Calculated muscle-flexing

Found in Asia Times, August 6, 2005, by Sergei Blagov, MOSCOW – Russia’s unprecedented joint war games with China can be viewed as a dual message to the United States and the Central Asian republics of the extent to which Beijing and Moscow are prepared to go to protect their interests. Russia is to dispatch about 2,000 troops for exercises scheduled August 18 to 25 near Russia’s far-east port city of Vladivostok, before moving to the Yellow Sea and then to an area off the coastal Chinese province of Shandong.

The games are expected to involve Russia’s Il-76 transport planes with paratroopers, Tu-95MS bombers firing cruise missiles at targets in the sea and Su-27SM fighter jets simulating coverage of ground forces. Russian and Chinese military leaders, including defense ministers as well as Russian Chief of General Staff Yury Baluyevsky and his Chinese counterpart Liang Guanglie, are expected to attend the drills.

The exercises were first mentioned in a memorandum of understanding between Chinese Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Guo Boxiong, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in July 2004. The countries first revealed such plans in December 2004, when Ivanov visited China.

The maneuvers would largely focus on anti-terrorist drills, deputy commander-in-chief of Russia’s ground troops, Colonel General Vladimir Moltenskoi, said this week. According to the war-games scenario, a fictitious state becomes plagued by terrorist violence and seeks assistance from neighboring states (ie Russia and China) to restore law and order. However, it has been argued that strategic bombers and submarines are hardly necessary for anti-terrorist drills.

It is hardly a coincidence that Russia and China have invited observers from four other governments in the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstanto – to attend the war-games. The group officially aims at fighting Islamic militants in Central Asia, but the war-games scenario, the would-be restoration law and order, looks like a practice for a joint intervention to keep a friendly regime in power.

Earlier this year, Kyrgyzstan underwent a regime change following mass riots, while Uzbekistan managed to quell an uprising. As speculation swirls about yet another “color (non-violent) revolution” in strategically important Kazakhstan, Russia and China presumably do not mind indicating that they have joint capabilities to intervene.

The maneuvers are also viewed as a message to the US, as both Russia and China are keen to sustain and expand their influence in Central Asia, confronting global dominance by Washington. July’s summit of SCO in the Kazakh capital of Astana seemingly served the same purpose. The SCO nations not only suggested the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan announce a timetable for withdrawal, they also issued a declaration demanding, among other things, a limit on outside interference in nations’ internal affairs.

The SCO declaration, as well as a bilateral Russian-Chinese declaration on “World Order in the 21st Century” adopted on July 2, did not mention the US directly. However, these documents are understood to target perceived US domination in international affairs. Both declarations reiterated the principles of mutual respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression and non-interference.

Moreover, following the SCO demand to the US-led coalition forces to declare a timetable for withdrawal from Uzbek and Kyrgyz bases in the region, Uzbekistan revealed a decision to order the closure of the Karshi-Khanabad air base, used for US operations in neighboring Afghanistan.

The Russian-Chinese war games also take place against a backdrop of the freshly minted Chinese anti-secession law on Taiwan. During a trip to China in March, Baluyevsky said that Russia was against any form of Taiwan independence, but he denied allegations that the forthcoming exercises were meant as practice for a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

Not surprisingly, Russian officials have been keen to deny that the drill planners had the Taiwan issue in mind. Ivanov has said that Russia did “not care” about other countries’ concerns over the exercises. “The exercises will take place thousands of kilometers from Taiwan, precisely on the Shandong peninsula,” Ivanov said.

Russian media outlets claim that a major row erupted between China and Russia over the location for the exercises. It was claimed that Russia had pushed for Xinjiang, due to its proximity to Central Asia. This location would allow Russia to highlight the importance of its air force base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan.

However, Beijing allegedly rejected the proposal, and instead suggested Zhejiang, a coastal province near Taiwan. Exercises in this area would look too provocative and trigger a strong reaction not only in Taiwan, but in the US and Japan. Due to Russia’s insistence, the exercises were thus shifted some 500 miles to the north to the Shandong peninsula.

In the meantime, Russia is understood to have a commercial agenda for the war games as it hopes to sign a massive arms deal with Beijing, and the exercises will be a perfect place to showcase what’s available. Last January, Moscow hinted it could sell advanced strategic weapons to China, including Tu-22M3 bombers, known as Backfire in the West.

Sergei Blagov covers Russia and post-Soviet states, with special attention to Asia-related issues. He has contributed to Asia Times Online since1996. Between 1983 and 1997, he was based in Southeast Asia. In 2001 and 2002, Nova Science Publishers, NY, published two of his books on Vietnamese history.

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