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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia, China and What's Really on the Table

President Vladimir Putin's agreement to begin a discussion with the United States on offensive and defensive strategic nuclear forces was good news. But this is the same Putin who on July 16 signed a treaty of cooperation with Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

The two events clearly illustrate a dual-track strategy of Russia and China toward the United States. That strategy should worry the White House. First, the two countries maintain a sense of normal relations with the United States and other democracies so that they will continue providing China and Russia with vitally needed economic benefits. Second, Russia and China are using mostly political and covert means to oppose the United States on security issues and to divide America from its allies.

The China-Russia summit followed a little-noticed agreement signed June 15 by the presidents of China, Russia and four former Soviet Central Asian republics establishing a political-military coalition, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The six countries had agreed on political, military and intelligence cooperation for the purpose of "cracking down on terrorism, separatism, extremism" and to maintain "regional security." Moscow said the agreement would improve "global security." Then, for the first time in its history, China agreed to participate in joint military exercises, with its fellow Shanghai Pact members this fall.

Together, the Shanghai Pact countries have a population of 1.5 billion; they control thousands of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, and this combined conventional military forces number 3.6 million. Iran, Mongolia and Turkmenistan hope to join the pact soon. They would add another 78 million people and bring the combined military forces to nearly 4.2 million.

Such an arrangement could grant protection to Iran, which continues to support terrorist attacks against Israel and other states. Iran could also link the Shanghai Pact with the Middle East, where Russia and China already provide political and military support to Syria, Libya and Iraq.

In addition, Putin reportedly hopes that India will join, while China would like Pakistan to participate. If all these countries became part of the Shanghai group, it would include 40 percent of the world's population and could still be open to North Korea, Cuba and the pro-Castro Chavez regime in Venezuela, which in May became a "strategic partner" of China and Iran.

Judging by its initial public response, the Bush administration may believe that these new treaties are nothing more than symbolic acts — or it simply may not have taken the time to explore this issue fully. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the July treaty was "not an alliance. It doesn't have mutual defense or anything like that."

That view ignores two facts: first, mutual defence is implicit in the treaty; and second, China and Russia have another agreement for mutual defense in the Shanghai Pact.

Over the past five years, the China-Russia alignment has had many negative effects on the United States. Russia has accepted much of China's anti-U.S. world view, and the relationship with China has strengthened authoritarian tendencies within Russia. Russia has sold about $18 billion in advanced weapons to China; some $30 billion more are scheduled for the next four years, all aimed at U.S. forces in the Pacific. Chinese and Russian aid to Iran, Libya and North Korea includes expertise and components for weapons of mass destruction.

Examples of Russian-Chinese political cooperation may well include actions to oppose or delay U.S. missile defense plans; to intimidate and lure Taiwan into accepting China's terms; to continue the North Korean partial or pseudo-normalization; and to use Chinese economic opportunities for financially pressed Japanese businesses, in tandem with the possibility of Russian territorial concessions, to persuade Japan to begin moving away from its U.S. security alliance.

Two months ago, Russian and Chinese officials announced they would coordinate policy toward Colombia and Cuba. This joint policy might well include more help for Castro as he works with the Chavez regime to support anti-U.S. radical groups seeking to take power in Colombia and other Latin American countries.

The Clinton administration ignored early signs of strategic cooperation between Beijing and Moscow. There is no need for a public sense of crisis at this stage, but the Bush administration should avoid repeating that mistake.

It should give the China-Russia axis its immediate attention.

Constantine Menges, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, was special assistant for national security affairs to President Reagan Reagan and is the author of the forthcoming "The United States, Russia and China: Geopolitics in the New Century." He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.