An editorial from WSJ Europe:
Friendly Bear, Cuddly Dragon
March 23, 2006
It's a sign of cloudier times ahead when an illiberal Russia and a still-Communist China -- never warm and fuzzy partners -- get together and try to forge a friendship. Even more reason, then, for the Bush administration to spend more diplomatic energy on cultivating relations with Asia's free nations, as political alliances shift in the Pacific.
The rest of the world might not have noticed, but Moscow has been sliding toward Beijing's orbit for some time now. Russian President Vladimir Putin's turn towards authoritarianism has markedly cooled Russia's political relationship with Washington and the capitals of Europe. Meanwhile, Beijing's rapport with the Bush administration has also deteriorated, thanks mostly to Capitol Hill's protectionist antics -- which may come to a head soon if Chuck Schumer's proposed 27.5% tariff bill on Chinese exports gains steam.
How apt, then, for Mr. Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao to kick off the "Year of Russia" in Beijing on Tuesday, at the same time that Mr. Schumer and his Congressional colleagues -- in town to whine -- were getting the cold shoulder. The two leaders sealed an energy agreement and promised to bind their economies closer together. In many ways, this makes sense: China is energy deficient, while Russia has lots of oil and gas. And although Russia has been a long-time seller of arms to the mainland, its stunted private sector has only marginally benefited from the mainland's economic boom. More trade would benefit both parties.
But it's on the political front where this tentative detente looks most worrying. As this page has argued before, China and Russia aren't natural allies. Moscow views China's rise as threatening to its strategic interests in Central Asia, and worries about Beijing opaque military buildup. For its part, China is anxious over Russia's border claims and its aging nuclear arsenal. The efforts to mend the relationship between the two countries are based on a common desire to stymie U.S. purposes.
Of particular concern to the U.S. Moscow and Beijing are starting to find common ground in their policies toward Tehran. Both sell weapons to Iran's nuclear-ambitious regime and have energy interests there. As permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, a Sino-Russian bloc can frustrate Western diplomatic initiatives at the U.N. Moscow also helpfully supports Beijing's aggressive stance toward Taiwan, regarding the island democracy as "an inalienable part of the Chinese territory," and opposing its U.N. membership. This is happening at a time when U.S. relations with Taipei are a bit strained.
China's overtures aren't confirmed to large nations like Russia. At December's inaugural East Asia Summit, Beijing courted the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations. A warmer relationship has bloomed, too, between Seoul and Beijing, at the expense of Japan, a solid American ally.
The Bush administration hasn't been blind to these shifting alliances, but it has chosen to regard them as part of the normal give and take of international diplomacy. That's understandable so long as these maneuvers don't interfere excessively with U.S. policy objectives, in particular its efforts to establish stable democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have of course been tending to their own relationships in Asia.
America's long-standing allies in the Pacific will remain so for a long while yet. Canberra and Tokyo renewed their friendship with America during Secretary Rice's visit to Asia last weekend. The U.S.-India alliance is clearly on the upswing. And some relationships, such as the one America is cultivating with Indonesia, are on the mend.
Even Russia and China recognize the risks that U.S. exasperation might pose for them. But when two authoritarian regimes set about to play diplomatic games, the possibility for mischief can never be ignored.