Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Delicate Russian/Chinese Dance

For the Russians, looking across their Asiatic border at China can't be a pleasant thought. China outnumbers them, and that circumstance will get worse as Russian fecundity rates have fallen below replacement. This creates serious instability problems with the country's vast eastern Asian territory. For one thing, the Russians have announced a sea terminal for their new Pacific-facing oil export pipeline, favoring Japan and thwarting Chinese wishes for an overland route terminating in China. Such a route would give the Chinese control over the oil "in case hostilities break out".

For China, "hostilities" begin with the "renegade province" of Taiwan. China has long sought reunification of the erstwhile Formosa. Now, the Chinese government recently passed a law authorizing an attack on that island country should the duly elected representatives of the people there decide against communism. This is the most ominous of a series of broader moves that includes the development of a blue-water navy. China's economic development, in the eyes of those in power in Beijing, goes hand in hand with military might, and the generalissimos there plan on using it. These are no idle threats; coming from communists used to brute force, these should speak volumes about Chinese intentions. Like the Nazis in mid-1930's Europe, the Chinese appear to be arming for a large-scale conflict while the world around them placates or ignores them.

In the face of this, the Russians play a delicate game. They can't openly provoke the Chinese, but neither can they allow themselves to be pushed around. As the recipients of much Chinese spending, they play the role of seller, but of a very special product: energy, and in particular oil. So long as the Russian oil pipeline to the east is incomplete, its final destination could change at any moment. Both the Chinese and the Russians know this. Further, the geographically distributed nature of Russian oilfields makes it difficult for the Chinese to take Russia's oil by force. Nonetheless, the Russians cannot dismiss the possibility of Chinese invasion at some point.

Neither can the Japanese, the Koreans, and especially the Taiwanese.

News that Russian forces have changed plans in a joint military exercise with China to practice an attack on Taiwan is not so surprising. For now, the Russians can play along to get along, but one wonders: in the buildup to Munich, had Czechoslovakia, Britain, and France all stood up to Nazi militarism in 1937, Hitler would have meekly scurried from power and into a Bavarian jail. The Chinese, with their vast resources and population, cannot be so ignored. But I forget. The Russians signed a pact with Hitler. They are willing be fooled, apparently, a second time by a different power whose appetites are unlikely to stop at "renegade" provinces, so long as the check comes in the mail Monday.