Sunday, May 25, 2008

Crouching Bear, Snarling Dragon

The first foreign visit by a newly elected president is a highly symbolic gesture. I remember a few years ago, well almost eight long and torturous years in fact, shortly after Dubya was "elected", the uproar caused in Canada by the fact that his first trip abroad was to see Vicente Fox in Mexico instead of the traditional visit to his northern neighbour. It was seen as a deliberate snub to the Canadian government and a move towards the south as the previous three presidents had begun a tradition of smiling to the north first. So what can be read into Russia's newly elected President's first foreign diplomatic trip? This weekend Putvedev is visiting China.

Sino-Russian relations are possibly at an all-time high. Both economies are booming and both are looking to flex their muscle. Apart they are strong, together they hope to bring down American hegemony, a fact the hasn't been lost by any of the American presidential candidates, even if the electorate has missed it. Maybe if we weren't so inured to Dubya's failings it might have been a bigger part of the news coverage, but George W truly scored a triple crown of incompetence over the past couple months of foreign trips. In addition to being rejected by King Faud in Saudi Arabia in his request for more oil and trying to compare Barack Obama to Nazi appeasers in Israel he was also rebuffed by outgoing Russian president Vladimir Putin in Sochi, on the Black Sea. So long Vladimir, remember me, I'm the guy who looked into your eyes and got a sense of your soul, let's be friends, let us point interceptor missiles your way. NO! Now, with Putvedev in China, along with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, they wasted no time signing a joint statement, marking the first time they have come together in denouncing the plan.

With the rise in US power since the end of the Cold War and fear of Islamic extremism in Central Asia, it should have come as no surprise that both Russia and China's unease would lead to closer ties. The Sino-Russian Treaty of Good Neighborly Friendship and Cooperation (yes, it's real name! Maybe I'll call it the SRTGNF&C),in 2001 marked a real turning point. Since then bilateral trade volume has surged from $10.67 billion in 2000 to $48.17 billion last year, with Putvedev stating a target of $60 billion for this year. Of that $48 billion, almost $7 billion of it is oil flowing into China, which will exponentially grow once the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline and its branch to China are completed. Of course all of this growth has been driven by the transformation of the USSR to capitalist Russia and the opening of the Chinese market to capitalism, as the west and especially America probably would have wished for 20 years ago. At the same time as buying Chinese goods and Russian oil, America has also done everything in it's power to improve their future prospects, seemingly investing in their future. While borrowing money mainly from China daily to fund a war whose most pronounced effect globally has been increasing terrorism and the price of oil from $25 to $135 a barrel. Driving the value of the dollar down, thus increasing the cost of importing, mainly from China to buy more crap and finance the debt. Oh, yeah, about that war on terror...

Ostensibly on the pretext of training for joint responses to terrorist threats (and extremism and separatism, hello Taiwan), the Russian and Chinese armies have been staging manoeuvres together since their inaugural Peace Mission 2005, a result of the war on terror and the aforementioned SRTGNF&C. The week of August 18-25 of that year saw joint war games involving 10,000 troops, cruise missile capable Russian heavy bombers and units of the army, navy, air force, marine airborne and logistics units from both countries. Week 2 saw an amphibious landing in Eastern China, not far from Taiwan. In what has been evolving towards an "anti-NATO" group, the SCO, or Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), played host to more "anti-terror drills" in 2007 on an even grander scale. In addition, through this group, both China and Russia are seeking to increase their influence, and reduce American influence in Central Asia both economically and militarily. Not only are they securing oil supplies, they've gone so far as to demand the US military out of it's member countries, with Uzbekistan complying. Yes, the names may be unpronounceable, but they are important staging posts for the war in Afghanistan. Remember Nixon in China? Neither do I, but I've read that it was a trip designed to counter fears of Soviet hegemony in Asia, an attempt to enlist China's support in America's containment strategy. The present American administration seems to have done everything possible to push them together.

The American plan to balance this new alliance in Central Asia has been the velvet revolution idea, working off the successes in the Ukraine of the orange revolution and the rose revolution of Georgia. However, with the possible exception of Kyrgyzstan, it's been a complete failure, most notably in Uzbekistan where yet another American staged coup attempt went awry in 2005 in Andijan. Two other wild cards, both of whom are observer states in the SCO, are Iran and India. With Iran obviously tilting to the east, India's role of possible kingmaker is undeniable. Donald Rumsfeld might have said of the 2005 Peace Mission "...I guess I don't find it notable" and continued, "I mean, countries do that. We are obviously observing what's takes place, but I didn't see anything in it that was threatening to Taiwan or anyone else." However, America has taken notice, witness the latest good cop-bad cop game played by McBush and Bush before and during Bush's last visit with Putin in Sochi. The reality is, for those of us who missed it the first time around, a new cold war is definitely forming with most of the same players playing different roles.