U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he is not concerned about the first bi-lateral Russia-China military exercises, which are now in their second week and include an amphibious landing in eastern China, not far from Taiwan. U.S. experts on the region have differing views on the Secretary's comment.
At a Pentagon news briefing Tuesday, Secretary Rumsfeld indicated he is not at all concerned about the two huge powers expanding their military cooperation through joint exercises.
"I don't find it notable," he said. It is just a fact that countries get together and engage in various types of exercises. We are obviously observing what's taking place, but I didn't see anything in that that was threatening to Taiwan or anyone else."
Secretary Rumsfeld said the United States frequently holds military exercises with a variety of countries, including Russia, and that the Russia-China exercises should not be seen as anything out of the ordinary.
But China expert Daniel Blumenthal of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, a Washington research organization, says the exercises are notable for several reasons.
"I think the exercises are quite notable," he explained. "There's a few points of context. One is the rapid growth in Chinese military power. The second is its refusal to renounce the use of force against Taiwan. The third is its statements with Russia recently about getting U.S. forces out of Central Asia. So, I think, in that context, these exercises are quite notable."
Mr. Blumenthal says China is involved in a serious effort to counter U.S. influence in Asia, and these military exercises with Russia are part of that.
But at the more liberal research organization the Brookings Institution, Michael O'Hanlon agrees with Secretary Rumsfeld's conclusion that the China-Russia military exercises are not notable.
"I think he had it exactly right, both in terms of the politics and the substance," said Mr. O'Hanlon. "The politics of this are, don't get too excited because if you do you're going to make Russia and China feel even more desire to have these sorts of things because they're going to feel the United States is not giving them their sovereign right to maintain their militaries and work with their neighbors and friends the way we ourselves do here. So, it would have been an mistake, given that the exercise didn't harm anybody, it would have been a mistake for Mr. Rumsfeld to object to it too strenuously, or for that matter, even a little."
And on the substance, Mr. O'Hanlon says Russia is not likely to actually fight beside China in any future conflict, so the joint exercises are not relevant in that sense. But he is concerned about any further increase in Russian arms sales to China.
In addition, Daniel Blumenthal at the American Enterprise Institute says the exercises are further evidence that Russia and China are finding that they have similar critical views of one of the key policies of the Bush administration.
"Russia and China are finding common cause in the sense that neither one very much likes the U.S. strategy of spreading democracies, and so they're finding common cause here in countering what they see as too much U.S. influence," said Mr. Blumenthal.
The Russia-China military exercises began last week in the Russian Far East, and continued this week along the east coast of China. The two countries say their armies, navies and air forces are building their capability to work together against "international terrorism, extremism and separatism." The mention of 'separatism' is an apparent reference to Taiwan, where there is growing support for formal independence. That statement, the inclusion of an amphibious assault in the exercises and the use of long-range bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons have caused concern in Taiwan, and among some regional experts.
Secretary Rumsfeld doesn't see it that way. But he referred reporters to his department's annual report on China, issued last month, which said the country is working intensively to modernize its military, is changing the military balance in Asia, and is making preparations to expand its military reach beyond its home region.