While President Bush, his neoconservative advisors and centrist Democrats bask in the glow of America's status as ''the one remaining superpower in the world,'' there are mounting signs that other major powers do not intend to hunker down and suspend their own efforts to shape history.
The most striking result of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov's four-day visit to China last week was the agreement to hold ''substantial military exercises on Chinese territory in 2005'' (quote from Russia's Interfax news agency). This was Ivanov's second trip to Beijing this year, and Chinese President Hu Jintao used the occasion to assert that ``Sino-Russian strategic coordination has attained an unprecedentedly high level.''
For those familiar with the acerbic nature of Russian-Chinese relations over the years, the announcement of joint military exercises is stunning. The switch from extreme hostility to rapprochement is a sea change in the broader strategic equation. The fact that the improvement in ties has been incremental makes it no less real -- and no less a potential threat to U.S. interests.
This event, largely ignored by the U.S. media, comes on the heels of Soviet President Vladimir Putin's October visit to Beijing, where he said that bilateral relations had reached ''unparalleled heights.'' Putin then signed an agreement settling the last of the disputes along the 7,500-kilometer border between the two countries, ending the pushing and shoving that had led to armed clashes in the 1960s and '70s. Putin's visit also produced an agreement to jointly develop Russian energy reserves, an agreement that China hopes will help fuel its growing economy.
Sino-Russian bilateral trade has been growing by leaps and bounds. Most important, China has become Russia's arms industry's gold-star customer. This year, the Chinese are spending about $2 billion for weapons. For Russia, these sales are an important source of export earnings and keep key segments of its defense industry afloat. Cut off from arms sales from the West, Beijing has come to rely on Russia more and more for sophisticated arms and technology.
Standing up to the bully
Before 9/11, progress in political, economic and military relations reached a high point with the conclusion of a Sino-Russian treaty signed by Putin and President Jiang Zemin in Moscow in July 2001. That treaty reflected a commitment to collaborate closely in standing up to what they consider the world's big bully. The invasion of Iraq in March 2003 greatly increased the incentive for such collaboration, now made more tangible by the scheduling of joint military exercises.
As for Washington's misadventure in Iraq, the Russians and Chinese look with mixed feelings on the quicksand in which U.S. forces are trying to stay afloat: alarm at what they see as unconstrained, unpredictable U.S. belligerence and schadenfreude at the fiasco brought about by the ineptitude of senior American civilian-defense officials and by careerism among the generals, many of whom know better but lack the spine to tell their superiors that the war in Iraq cannot be ``won.''
What seems clear is that, largely because of the U.S.-U.K. attack on Iraq, China and Russia intend to give each other meaningful political support if Washington embarks on a new military adventure -- against Iran, for example. And watch out. That same assurance of mutual support could embolden the Russians or Chinese to undertake adventurist actions of their own (vis--vis Taiwan or Ukraine, for instance), the more so as U.S. forces appear doomed to thrashing about in Iraq for the near future.
U.S. not main focus
Like subterranean geological plates that shift imperceptibly, changes with immense political repercussions can occur so gradually as to be imperceptible -- until the earthquake. Over the past several years, there has been rather broad consensus among specialists that, despite the gradual rapprochement between Russia and China, both remain more interested in developing good relations with the United States than with each other.
Someone needs to tell U.S. policymakers that this may no longer be the case, help them understand why this is important and warn them that hubris has always been a tragic flaw.
Ray McGovern began his 27-year career with the CIA as the analyst for Soviet relations with China and Southeast Asia. He is on the steering group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.
© 2004 Miami Herald