Russia and China create their own orbit
By M K Bhadrakumar
While interacting with a select gathering of "Russia hands" from Western
academia, media and think tanks recently, President Vladimir Putin ventured
onto the topic of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in terms, as he
put it, that would be a "revelation ... something probably I have never said to
Putin, known for his reticence and choice of words, revealed that the Kremlin
did not "plan" for the SCO's present standing, but had only set its sights on
the organization's potential to resolve the
"utilitarian question of settling borders" between China and its post-Soviet
neighbors. SCO includes China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and
He continued, "After all, to be honest, I know that somewhere within the depths
of various governments and intelligence services there are people thinking that
Russians and Chinese are up to something here, that they have got some kind of
secret mechanism and are planning something."
Putin summed up explaining SCO's raison d'etre. "It's simply that after the
collapse of the bipolar world, there was a real need for the emergence of
centers of influence and power. This is simply an objective reality."
Curiously, Putin was speaking just ahead of the sensational "revelation" in
Moscow last week that the first-ever joint military exercise of the Collective
Security Treaty Organization (CSTO - Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan,
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and the SCO would be held next year.
Code-named Peace Mission Rubezh, the CSTO-SCO exercise will be staged in
Chebarkul in Russia's Volga-Urals area. Significantly, the heads of state of
the participating countries - Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan,
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Belarus and Armenia - are expected to witness the
exercise. Russian commentators have speculated that the attendance of SCO
observer countries (Iran, Pakistan and India) cannot be ruled out.
In essence, this becomes a military exercise involving Russia and its select
band of close Commonwealth of Independent States allies plus China. Equally,
this will also be the SCO's first full-scale exercise involving all its member
countries. China is expected to display, for the first time abroad, its latest
battle tank, as well as its latest FC-1 multi-role fighters powered by Russian
AL-31FN/FNM1 engines. Both China and Russia are expected to participate at
The exercises are ostensibly aimed at countering "terrorist and extremist
networks in this world of ours" (to quote a Russian commentator) and are not
targeted at any country - "definitely not NATO [North Atlantic Treaty
Organization] or the United States or any other bona fide entity".
But speculation is bound to arise as during the exercises the chiefs of staff
of the participating countries will gather in Urumchi, the capital of China's
Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
Without doubt, there is much political symbolism in the forthcoming event. The
announcement in Moscow on November 3 was itself just about 25 days ahead of the
NATO summit scheduled to take place in the Latvian capital of Riga, which of
course will be the first time that the trans-Atlantic Alliance holds its annual
summit meeting on the territory of a former Soviet republic. The Riga summit is
expected to be a landmark event that may well end up formalizing NATO's
transformation in the post-Cold War era into a security organization with
global reach - something that Washington has been assiduously seeking.
Furthermore, the summit may take up the next round of NATO expansion plans in
the Eurasian region. To be sure, Russia is greatly perturbed about NATO's
intentions. On the one hand, Moscow is far from convinced that NATO's continued
profession of good intentions toward Russia and its interest in developing
cooperative sinews with Russia is to be taken at face value. On the other hand,
Moscow is taking note that a possibility still exists, remote though, that
through such steady enlargement, NATO may become unwieldy to a point that it
may well end up as a hot air balloon.
Certainly, Moscow continues to cherish a vague hope that the manifest
reluctance of the countries of "Old Europe" to fit into the US straitjacket of
global security may yet come in the way of defining NATO's role as an
aggressive bloc. The great hope has always been that somehow NATO may meander
into a conceptual impasse as it steps out of its traditional European
Meanwhile, not a trace remains, even by way of a residue, of the categorical
assurance held out by the Ronald Reagan administration to Mikhail Gorbachev in
the dying days of the Cold War that NATO wouldn't advance eastward from its
existing European borders ("not an inch", as then-secretary of state James
Baker would have said). All that Moscow had to do was convince East Germany's
Erich Honecker about the unification of the two Germanys - which Gorbachev duly
did, and thereafter proceeded to disband the Warsaw Pact unilaterally.
