According to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, an argument -- the paper calls it a "scandal" -- has arisen over the site of the first Chinese-Russian joint military exercise, Commonwealth-2005, due to be held this autumn.
Apparently the original point of the exercise was to hone both armies' anti-terrorism skills, and the Russians originally suggested that the exercise be conducted in Xinjiang Province. The reasoning for this is obvious enough. Not only does Xinjiang have its own separatist movement, responsible for a number of bombings in recent years, but it also borders Central Asia which is rife with the explosive combination of potential oil wealth, extremely repressive governments, great poverty and Islamic fundamentalism.
China wasn't interested in the kind of separatists who put bombs on buses or in market places, however. Loss of human life has never been a problem for Beijing. Rather it was more interested in the type of separatists who invest US$100 billion in your country and employ 100 million of your workforce, but just don't want to receive the tender embrace of the "motherland." So Beijing vetoed the Xinjiang plan -- almost certainly because the last thing China ever wants to do is to admit there is a problem where there actually is one -- and suggest that Russia join it in practicing for an invasion of Taiwan. The location in Zhejiang Province was chosen for its similarity to Taiwan's coastline.
The Russians balked at this, but not because they are partisans of Taiwan independence. They have, after all, shown in Chechnya a ruthlessness on the "anti-secession" principle against which China's pales in comparison. Nevertheless, like any country with an interest in the freedom of shipping routes in the western Pacific, Russia would be better off with a Taiwan separate from China, better off -- like everyone else in fact -- with the status quo.
The Russians were dismayed by the proposed Zhejiang location. We would like to think they were shocked at the baldness of China's behavior -- their proposal was rather like a man asking you to help rape his next-door neighbor -- but perhaps this is wishful thinking. But they were certainly concerned that the military exercise, as China conceived it, simply had nothing to do with Russia's security interests. China wanted, for example, to practice amphibious landings with marines. How important this branch of military science is to Russia can be gleaned from the fact that, vast as the country is, it has only about half as many marines as Taiwan.
There was also the not inconsiderable problem of Japanese and US reaction, particularly in light of the joint statement of these countries on Feb. 19 labelling the Taiwan Strait an area of mutual strategic concern. Moscow has no interest in ruffling the feathers of either of these two countries. And yet it does have an interest in selling weapons to China, for which the exercises would be a showcase calculated to get Chinese generals salivating.
Russia was therefore forced into a negotiation with China that has tried the patience of both sides, and however their armed forces might benefit, has certainly led to their diplomats honing their skills. The result is that the Russians have consented to the exercises being moved 800km to the north on the coast of Shandong Province. It will be interesting to see whether the Russian's contribution to the maneuvers amounts to much more than an airshow.
And once again we can see that China just hasn't learned its lesson. The "Anti-Secession" Law was a huge mistake, alienating public opinion on Taiwan and forcing the US and Japan to give up their stance of strategic ambiguity, without obtaining any tangible benefit for China. Now Beijing thinks that it can involve foreign countries in its hegemonistic land grab. What a pity that the supineness of so many governments, especially those of the EU, abets China in this fantasy.
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