August 18, 2009

Central Asia: China Holds the Cards

18 Aug 2009

While Russia is footing the bill for Central Asian security and attempting to curb US influence, China is benefiting by pursuing a smart economic policy that aims to buy dominance, Anna Arian comments for ISN Security Watch.

By Anna Arian for ISN Security Watch

The dissonance between Russia and China in Central Asia is being played out between two organizations: the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In the long run, China will win.

At the beginning of August the heads of states of Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia and Kyrgyzstan conferred at the Kyrgyz resort of Cholpon-Ata for a three-day informal summit of the CSTO. This assemblage of countries, which was founded in October 2002, is essentially a Russian instrument aimed at preserving its influence in the former Soviet republics and to scotch the gradually growing US military presence in oil-and-gas-rich Central Asian states.

During the CSTO summit, waning Russian influence over the region was once again illustrated by some Central Asian leaders. While the summit bore the conditional fruit of a provisional deal between Russia and Kyrgyzstan for a second Russian military base in the country, the Uzbek president made no secrets of his opposition. Earlier this year, Belarus and Uzbekistan refused to sign an agreement creating a rapid-reaction force to fight "terrorism." Furthermore, none of the CSTO members supported the Russian recognition of Georgia’s breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as sovereign countries.

While the US may have kept a watchful eye on events in Kyrgyzstan given its own military interests in the region, China, for one, could sit back and relax.

China is effectively playing pass-the-parcel on security interests toward Russia through the CSTO in order to curb the growing US military foothold in the region. With a weak US presence in the region, the Central Asian states are more likely to look to Beijing’s economic influence as a way to break away from Russian tutelage. This phenomenon is more or less institutionalized in the Chinese-led SCO, through which China is increasingly projecting its influence in the region.

The SCO binds together Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, China and Russia. The SCO was formally founded in 2001 in Shanghai as a regional security organization to alleviate China’s security concerns, create confidence-building measures between its members - especially Russia and China - and to deal with the ‘three evils’ that all the countries are plagued with: terrorism, separatism and extremism.

Those who call the SCO the ‘NATO of the East’ should bear in mind that the intention of its founders was not the creation of a military organization, let alone a mutual defense pact. The main interest of all the participants was the creation of a forum within which the border between China and the former Soviet republics could be demilitarized, border disputes could be solved and separatist movements foiled. As the recent protests from Uighur’s in western China demonstrates, this very much remains an ongoing concern for Beijing.

But as the years went by, the SCO - predominantly driven by Chinese interests - expanded its portfolio into economics and energy. China can clearly out-perform Russia in the economic realm. With its billions of dollars of reserves and its booming economy, China is an attractive economic partner for some of the financially crippled and Russia-dependent economies of Central Asia.

Consequently, China has been wooing these states with aid projects and financial help as a way to increase its own influence in the region - largely at the expense of Russia. In turn, the Central Asian states have embraced China’s steps to break out of the old economic stranglehold of the Kremlin in order to fashion a more independent posture.

One of the latest examples of Chinese aid sponsorship was during the SCO summit in June in Yekaterinburg, Russia, where President Hu Jintao offered Central Asian states (and only Central Asian states) $10 billion in credit to support their efforts to tackle the consequences of the global financial crisis. Russia neither received nor made any offers.

Beyond the economic rationale that drives Chinese interests in the region there is the pressing issue of energy security. Oil-and-gas-rich Central Asia can provide China with greater supply security, while Beijing can provide demand security for Central Asian players.

Since 2006, Kazakh oil has been pumped to China’s Xinjiang province, and in June, China signed a gas deal with Turkmenistan. The latter will increase the amount of gas its sells to China by 30 percent annually, and the pipeline between the two countries is likely to be completed this year. This deal was a major setback for Russia, which has traditionally dominated the Turkmen and other Central Asian energy sectors.

While Russia continues to desperately increase its military presence in the region through the CSTO, China is slowly strengthening its economic and political hand in Central Asia.

The SCO will continue to remain a useful vehicle for China to turn economic power into political clout, while also earning itself a free ride on Russian security guarantees to help minimize terrorist threats. Moreover, it lets Russia deal with the US presence in the region without getting involved, and in the meantime courts Central Asia with financial aid.

Without a doubt, China’s policy toward this part of the world is ingeniously crafted. Beijing will sit back, relax and watch the game unfold.

Anna Arian is an IR Graduate from the University of Groningen and currently works at the Center for Security Studies, CSS.

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