Having said that, there is great uneasiness in Moscow about the specter of
Russia having to share borders with NATO member countries. With the NATO
countries' refusal to ratify the treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, the
ground reality is that Russia is at a serious disadvantage with regard to the
strength of its conventional forces, and with each passing day it widens.
Russia is eager for ratification of the treaty to extend its applicability to
the territories of the Baltic states, which are not covered by the existing
treaty's ceilings on force deployments.
Russian deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has repeatedly
voiced Russian concerns. "During the first wave of NATO expansion [in the
mid-1990s], we [Boris Yeltsin's Russia] were given solemn assurances that there
would be no NATO military infrastructure in the new members' territory. We were
simply duped," Ivanov said on November 1 while on a visit to Norway, a key NATO
He asked: "We don't see why NATO's military infrastructure is getting closer to
our borders. Do we pose a threat to anyone?" Ivanov reiterated that
nonetheless, Russia would take at face value the potentials of developing a
cooperative relationship within the framework of the Russia-NATO Council. But a
spate of Russian statements in recent months indicates that the two sides'
interests are diverging to a point of extensive disagreements. As Fedor
Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs, wrote recently, "After a
decade and a half of pretensions, Russian politicians are once again reaching
for their pistols when they hear the word 'NATO'."
The former head of Russian intelligence, General Leonid Ivashov, told Radio
Russia recently that the US and NATO "helped to mastermind the provocative
measure" involving a recent Russian-Georgian spy scandal since they needed a
"new platform in the North Caucasus, which is an extremely important strategic
corridor for them". He said the intention was to create an "arc of insecurity"
around Russia, by involving the Baltic States, Poland, Ukraine, Armenia and
Ivanov also alleged that some NATO countries were supplying arms to Georgia.
Moscow has no doubt taken note that it was right in the middle of Russia's spy
scandal with Georgia that the US Congress took the decision to provide
financial assistance to Tbilisi for upgrading Georgia's military capability to
a level that speeded up its NATO accession.
Watchful eye on NATO
NATO's enlargement is increasingly becoming a matter of shared concern for
Russia and China. In a commentary in mid-June, the People's Daily noted that
"with its tentacles stretching further and further ... NATO's forces are
exceeding the 'defensive mode' and are going hand-in-hand with the US global
strategy ... NATO's great ambition draws concern."
In another commentary in September, the People's Daily was more specific. It
noted, "The emergence of NATO troops in Afghanistan and the rapid expansion in
the scope of its moves have shown a new trend in the process of its hastening
shift toward globalization, and this has drawn extensive concern of people
The commentary added, "NATO has intensified its interference in the affairs of
major 'hot-spot' regions in recent years ... The frequent appearance of NATO
troops in the 'hot-spot' areas is closely related to its strategic functions
... Equipping itself with such a raid deployment force, NATO will naturally
step up its efforts to expand its domain and the scope of its moves ... It is
the US that provides the biggest driving force behind NATO's worldwide
Most significantly, the commentary took note of NATO's imminent appearance in
the Asia-Pacific region. It said NATO "plans to propose at the [Riga] summit in
November a plan for global partnership, which is aimed at enhancing its
cooperation with Japan, Australia and New Zealand, while seeking an expansion
of the parameters of its cooperation with such 'democratic nations' as Brazil,
India, South Africa and the Republic of Korea".
Without doubt, both Moscow and Beijing will be keenly watching the US's
ambitious plans to deploy a network of anti-missile systems across the world,
ostensibly to safeguard against threats from "rogue states" such as Iran and
North Korea, but which Moscow and Beijing see as a direct challenge to their
security. As Russian Defense Minister Ivanov said, "The announced purpose is
the interception of Iranian inter-continental ballistic missiles, which do not
exist and will not exist in the near future. I think everyone understands
against whom they [anti-ballistic missile defense systems] can be used."
