As the US returns its strategic focus to East Asia, China and Russia enhance their cooperation, but their long-term focus remains centered on Washington
Photo by CFP
Founded in Shanghai in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is to date the only international organization initiated by China. Comprising China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the SCO was originally set up to promote counterterrorism cooperation between member states and to resolve regional border disputes. Over the years, the organization has gradually extended its scope to cover overall security and economic cooperation. But except for a rare case in 2005, when a SOC announcement led to the eviction of US forces from Uzbekistan, the influence of the SOC has been limited.
A high-profile two-day SCO summit held in Beijing on June 6-7, attended by all six heads of state, raised eyebrows as China and Russia seemed to be openly adopting a united stance on a number of controversial issues in seeming opposition to the West, as indicated by the summit’s keynote joint declaration.
While the West has stepped up pressure on the Assad regime in Syria, the SCO statement voiced opposition to military intervention, instead calling for a “peaceful resolution through political dialog.” The Iranian nuclear issue was covered by a statement indicating that, in the view of the SCO, “any attempt to resolve the Iranian issue by force is unacceptable.” The statement went on to openly oppose “forced regime change,” which has swept several Middle Eastern (“West Asian,” in Chinese government terminology) and North African nations, demanding “respect for the independent choice” of the relevant “countries and peoples.”
“It is in China’s core interest to maintain peace and stability in central Asia, as well as in the interest of all SCO member states,” said Cheng Guoping, China’s deputy foreign minister. “China will never allow the tumult plaguing West Asia and North Africa to occur in central Asia.”
During the summit, the SCO also admitted Afghanistan as an observer state, and included Turkey, a NATO member, on the list of its “dialog partners.” The SCO’s other observer states are Mongolia, Pakistan, Iran and India, with Belarus and Sri Lanka also having the status of dialog partners. On June 8, after the conclusion of the SCO summit, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a joint statement announcing a “strategic partnership” between the two countries. China also offered 150 million yuan (US$23.5m) in aid to Afghanistan, triggering rumors that China is eager to fill the power vacuum expected after the 2014 withdrawal of US troops.
According to Zhao Huirong, an expert on central Asian and Russian studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, such a role for China in Afghanistan could be welcomed by the West. Other pundits argue that China’s cooperation with Afghanistan is driven largely by it’s domestic interest in curtailing Islamic separatism in Xinjiang, the very reason that prompted China to initiate the founding of the SCO.
Chinese officials have repeatedly played down the notion that the SCO is a threat to the West. “The organization has proven to be a fortress of regional peace and stability and a driving force for regional economic development,” remarked Chinese President Hu Jintao during the summit.
Ci Guowei, a senior official of the Chinese Defence Ministry, who was involved in the coordination of the “Peace Mission 2012” – joint-military exercises involving 2,000 soldiers from the SCO member states in the wake of the 2012 summit – told the media on June 15 that SCO members’ security cooperation targets “terrorists, extremists and separatists” within the region, but not any “third party.”
Professor Chen Fengying from the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations told NewsChina that the perceived anti-western rhetoric is meant “to warn [the West] that China has its own bottom line in Central Asia.”
Professor Su Hao from China’s Foreign Affairs College suggests that the development of economic cooperation between SCO member states is actually more significant than security initiatives. “Unlike previous SCO summits which largely focused on counterterrorism operations, the 2012 Beijing summit focused on strengthening internal cohesion through establishing cooperation in all fields,” said Su.
Besides a declaration on regional stability and prosperity, the SCO members also signed a number of agreements in the areas of transportation, energy, telecommunication and finance. China pledged to offer a loan of US$12 billion to support these projects. In addition, the SOC members approved a midterm development strategy.
“Now that 11 years have passed since the founding of the SCO, the organization has set about clarifying the vision for the SOC’s development for the next 10 years,” said Professor Chen Yurong, senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies.
It is worth noting that the SCO summit was held against the backdrop of what observers call a “honeymoon” period between China and Russia, the two dominant players in the Central Asian region. During Russian President Vladimir Putin’s high-profile state visit to China prior to the SCO summit, the two countries signed a joint statement to build a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” alongside 11 key contracts in a variety of fields such as nuclear power, energy and tourism. Elated, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed to the press that Sino-Russian relations had reached an “unprecedentedly high level.”
According to analysts familiar with SCO’s hidden diplomacy, Russia and China had previously disagreed on the roadmap of the SCO’s development. While China was trying to promote economic integration within the region, Russia was wary of China’s economic dominance. According to Professor Chen, China has been advocating the establishment of a free trade area (FTA), but Russia has resisted the idea. Conversely, China was concerned that it would be marginalized in any stepping-up of security cooperation, with all the other SCO member states being members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a Russian-led amalgamation of former Soviet republics.
However, it was all smiles in Beijing, with many analysts claiming that such disputes were now in the past. “The latest changes in their respective international and domestic situations have pushed China and Russia towards consolidation of their partnership,” Zhao Huirong told NewsChina.
With Europe, Russia’s largest market, entangled in financial crisis on the eve of Russia’s joining the World Trade Organization, as well as souring relations with Washington, Russia has every reason to seek China’s support. During his visit, Putin expressed a conciliatory attitude toward China’s proposal for an FTA among the SCO countries by saying that a “loosely organized FTA” should be “given a try.”
“Putin is faced with various challenges since his re-election to the Russian presidency, such as opposition pressure as well as the need to maintain Russia’s economic growth and strengthen its military might, all of which requires closer economic ties to China,” said Lu Nanquan, an expert from China Society of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies.
China, on the other hand, sees a valuable ally in countering the US government’s avowed “pivot to Asia” strategy. “Strategic pressure from the US is the driving force behind strengthened ties between China and Russia,” commented a June 6 editorial in Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong-based newspaper. “As the US implements this policy, China and Russia may move even closer.”
However, many pundits in China, the US and Russia are skeptical of any prospect of a strategic alliance between China and Russia, or to become what some analysts refer to as “allies without an alliance.”
According to Shen Jiru, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Putin’s visit to Beijing is more of a diplomatic balancing act than an overhaul of Russia’s US policy. “The US remains at the center of Russia’s diplomacy, and strengthened ties with China serve only to boost Russian confidence and increase its bargaining power in future dealings with the US,” Shen told NewsChina. Regarding economic cooperation, Shen said that Russia has been reluctant to be reduced to the status of a mere exporter of raw materials in its relationship with China.
US pundits also warn that China and Russia are more divided than not on issues of military strategy. Professor Joseph Nye from Harvard University told NewsChina that barring “serious errors” on the US side, it would “very unlikely” for China and Russia to form a strategic alliance, as both countries’ economies are heavily reliant on exports to the West. In 2011, Sino-Russian trade volume was US$83.5 billion, only a fraction of the US$446.7 billion in trade between China and the US. Nye also pointed out that Russia’s economic and military decline has made it wary of China’s rise.
“China and Russia have close economic and political ties, but the two countries have been cautious in advancing military cooperation,” commented an April 26 report in Voice of Russia, citing a researcher from Russia’s Institute for Sociopolitical Studies: “A major reason is that China is increasingly becoming a power center, which diminishes the possibility of an alliance.”
In reporting Putin’s visit, the State-run China Central Television repeatedly stressed that the strengthened partnership has been built on “equality” and “trust,” stressing its differences from the Soviet-Chinese alliance of the 1950s in which China played second fiddle to the Soviet Union, which had styled itself the arbiter of a global revolution – a source of resentment in Beijing, ultimately resulting in the Sino-Soviet split.
With a consolidated SCO and closer economic ties between its members, both China and Russia may be able to achieve certain respective short-term goals, but in the long run, the competition between bear and dragon will persist both regionally and globally.
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Badeling Pass | Beijing
Sep 2011 | Submitted by Brian Snelson
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