Central Asia Between Competition and Cooperation

Great power competition in Central Asia ebbs and flows in a timeless and tireless fashion. Unlike in Europe and East Asia during the Cold War and after, the fault line for the current jockeying for position in Central Asia between Washington and Beijing is not easily discernible. Instead, fluidity, uncertainty, and even outright reversal of fortunes among the major players have been the norm.

Since September 11, the world’s sole superpower made a massive strategic return to the region, only to make a partial exit to Iraq for its greater Middle Eastern project. China, though rising, has no such option to disengage. It tries to cope with a volatile region while dealing with its “strategic” partner of Russia, the more seasoned player of power games in Central Asia. Under these circumstances, the U.S.-China strategic interaction in Central Asia is bound to be asymmetrical, complex, and open-ended. While competition is somewhat inevitable, compromise and even cooperation are and should be part of the geostrategic equation.

In specific terms, the United States pursues its security goals with largely unilateralist and military means. In contrast, China carefully plays its diplomatic, economic, and cultural cards in multilateral and bilateral ways. In other words, Beijing’s soft power faces off against Washington’s hard power in the heartland of Eurasia. In recent years, the locus of this asymmetrical competition has been the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a new institution that Washington fears is a vehicle for Chinese power projection in the region.

The “Sins” of the SCO

As a platform from which China is seen to be able to deflect, frustrate, and neutralize America’s influence, the SCO is at best an irritant to Washington. It was originated in 1996 with the Shanghai Five (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) to which Uzbekistan joined in 2001. Not only did the SCO survive the post-9/11 era of U.S. preemptive action, it developed considerably more organizational cohesion and even thrived in non-security areas such as economics and culture. If observer member-states India, Pakistan, Iran, and Mongolia are counted, the SCO is the largest (in terms of population and size), though not the strongest, regional group in the world.

The SCO has appeared to compete with the United States for influence in Central Asia. For fear of an indefinite U.S. military presence, the SCO urged NATO forces in Afghanistan in July 2005 to set a timetable for withdrawing their troops from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Since then, U.S. forces have left the Uzbek base and worked out a bilateral basing plan with Kyrgyzstan. More recently, the SCO seems to have developed some real teeth as several rounds of military exercises (2003 in Kazakhstan and 2005 in China) have gone on in the name of anti-terrorism. A joint SCO drill will be held in Russia in July 2007.

To date, the SCO remains the world’s only regional security mechanism without direct U.S. participation. Washington’s suspicion and negativity toward the SCO are therefore not a surprise.

Not an Anti-American Bloc

The SCO’s “anti-Americanism,” however, is not as strong or real as Washington perceives. The SCO’s founding had less to do with America than with deep concerns regarding instability in the former Soviet republics. For Beijing, dealing with a group rather than separate parties for the stability of the thousands of kilometers border with those former Soviet republics was both convenient and necessary. If anything, the SCO actually anticipated Washington’s war on terror by declaring its organizational goals from the very beginning to combat the perceived threats of “terrorism, separatism, and extremism” rising from the ashes of the Soviet empire. For China and other SCO members, the U.S. war against the Taliban served, at least temporarily, to further their own individual and collective goal of countering religious extremism in central Asia.

The SCO repeatedly claims that it is not a military bloc against a third party, nor does it want to be one. This is not mere rhetoric to calm down Washington, but reflects a strategic fact of life. In their complex interactions with the outside world, the SCO member states need the United States as much as they need each other. Their joint venture need not, is not, and should not be an open forum to counter Washington’s influences, short of an extreme situation in which U.S. actions gravely jeopardize the core interests of the SCO member states (for example, if the United States changes its policy to support Taiwanese independence).

With these constraints in mind, the July 2005 motion for a timetable of U.S. withdrawal from some Central Asian bases was not “made” but “emerged” from a “consensus” within the SCO. Russia and China denied that they took the lead, even if they helped to shape such a consensus. In retrospect, the withdrawal timetable was actually a rather restrained request in the wake of the “color revolutions” that disrupted the socio-political stability of several SCO member states.

In this regard, the world’s sole superpower casts a long shadow as a silent but de facto participant in the SCO. Any of the SCO’s major decisions regarding external linkages, expansion of membership, and ongoing definition of function will not be made without some consideration of U.S. interests. For smaller and weaker SCO members, a more sustained, if not overbearing, U.S. regional presence may even be desirable in their strategic bargaining with China and Russia.

Survival of the Slowest

The SCO is also unlikely to become an anti-American bloc because its decision-making procedure is based on equality and consensus-building. While politically sound, such procedures are by no means operationally efficient. And the record of SCO’s institution-building is not very impressive. It took more than five years to convert the original Shanghai Five into the current bloc when the SCO Declaration was signed in 2001. It took another year for the SCO to initial its charter for organizational and operational purposes. Although the SCO agreed to set up an “anti-terrorist structure” in Tashkent in 2002, member-states were still working on the definition of terrorism. China and Russia are unquestionably more powerful than the other members. They are, nonetheless, far from completely dominant. Maybe this is a trade-off for a new type of inter-state relations based on equality, consensus, and cooperation. Coordinating such a bloc of members with equal status but diverse interests is guaranteed to be time-consuming and inefficient.

