A Game of Triangular Geopolitics ; Russia's Putin Shows Bush Warmth - but Sides with China on US Missile Shield

By Peter Grier writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 2, 2001 | Go to article overview

A Game of Triangular Geopolitics ; Russia's Putin Shows Bush Warmth - but Sides with China on US Missile Shield


Peter Grier writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


In the wake of President Bush's first major foreign trip, at least one thing seems clear: Russia, China, and the United States are engaged in a new round of that classic geopolitical contest, triangular diplomacy.

The rules of this game are simple. Two nations, historically at odds, strike up a relationship as a counter to the perceived power of the third.

The last time this particular trio played in earnest was the early 1970s, when Richard Nixon extended his hand to China in part to counter Soviet expansionism. Today it is Russian President Vladimir Putin who is courting Beijing, as he attempts to prevent a unilateral US move toward erection of missile defenses.

Of course, simple rules don't dictate a simple outcome. The warmth of the weekend meeting between Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin suggests that the latter hasn't made a final choice about his partner.

And in any case, there's no guarantee that a new Russia-China partnership would dissuade the Bush administration from pressing forward with a missile shield.

"With the Chinese, the Russians have this marriage of convenience," says Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a senior foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It doesn't stop their ancient grievances and suspicions, but for the moment it suits them, because of their perception of the United States."

Long-nurtured alliance

It may be a marriage of convenience, but it is also a marriage that Russia has been working on for some time. More than half of Russia's arms exports now go to China, which has ambitious plans for military expansion as a counter to US strength in Asia. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesmen talk about the Sino-Russian relationship as being in its most "intensive phase" in decades.

Last week, prior to his meeting with Bush in Slovenia, Putin traveled to Shanghai for a session of the "Shanghai Co-operation Forum," a loosely organized political entity whose members include China, Russia, and four central-Asian states. This semi-summit produced a communique announcing opposition to the introduction of even theater missile defenses in Asia.

And who was the first foreign leader Putin called after his back- slapping chin-wag with Dubya? That's right - Chinese president Jiang Zemin.

Putin briefed Mr. Jiang by phone Monday on the results of his meeting with the US president, presumably skipping the part where he and Bush noted that they had both named their daughters after their mother and mother-in-law.

"Putin and Jiang elucidated the agreement between the Russian and Chinese positions and their readiness for further cooperation," noted the Kremlin afterward, in the kind of brambly-dense verbiage for which the Kremlin is justly famous.

Still, Jiang must have noted the evident warmth of the US and Russian rhetoric over the weekend and felt a little chill himself. …

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