The rattling of sabres

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 August, 2005, 12:00am

No one ever said the world was a straightforward place, so the latest strategic to-ing and fro-ing in Asia should come as welcome proof that the 'business unusual' sign is well and truly up in the region.

China and Russia yesterday launched their first-ever war games in a bid, they claim, to 'strengthen the capability of the two armed forces in jointly striking international terrorism, extremism and separatism'. That is East Asian military jargon for shouting 'yaboo sucks' in the general direction of the US.

Such gestures do not pass lightly in Washington, where memories of cold-war Moscow still make Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's surgical truss tremble. Add China to the equation and it is guaranteed to make him go, to coin a term, ballistic.

The games, dubbed 'Peace Mission 2005', started in Vladivostok, and in the coming week will cheekily make their way south in the general direction of Taiwan. This is akin to making rude hand gestures at Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, who is known to be not terribly keen about 10,000 heavily-armed soldiers from opposing military powers playing a version of 'Let's Pretend - Maybe' in his backyard.

On show will be an impressive array of military hardware, with names and numbers that sound quite threatening. I certainly would not like an Su-27 nuzzling up to me on a hot summer's night, nor a Tu-95 or Tu-22 doing the rounds of the living room. A cursory glance at a book of all things military revealed these to be advanced Russian fighters and bombers, the latter two of which China would not half mind getting its hands on, because of their long-range or supersonic capability.

They will be accompanied by submarines, an aircraft carrier, amphibious ships and other such paraphernalia that doubtless give American, Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese radar operators tingling sensations.

But that is only part of the objective of Chinese and Russian generals. They have a much wider remit: to confirm to US President George W. Bush's administration that the cold war never really went away - it just went into temporary defrost.

China's and Russia's signing of a strategic partnership in 1996 was a first indication to Washington that things were not quite right. A cat-and-mouse game has since ensued, with friendships being formed where there were none before, all across Central and South Asia.

China and Russia first formed the Shanghai Six, a loose alliance with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan; the US used September 11 to get air bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, rebuild an off-on relationship with Pakistan and put in place a friendly government in Afghanistan; and China and Russia used their leverage to get the bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan closed.

Just thinking about all these 'stans' and trying to spell them correctly is giving me a headache, and it was obviously having the same effect on Mr Bush. Last month he broke with tradition, telling visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh he could have all the nuclear co-operation he could eat.

It was a sublimely simple tactic - if the world's most up-and-coming nation, China, starts looking threatening, form an alliance with the number two, India. There are significant bonuses: India and China do not like one another, while New Delhi's decades-old partnership with Moscow offers a panorama of possibilities.

Besides, Mr Bush holds the ultimate trump card - American non-participation in the Kyoto pact on climate change. If the new cold war takes hold in any major way, US factories can go into overdrive and give China and Russia a superpower-sized dose of global warming. Voila! - the big chill melts away.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor