An Exercise Fit for Sending U.S. a Message

Joint troop maneuvers by China and Russia this week point to wariness about America's strong presence in their backyards, analysts say.

By Mark Magnier and Kim Murphy

Los Angeles Times

August 17, 2005

BEIJING — As they prepare to join forces for their largest military exercise in modern history, China and Russia have billed this week's maneuvers as a cooperative fight against terrorism. But they're also sending a message to Washington, analysts say: Don't push the two former Cold War adversaries too far.

The eight-day exercise, which will begin Thursday, will be the most extensive since Beijing and Moscow fought together against U.S.-led forces during the Korean War half a century ago. Billed as a modest exercise when proposed last year, it has grown in scope to include nearly 10,000 troops using a range of sophisticated weapons systems.

"I can't help but think it's intended as a bit of a poke in the eye at the U.S., a way of [China] saying, 'We do have good relations with Russia,' " said Eric McVadon, a retired U.S. admiral and Asia-Pacific director at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis in Washington.

Moscow and Beijing said in their respective announcements this month that their Peace Mission 2005 exercise would kick off in the Russian Far East port of Vladivostok but would take place largely in and around China's Shandong peninsula and was aimed at countering terrorism, extremism and separatism.

"Part of the exercise is beach landing and sea-air deployment, which has nothing to do with fighting terrorism," said Ni Lexiong, a military expert teaching at Shanghai Normal University. "Generally, it's being held because of the long-term U.S. aggressive military stance toward China and Russia."

Even as the Bush administration expresses growing concern about China's military buildup, Beijing and Moscow have bridled at the United States' recent moves in their backyard.

Those include announced troop redeployments in South Korea and Japan designed to create a leaner, more responsive force as well as the redeployment of long-range bombers and nuclear attack submarines to Guam, part of a stated goal of bolstering the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Also worrisome, particularly for Moscow, has been the United States' expanding military presence in oil-rich Central Asia, part of Russia's traditional sphere of influence. The former Soviet states of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have seen the toppling of their autocratic, Russian-leaning governments over the last 18 months, replaced by elected regimes that lean toward the West.

Beijing also has bristled at criticism of its military buildup from U.S. conservatives, including a high-profile speech in June by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in Singapore and the July 19 release of a Pentagon report that calls China a potential long-term threat.

"I'm not sure Russia and China are trying to deter the U.S. outright," said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taiwan. "But they see this [region] as their territory, and they're trying to counter-balance the U.S. position by taking a more proactive stance."

In a thinly veiled jab at America's sole superpower status, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, denounced the "aspiration for monopoly and domination in international affairs" in a joint declaration last month during a Moscow summit.

Analysts see limits to the Chinese-Russian relationship, however, with some characterizing the military exercise as a marriage of convenience. Even as ties increase, Moscow is thought to be wary of China's growing economic and political clout and fearful that the sparsely populated Russian Far East could become a de facto Chinese colony.

Although it has provided an abundance of arms to China, Russia has balked at selling Beijing its most advanced military hardware — and items it does sell may come with strings attached. Some Chinese websites suggest that Moscow sold Beijing SU-27 fighters on the condition that they remain south of the Yangtze River, a sizable distance from the Russian border.

The exercise will involve 1,800 Russian troops and nearly 8,000 of their Chinese counterparts as well as Russian antisubmarine vessels, a large landing ship, a destroyer and 17 military transport and fighter jets.

Analysts say the exercise's location reflects insecurity in both capitals over the breakup or further dissolution of their empires.

Russia reportedly wanted the exercise staged in Central Asia, while Beijing wanted it just off Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province. The area around the Shandong peninsula was reportedly a compromise to avoid a strong Washington response over Taiwan.

Both sides have denied any bid to target a third party or send a broader political message.

"The exercise has nothing to do with interests of a third state such as Taiwan or North Korea," Col. Gen. Vladimir Moltenskoi, deputy commander in chief of Russian land forces, said at a briefing in Moscow early this month. "The objective of the exercise is to deepen cooperation between the two countries in the spheres of defense and security."

That cooperation has often been in short supply. The two then-communist allies fell out in the late 1950s and almost went to war, leading to decades of mutual suspicion.

However, a landmark agreement last year settling a series of disputes along their 2,700-mile border has removed a major irritant, and both sides are placing priority on improving relations.

Economic ties are expanding rapidly — two-way trade in 2005 is expected to hit $25.2 billion, up 20% from last year's record level — as Russia becomes an increasingly important energy supplier to China's booming economy.

China wants to sell more manufactured goods to its neighbor even as Russia sets its sights on expanded sales of heavy industrial equipment. Ni, of Shanghai Normal University, says that continued "U.S. aggression" could even push the countries to forge a formal military alliance.

Some analysts also see the exercise as a way for Moscow to showcase its arms. "This exercise has multiple messages," said retired Col. Vadim Solovyev, editor of Independent Military Review.

China is already a large customer of Russian radar equipment, destroyers, jet fighters and missiles, and there's little sign that Moscow's cash register will stop ringing. Washington recently leaned on Israel, another major Chinese supplier, to reduce its military exports after the disclosure that Israel improved China's anti-radar capability with the help of U.S. technology. Washington also has pressured Europe to maintain its ban on weapons sales to China.

Russia and China may see an opportunity to reduce the U.S. footprint in Central Asia. In late July, Uzbekistan, miffed about U.S. calls for an international investigation of a deadly government crackdown on demonstrators in the town of Andijon, gave the U.S. six months to vacate a southern air base that Washington has used for its Afghan campaign since late 2001.

Rumsfeld has persuaded neighboring Kyrgyzstan to allow a U.S. air base there to pick up the slack, but the decision by Uzbekistan is still seen as a U.S. setback. Both Russia and China supported the forced exit behind the scenes.

Even inside China, however, some analysts are quietly questioning Beijing's judgment in holding such an ambitious exercise when its relations with Washington already are strained by a huge U.S. trade deficit, security tensions and the recent aborted bid by state-controlled CNOOC Ltd. to take over the U.S. oil company Unocal Corp.

"My sense is there was criticism internally about China's decision to go ahead with it," said Bonnie Glaser, a senior analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The concern is that you're likely to [anger] America even more and you wouldn't get anything more for it."

But Chu Shulong, a professor of international relations at Beijing's Qinghua University, countered that China often found itself in something of a no-win situation. "No matter what China does with Russia, or its own military buildup," Chu said, "the Pentagon and Mr. Donald Rumsfeld will still regard China as a threat."

Analysts said the form of China's announcement suggested Beijing's sensitivity to foreign criticism. The announcement said the exercise was in keeping with the United Nations Charter, international law and the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

"Why can Russia not conduct a military exercise with China?" China's state news agency quoted Russian Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov as saying. "I cannot see any reason."

Magnier reported from Beijing and Murphy from Moscow.