Perhaps the SCO’s biggest achievement is its survival. In retrospect, the SCO’s continued existence and growth after 9/11 can be attributed to the “law of avoidance,” for the organization has often avoided confronting the differences among members rather than resolving them. When faced with difficult issues, the SCO tends to do little or nothing as a group, as was the case in the immediate post-9/11 period. The SCO’s resilience is, ironically, derived from rather than compromised by its weakness and slowness.

As such, member states concentrate their efforts in areas where they can all agree and benefit, particularly on non-security issues. Nowadays the bulk of SCO activities are in the areas of trade, investment, finance, education, and culture. Of the 10 coordinating mechanisms of the SCO, four belong to the categories of “low” politics (meetings of ministers of economy, transportation, culture, and parliaments), four for law and order (border, public prosecutors, law and order, and emergencies), and only two really function at the level of “high” politics (defense and foreign affairs). And it is in the economic area that the SCO is fast expanding its interlocking mechanism. In 2003, the SCO set the goal of becoming a free-trade zone in the not-too-distant future.

Petropolitik

China’s economic influence permeates the SCO. In recent years, Beijing earmarked $900 million in long-term, low-interest loans and grants for member state infrastructural development and the training of 1,500 technicians from other SCO states. More resources are being poured in from China’s public and private sectors. Russia, perhaps more than any other major power, keenly observes China’s moves. For Russia, China’s economic “intrusions” into traditionally Russian-dominated areas are part of the realpolitik game, be they in the name of geopolitics, geoeconomics, or, more fashionably, petropolitik. Its economy buoyed by high oil prices, Putin’s Russia is ready and able, perhaps more than at any time in the post-Soviet era, to consolidate and perhaps expand its influence in these “near abroad” regions of Russia. Indeed, the once super military power has now become the super petro-power under Putin, whose mission is to remake Russia as a world power to be respected, if not feared.

In this context, the oil czars in the Kremlin may not particularly welcome the newly operational Kazakh-China oil pipeline with its 200,000 barrels-per-day capacity. After all, this pipeline competes with the long-talked-about-but-never-built oil pipeline from Russia’s Siberia to China’s northeast. For Beijing, this Yeltsin-initiated, Putin-stalled, and Japanese-frustrated eastern pipeline project may eventually be built. China’s thirst for energy, however, cannot wait. The United States was certainly not enthusiastic about the Kazakh pipeline (Dick Cheney made a surprise visit to the oil-rich Central Asian republic in 2006 to cement relations with its autocratic leader and lobby for a new oil pipeline to Europe that would bypass Russia). Beijing’s real goal is perhaps to achieve energy independence from constraints imposed by both Washington and Moscow.

The Sino-Russian rivalry in Central Asia, however, has its limits. After some 300 years of conflict and mutual suspicion, the two largest Eurasian powers have embarked upon a genuine and mutually beneficial rapprochement. The SCO serves as an interfacing mechanism for Beijing and Moscow to trade off interests and coordinate policies regarding Central Asia. Indeed, certain divisions of labor seem to have developed in dealing with regional issues, with Beijing opting for more of an economic role and Moscow emphasizing its military presence. Under these circumstances, Beijing’s growing influence in Central Asia may well be balanced or even checked not by Washington but by Moscow. Given its proximity, Russia is perhaps more concerned than the United States with growing Chinese economic power and political influence. These concerns will persist beyond the Russian presidential elections in 2008 and regardless of whether the current Russian leader builds his legacy as Putin the Great by staying in office or Putin the Ghost by working largely behind the scenes.

Crouching Nukes, Hidden Opportunities?

Given the complexities of the region and the divergent goals of the major powers, current strategic hedging between Washington and Beijing in the region is far from an end game. There is considerable room for cooperation. Rather than a hit-and-run U.S. strategy with a limited attention span or an “us-versus-them” approach to the complex regional issues, Beijing would certainly welcome more sustained U.S. diplomatic and economic input into the delicate and volatile region. A stable, secular, and prosperous Afghanistan is also in the interests of China. And, perhaps more than any other major power, Beijing will be the first to reap the economic and diplomatic benefits of a secure region.

In the same vein, Beijing would like to see the United States adopt a more moderate and pragmatic approach to the Iran nuclear issue, with or without an Iraqi meltdown. China is not simply considering the $200 billion oil contract it recently locked in with Iran. Regional and world stability is at stake. Indeed, Beijing has become a profoundly conservative power with a growing stake in the stability of the international trading and security mechanisms. A less catastrophic resolution of the Iraq situation, a soft-landing for the six-party nuclear talks with North Korea and Iran, plus a more realistic and more responsible domestic U.S. fiscal policy are all essential ingredients for a healthier international system. In this category, an influential Chinese foreign policy analyst recently sparked a provocative debate about the negative connotation of the U.S. “decline,” real or perceived. The consensus among China’s America watchers seems to be that such a decline may not necessarily be a “good” thing for China and the world. A self-confident, secure, and moderate if not humble America is perhaps in the best interests of all.

That said, central Asia remains the geostrategic playground of the world’s major civilizations: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Confucianism. And by the end of the 20 th century, all had become nuclearized. Understanding and managing the region would be hard enough during times of relative tranquility. The current major power politics in this part of the world, with all of its pronounced noble goals, allows for very little margin of error in the age of weapons of mass destruction.

Yu Bin is Senior Research Associate for the Shanghai Institute of American Studies and professor of political science at Wittenberg University, Ohio. He can be reached at byu@wittenberg.edu.