Ivanov could have been echoing China's concerns, too, when he criticized that
the US deployment constituted a "destabilizing element and an attempt to shift
the strategic balance".
The point is, by December a new threshold is fast approaching for both Russia
and China. The US has scheduled full-scale tests of its interceptor missiles in
that month, and if they prove successful, that leads to the deployment of
ground and space-based elements of the missile defense program in full.
Russia is planning an "asymmetric response" to the deployment of an American
missile defense system in the NATO countries bordering Russia. On the one hand
Russia is developing its Topol-M (SS-27) and Bulava missile systems with a
uniquely short boost phase, which helps the missiles avoid interception when
their engines are firing.
For example, whereas the boost phase at present lasts five minutes (which is
sufficient time for a missile launch to be spotted from space), the new systems
aim at cutting down the burning time to 130 seconds, which provides hardly any
lead time for kinetic interceptors to hit the missile. Besides, Russia is
resorting to such other "asymmetric responses" like coating missile surfaces
with reflecting materials or generating radio noise to confuse the interceptors
or deploying interceptor killers near the Russian border.
But China faces a far more daunting challenge. The US missile system threatens
to simply wipe out the Chinese strategic capability. China will be virtually
left with no alternative but to build up its nuclear forces by massive
deployments of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles.
That is to say, both Moscow and Beijing realize by now that the US is provoking
a potential full-scale nuclear arms race. In a statement on October 3, the
Russian Foreign Ministry underlined the gravity of the situation. It warned,
"We regard negatively the US plans to deploy an anti-missile defense system in
Europe, and we believe that with the possible deployment of the European NATO
missile defense system, it would have a negative impact on strategic stability,
regional security and inter-governmental relations."
Last week, Russian Air Force commander-in-chief General Vladimir Mikhailov
further warned that the potential of external threats to Russia was increasing
in the nature of the improvement and acquisition of more strategic and tactical
cruise missiles by NATO countries. "Not only are NATO countries buying large
quantities of missiles, such as the Storm Shadow, KEPD-350, JASSM and SLAM-ER,
for their air forces, but they are also energetically promoting their export,
including to Russia's next-door neighbors," he said.
Again, in the medium term, the majority of NATO aircraft will be in the
category that are difficult to detect by air defense systems. NATO countries
may also acquire hyper-sound air-to-surface missiles. Mikhailov revealed that
during the war in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq, the combat use of the range
of NATO's new arsenals of high-precision, difficult-to-detect armaments was
tried out. "An analysis of exercises in the West shows that plans for such
strikes [as in Yugoslavia and Iraq] are being actively developed. And the
amount of air attack forces and the means available to NATO makes us believe
that the purpose of their use under certain circumstances may be strategic
disarmament of the enemy or the destruction of the enemy's command system," he
Putin himself drew attention to the growing threat perception last week in a
major speech at the Russian military intelligence headquarters in Moscow. Putin
said the potential for conflict was on the increase and Russian military
intelligence must remain vigilant. Without naming the US, he singled out
"stagnation in disarmament", "threat of the emergence of destabilizing weapons
such as low-charge nuclear weapons and strategic missiles equipped with
non-nuclear warheads", placement of nuclear weapons in space, and development
of offensive weapons systems as the contentious issues.
"The international community finds itself in a situation in which factors of
force are dominating in international relations, a situation where relations
are being undermined by unilateral actions ... and by attempts by some
countries to unceremoniously impose their positions without taking into account
at all the legitimate interests of other partners," Putin said.
Keeping pace with the incipient trends in this direction, however, starting in
2005, the Kremlin has begun initiating steps aimed at building up the CSTO
alliance - which embraces Russia's most reliable allies - on the international
arena. Thus, CSTO has gained observer status in the United Nations and it has
been "recognized" by the SCO.
