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U.S., Russia, China need a summit

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) greets a member of the People's Liberation Army of China at the Vostok 2018 military exercies in Zabaykalsky Kray, Russia, on Thursday. Pool Photo by Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/EPA-EFE
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) greets a member of the People's Liberation Army of China at the Vostok 2018 military exercies in Zabaykalsky Kray, Russia, on Thursday. Pool Photo by Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/EPA-EFE

BUCHAREST, Romania -- Russia, China and Mongolia have just completed Vostok 2018 (Vostok means East in Russian). Reportedly 300,000 troops and thousands of tanks, ships and aircraft took part. The exercise was designed to defend against a powerful enemy (NATO?) that had attacked or was preparing to attack these states. It will take some time before full analysis of the exercise is completed by our side.

Some suggest that this exercise marks a new beginning for Russia and China in terms of strengthening the geopolitical, strategic and military ties as a counterbalance to the United States, NATO and America's allies in Asia. Others have asserted that this is misdirection to allay the highly unpopular decision taken by President Vladimir Putin to defer the pension age to 65 from 60. U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has correctly downplayed the significance of this exercise.

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Certainly Romania, given its testy history with Russia and the Soviet Union, is concerned over this huge maneuver, the largest since the height of the Cold War. But before drawing any conclusions about the broader significance of these maneuvers, the past should not be forgotten. For 20 years after Mao and the Communists established the People's Republic of China in 1949, American foreign policy assumed that a Sino-Soviet alliance based on a common communist ideology had to be contained. Those assumptions proved profoundly wrong.

Presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, along with Congress, believed in the danger posed by "monolithic, Godless, communism" and its intent to convert or subvert the West and defeat capitalism. China was the junior partner, subservient to Moscow and dependent on military and economic support and aid to what was still a very underdeveloped country. As Stalin was thought to have ordered North Korea to invade the South in 1950 after Dean Acheson failed to include South Korea under the U.S. defense umbrella, so too was China's entry into that war in November seen partly responding to Moscow's direction.

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One offshoot was the ill-conceived "Domino Theory." This "monolithic communism" would begin toppling the governments in Southeast Asia. Once South Vietnam fell to the communists, other states would fall like dominoes. The irony is that some governments did fall, but not to Moscow or Beijing. Instead, military rule or in Cambodia the notorious and villainous Pol Pot emerged in charge.

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The Kennedy/Johnson administrations should have known better. Walt Rostow, JKF's deputy national security adviser and LBJ's national security adviser, in 1960 wrote Prospects for Communist China, in which he accurately predicted the coming rift between the two so-called allies. President Richard Nixon was much wiser understanding that the Moscow-Beijing axis was anything but unbreakable and exploited that tension with his triangular politics and outreach to China as leverage against the Soviet Union.

Today is far different. China is the stronger power by a large factor. Russian President Vladimir Putin is very much fighting above his weight class in improving relations with President Xi Jinping. Given the sanctions imposed on Russia and threatened tariffs on China, it makes absolute sense for Beijing and Moscow to grow closer. Russia needs the money. China needs the energy. And both want greater leverage over Washington and Europe.

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Putin was also lucky in the timing of Vostok. Given the start of a joint Syrian-Russian-Iranian offensive to "clean out" Idlib, this show of strength is an unmistakable signal of growing Russian military capacity. Planning obviously began months ago possibly with the forthcoming UN General Assembly meeting in New York later this month as a propaganda target. And Russia is interested in increasing its number two export -- arms sales, including advanced S-400 surface-to-air systems to Turkey.

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What should we do? Differences and tensions between Russia and China are very real, including cultural. Many Russians simply do not like the Chinese for historical and geographic reasons that have ended with sporadic fighting over borders. China does not need Russia as a market or solely for energy. Trade with Europe and the United States is massive. And Iranian oil given the embargo likewise is appealing.

A three-way summit to address a variety of key issues among the United States, Russia and China is a good idea. And we must remember. We once got the Sino-Soviet alliance wrong. Let's not repeat the same mistake.

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Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is senior adviser at Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.

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