Asian games

August 22, 2005

FOR AMERICANS whose thinking was honed by decades of Cold War, the unprecedented joint military exercise launched last week by China and Russia seems bound to set off alarms. But the broader problem faced by the United States in Asia - of its influence declining in step with China's growing economic, military and diplomatic strength - requires not knee-jerk reactions but a comprehensive strategy to date lacking in Washington.

The war games, which began Thursday in the Yellow Sea off northeast China's Shandong Province, do echo the era of triangular strategy when the United States opened relations with China based partly on shared animosity to the Soviet empire. Now Beijing and Moscow - despite residual mistrust - have been cozying up, due partly to a shared aversion to a U.S.-dominated world.

Within that overarching bond, these games - a coastal landing involving only about 10,000 troops but a lot of Russian hardware - accomplish multiple and, from a U.S. perspective, troubling aims:

It's a bazaar in which Russia, China's biggest arms supplier, is showing off long-range bombers and other equipment that would greatly expand Beijing's ability to project power. Look for more sales.

It's a display of China's intent on building capacity for a sea assault on Taiwan, thereby upping the ante for the United States in the Taiwan Strait. More and more, Taiwan is threatened.

It's the latest twist in the long-running "Great Game" of foreign powers in oil-rich Central Asia, where there is mounting resistance to the post-9/11 U.S. military presence. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization - a relatively recent China-led group that includes Russia and four former Soviet republics (Kazahkstan, Krgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) - recently called for the U.S. military to withdraw from the region. Uzbekistan then gave America six months to close its base there. The war games, with the four Central Asian nations among the observers, advertise that China and Russia want to fill the vacuum left by a U.S. pull-out.

The declaration by the Shanghai group speaks to the larger problem for the United States: China's growing use of multilateral organizations that exclude the United States to shift the pivot of Asian economic and security decisions away from Washington to Beijing. An example is the "ASEAN plus 3" formula - that is, the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China, Japan and South Korea. In Malaysia this December, these 13 nations will hold the first East Asian Community summit - without the United States.

As with the war games, China insists its intentions are entirely benign. But even so, it is clearly carrying out a deliberate strategic plan of building its global influence, starting of course with Asia. In response, the United States - distracted by the wars in Iraq and on terror - seems to lack regional policies in either Southeast or Central Asia, reacting ad hoc to events bilaterally and in almost blasM-i fashion to China's network building. This isn't sufficient. This dragon may be smiling now, but there are no guarantees what would happen if it gains the dominance it seeks.

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