- a virtual invasion of a hypothetically bellicose neighbour. Perhaps Taiwan?
The joint manoeuvres included missions by state-of-the-art Russian fighter jets and strategic bombers. These are, after all, the most extensive exercises since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Chinese weapons are antiquated by American standards. The most sophisticated of China's Russian weapons date back to the 1980s. But Russia has newer and more sophisticated weapons and China, with its newly founded economic clout, has cash to spare for sophisticated Russian arms.
China is fast emerging as the economic centre of gravity across the Asia-Pacific region. And China and Russia are the twin cornerstones of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) -- an organisation grouping the two giants plus the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikstan, Turkmenstan and Uzbekstan. At the last summit meeting of the SCO, the two countries urged their Central Asian partners to get rid of American bases on their soil.
With the exercises well underway, it is important to keep sight of the fact that Russia is as much an Asian power as it is a European one. Resource- rich Siberia and the Russian far-east are closer to Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo than they are to Moscow. Moreover, Russia and China face similar challenges as they combat militant Islam, terrorism and separatist groups on the fringes of their respective empires.
And, moreover, both have more than once come under fire in the international arena for the same reason -- being a thorn in the side of the Pax Americana.


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