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The Bear, the Dragon, the Eagle and the Rising sun

Updated On: Aug 14, 2007

Putin warned that there would be consequences if Washington went ahead with its missile defence system deployment in Europe.

And those consequences are indeed emerging in big power relations.

Tensions between the two military superpowers were powered up when the U.S. military detected two Russian TU-95 Bear strategic bombers flying toward U.S forces engaged in a naval exercise involving about 30 naval vessels and over 20,000 U.S. military personnel in the Pacific Ocean although the Pentagon denied Russian claims that a long-range Russian bomber flew over a U.S. military base on Guam.

Further challenging the West, a pair of Russian submersibles descended more than two miles under the ice cap and deposited a Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole to enhance Russia’s claim to nearly half of the floor of the Arctic Ocean and potential oil or other resources there based on a Russian assertion that the seabed under the pole, called the Lomonosov Ridge, is an extension of Russia’s continental shelf and thus Russian territory.

“We must determine the border, the most northerly of the Russian shelf,” Mr. Artur Chilingarov, a member of the Russian Parliament, said on national television. “If a hundred or a thousand years from now someone goes down to where we were, they will see the Russian flag,” he said as the flag was made of titanium. He later added, “Our task is to remind the world that Russia is a great Arctic and scientific power.” President Vladimir V. Putin thanked the members of the expedition personally. This is an outright challenge to the West since the US is one of the four other countries (the others are Canada,DenmarkNorway) eager to claim this virgin territory potentially rich in oil and gas.

The Canadians responded vehemently. “This isn’t the 15th century,” Peter MacKay, Canada’s foreign minister, said on CTV television. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘We’re claiming this territory.’ ”However, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov ignored criticism and said “The goal of this expedition is not to stake out Russia’s rights, but to prove that our shelf stretches up to the North Pole…There are concrete scientific methods for this.”

Such tensions cannot help but exacerbate Washington fears about the real purpose of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) whose members ChinaKazakhstanKyrgyzstanRussiaTajikistan andUzbekistan, recently held a joint field exercise involving 6,500 troops and 80 aircraft in the second phase of the "Peace Mission 2007" anti-terror drill. This is an organization forged by China according to the "Shanghai Spirit," which embodies mutual trust and benefit, equality, respect for cultural diversity and a desire for common development and acceded to by the other great power in that region – Russia.

The organization has the potential to develop into a countervailing NATO-like force, a decision that would depend on consensus between the two superpower members of China and Russia. So far, China has resisted turning the SCO into a NATO balancer, focusing instead on anti-terrorism themes. "It has been proved in today's maneuver that the joint drill will unite our troops and facilitate our cooperation," said Chinese deputy commander Liu Chengjun. Chinese troops could learn from their partners in terms of principle, tactics and braveness, he added.

Meanwhile, Chinese diplomacy in Southeast Asia has been highly successful, following the footsteps of other great powers like the Europeans, Americans and the Japanese in shaping the region for their own needs. China seems to have an upper hand in some aspects of diplomacy with its southern neighbors at the present moment. For example, unlike the United StatesChina has acceded to ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (a non-aggression treaty) and signed a free trade agreement (FTA) with ASEAN.

However, the US does not acknowledge the argument that rising Chinese power is a zero sum game for the US. "Having more China does not mean less US in Southeast Asia," said US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill. "There is plenty of room for all of us and we don't see China as a 'winner,'" he said. Hill said that Washington was not competing with China "for the hearts and souls of Southeast Asia. "In fact, we want Southeast Asia to have a good relationship with China. We do not see this at all as opposed to our interests."

Other Americans beg to differ. "Responses to the Chinese arguments, both by Americans and some other Asian participants, were that China's open and positive approach is welcomed and has improved China's image in the region," said Richard Baker, an Asia-Pacific expert at the center. Baker, a former US diplomat, said the participants also noted "lingering uncertainties and skepticism as to China's future conduct" with its increasing "hard power." China's naval buildup is also of great concern according to Stratfor, a leading US security consulting intelligence agency. "The more China focuses on its maritime frontiers, the more alarm bells will sound in East Asia and the United States," the agency said in a recent commentary.

While US-Russia and Sino-US relations enter phases of new challenges, China and Japan relations is continuing to improve after Koizumi stepped down.  Domestic Japanese politics is ensuring that troubled Japanese PM Abe does not rock the boat by upsetting what is seen as a rare positive legacy of his administration so far – rapprochement with China, its most important trading partner.

For the first time since the mid-1950s, no Cabinet ministers will visit Yasukuni Shrine on 15 August 2007 anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II. Another sign of improving ties is Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan’s visit to Japan starting 29 August 2007 and lasting five days; the first such visit in 9 1/2 years as the last visit was by Chi Haotian in February 1998. Topics expected to be discussed include reciprocal visits by vessels of the Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Chinese navy, and the creation of a hotline between the two countries' defense authorities. (13 August 2007)

Sources:

Military buildup casts shadow on China's soft power inroads in Asia (Agence France Presse, 12 August 2007)

Military build-up seen hitting China's inroads in Asia (Channelnewsasia, 12 August 2007)

SCO military forces start 2nd phase of anti-terror joint drill (People's Daily, 12 August 2007)

Chinese defense minister to visit Japan this month (Japan Times, 12 August 2007)

U.S. detects Russian aircraft during exercise (People’s Daily, 10 August 2007)

SCO military drill "not directed against any country or organization": Chinese FM (People's Daily, 9 August 2007)

Military drills, a platform for exchanges between China and other countries: expert (People’s Daily, 9 August 2007)

Chinese President Hu to attend SCO summit (People's Daily, 7 August 2007)

Russia Plants Underwater Flag at North Pole (NY Times, 2 August 2007)