Saturday, May 06, 2006

China, Russia and the U.S.: Trading Insults - May 6

I haven't had a stratfor article for a while. Most of the stuff was either in the public domain or was telling me something I already knew. I've decided to post this because it is truly breathtaking. We get so caught up in minute details that we sometimes forget to look at the bigger picture. Well, this article is definitely in the 'big picture'. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. What a glorious God we serve!

The Man in Black

Stratfor -- Predictive, Insightful, Global Intelligence


China, Russia, U.S.: Washington's Strategic Insults
May 05, 2006

Summary

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at a conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, on May 4, delivering a critical message toward Russia that raised Cold War imagery and urged Moscow and its allies to pursue democracy. The speech followed hard on the heels of "accidental" insults Washington dealt to Chinese President Hu Jintao on his recent White House visit. The incidents' timing suggests Washington is signaling its two largest competitors that though it may be preoccupied with domestic challenges and foreign entanglements, they had best not imagine they have free rein globally in the last years of the Bush administration.

Analysis

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at the Common Vision For a Common Neighborhood conference of Baltic and Black Sea states in Vilnius, Lithuania, on May 4, delivering a very clear and critical message toward Russia, raising Cold War imagery and individuals and urging Moscow and its allies to pursue the path toward democracy.

Though the official Kremlin reaction has been muted, Russian media, political analysts and politicians have been much more forthcoming in their response, denouncing Cheney's remarks. Russian online daily Kommersant said Cheney effectively asserted that "Russia faces the choice of 'returning to democracy' or 'becoming an enemy.'" An analyst cited by Interfax said the speech "eliminates the vestiges of strategic partnership between Russia and the United States." Others decried the tough U.S. stance, seen as a reversal of the relationship forged between Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While Moscow has tried to play down the speech, Cheney's remarks have clearly raised hackles. The U.S. vice president's speech, coming from a podium in Lithuania, a former Soviet republic turned EU and NATO member, simply poured salt on the wounds created by the sharp words.

Cheney's comments follow close on the heels of the White House's "accidental" humiliation of Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington, D.C., which included both referring to mainland China by Taiwan's moniker, the Republic of China, and allowing a three-minute harangue from a Falun Gong activist on the White House grounds during Hu's welcome address. It seems that Washington has now opened up both barrels and is taking shots at Russia and China. Apparently, Washington is providing a reminder that though the Bush administration might be facing domestic political troubles, and though U.S. forces are still in Iraq, the United States is not too distracted to pay attention to global affairs.

As we noted in our annual forecast, 2006 will be defined by the confrontation between the United States and Russia and China. Russia is growing more assertive in its near abroad, seeking to reverse geopolitical losses incurred during the early stages of the U.S.-jihadist war with Washington's moves into Central Asia and the U.S.-inspired (if not instigated) "color revolutions" around the Russian periphery. China is seeking to balance internal economic instabilities and social unrest by positioning itself elsewhere in the world, seeking levers to use to keep Washington off balance, or at least keep the United States from taking advantage of internal Chinese weaknesses.

Both Russia and China have seen themselves as having a stronger position with the declining poll numbers for Bush, the internal political wrangling in the United States during the 2006 midterm election year and the continued U.S. military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iran issue has simply added one more distraction, as North Korea was before, leaving Beijing and Moscow more room to push their own international agendas without much U.S. resistance.

For its part, Washington has refrained from significant pushes against Russia and China, instead needling where the opportunity presented itself and offering places for cooperation -- in essence seeking to shape, rather than contain, the two Eurasian powers. But Washington has recently viewed Russian and Chinese actions as going perhaps a few steps too far.

Because Russia is a major energy supplier, it feels a certain amount of invincibility. Russia has reasserted its presence in the near abroad, seeking to protect its flanks. In Ukraine, turning off the natural gas this January was only one of the steps designed to bring the country back into the fold. After March 26 parliamentary elections, the pro-Russian Party of Regions won the most votes, proving that affinity for its neighbor is still strong.

Russia has made inroads into Central Asia as well -- Uzbekistan's recent expulsion of U.S. air bases and deals with Russian state-owned monopoly Gazprom are just some examples. Even the Kyrgyz government, installed after the "Tulip Revolution," has been careful to be on good terms with Moscow.

Russia's near-complete domination of Belarus, however, has paid off in the re-election of President Aleksandr Lukashenko. Minsk will continue to faithfully follow Moscow, despite Gazprom's proposed rate hikes.

Anti-Russian sentiment remains strong in the first color revolution state, Georgia. Russian efforts to sabotage its territorial integrity by supporting secessionist enclaves have not yet produced results, and agricultural embargoes have only caused Tbilisi to strengthen its anti-Russian rhetoric.

For its part, China has been on a global quest for new energy resources, as well as other raw materials. Beijing has made strong inroads into Africa, is working with Latin America, and is increasing its ties throughout the Middle East. In Southeast Asia, China has largely overcome the earlier perception that it was too big a player, and cooperation with Southeast Asian states is emerging.

China's economic heft is growing rapidly, and while there are internal contradictions within the middle kingdom, China's absorption of raw materials and primary commodities, its ability to influence global commodity prices, and its widening trade imbalance with the United States continue to create rifts in its relationship with the United States. Beijing's conflicts with U.S.-ally Japan, and China's tightening ties with South Korea coming while it fails to bring North Korea back to the bargaining table, are threatening to begin reshaping the Northeast Asian security balance -- at least on the regional level.

Washington's twin rhetorical hits at Russia and China are a reminder to these two regional powers that the United States may seem distracted, but it is certainly well-aware of what is going on globally, and not afraid to pick a fight with either China or Russia -- apparently even simultaneously. This is essentially intended to get Moscow and Beijing to rethink their current strategic planning, to make sure China and Russia do not think they have a free run until the end of the Bush term in two years.

Both the diplomatic slap in Hu's face and Cheney's shot at Moscow have been brushed aside by Washington as insignificant; the Chinese affront being called a mistake and Cheney's speech simply a reaffirmation of the spread of democracy. Washington is withholding the more meaty levers, such as reinvesting money and planners in the color revolutions or stepping back and letting Congress slap a few tariffs on Chinese goods -- but the option of using stronger levers is obviously there.

Beijing and China have accepted these affronts fairly quietly, but internally they are contemplating whether Washington is serious or bluffing. Both can be expected to take steps -- both positive and negative -- to test this. And the first clash could come at the upcoming meeting of the G-8.

Copyright 2006 Strategic Forecasting Inc. All rights reserved.

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