At a meeting of the CSTO collective security council in Moscow in June last
year it was decided to create a military component to the organization. A plan
to develop an integrated air defense system for the member countries was also
discussed. Putin listed that CSTO's priorities would include cooperation in air
defense, manufacturing of weapons, preparation of military personnel and
peacekeeping activities. (CSTO's air defense system presently comprises 20
command control units and 80 combat units.)
From Washington's point of view, the worst-case scenario would be if an
alignment were to formally take shape between CSTO and the SCO, which could
become a mission analogous to NATO as a security organization. In the words of
Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation, "The inter-operability of the Russian
and Chinese forces would constitute a great force multiplier in the event of a
major military confrontation, and the possibility of a coordinated action is
viewed by the Pentagon with great suspicion. Such inter-operable forces do not
threaten the US presence in the Far East - yet. However, the Russian units
outnumber American forces deployed in Central Asia. Military cooperation
between Russia and China, under the guise of counter-terrorism in Central Asia,
has the potential to set off alarms in the planning rooms of NATO and the
This is why Washington sees the SCO as detrimental to US geopolitical interests
in Central Asia. But the American strategy toward the SCO is highly nuanced. On
the one hand, Washington strives to gain observer status in the organization so
as to be in a position to modulate its orientations from within SCO forums. On
the other hand, taking advantage of the huge upswing in its relations with
India, Washington recently come up with a "Great Central Asia" strategy that
aims at drawing the region toward South Asia - away from Russia and China. This
is predicated on the assumption that New Delhi and Islamabad (and Kabul) will
cooperate to become engaging partners for land-locked Central Asian countries.
Meanwhile, Washington will continue to harbor the hope that there is scope to
encourage the Central Asian countries to play Russia against China within the
SCO forum itself. Of late, American strategic analysts have attempted to
persuade Beijing that Moscow is attempting to drag it into an anti-American
bloc, which would be harmful to China's long-term economic interests.
Washington also hopes to use the oil price issue as a wedge between Russia and
China. Some American analysts have taken pains to explain that the geopolitical
interests of the US and China do not necessarily clash in the Central Asian
region. Conceivably, Washington's priority at the present stage will be to
isolate Russia (being the only power on earth with the thermonuclear capability
to destroy the United States within 30 minutes) and leave it to a future date
to deal with China, once the Russian "pretender" has been sorted out.
All indications are that Moscow and Beijing have seen through the arrogance and
cultural insensitivity underlying Washington's miscalculation on this score.
The role of the SCO as a significant geopolitical player; the shift in the
terminus of Russia's Eastern Siberian oil and gas export pipeline from the
Pacific coast to China; the expanding coordination between Russia and China at
the UN; accelerating Chinese investments in Russia; Russia's increased
readiness to transfer state-of-the-art weapon systems to China; the two
countries' growing energy cooperation - all these signal that Washington's
stratagem to "divide and rule" Central Asia has not worked.
Putin recently said, "Our relations with China today are better than at any
other point in our history ... Our relations are not dictated by opportunism
but by the political balance in the world and global development trends, and
these trends are such, in my view, that they will make it imperative to
maintain a high level and quality of relations for a long time to come. We have
common political interests and we also have common economic interests."
The announcement regarding the CSTO-SCO joint military exercise, therefore,
signifies that the Sino-Russian alliance is advancing to a qualitatively new
level. Admittedly, for both Russia and China, their respective relationship
with the US will remain a matter of crucial importance, But the growing
Sino-Russian alliance is no longer to be regarded as their bargaining chip or a
scarecrow vis-a-vis Washington to be flaunted selectively when the going gets
tough in their partnership with the US.
The Sino-Russian alliance is becoming a vital component of the policies of the
two great powers, based on substantive strategic, diplomatic and economic
considerations. Russian diplomatic and economic policy that has been
traditionally anchored in the West is unmistakably turning east, though the
primary direction still remains European. It is as much a challenge to European
diplomacy as to Russian diplomacy whether Russia's Asian alliance incrementally
supplants or merely complements Russia's European alignment.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service
for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan
(1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).