Tag: Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Sino-Russian Tensions and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Alex Cooley — whose book on power-political competition in Central Asia is due out soon — had an interesting op-ed in Friday’s New York Times. He argues that the apparent success of the 12th Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit masks ongoing Sino-Russian tensions in the region:

Since the financial crisis, China has displaced Russia as Central Asia’s leading trading partner, and Beijing would welcome using the S.C.O. framework to further boost regional economic integration and investment. But both Russia and the Central Asian countries fear the political repercussions of Beijing’s growing economic weight. 

China’s pledge to provide a $10 billion loan under S.C.O. auspices for the development of regional infrastructure is actually a replay of a similar offer it made in 2009 to establish an S.C.O.-backed anti-crisis fund. Back then, Moscow refused to co-fund the loan and worked behind the scenes to block China’s disbursal of the funds, fearing that such lending would undermine its position in the region. Meanwhile, Moscow is also pushing its own Eurasian Union and trying to expand its own Customs Union into Central Asia. 

Similarly, Beijing’s pledge to offer 30,000 government scholarships and train 1,000 teachers for the Confucius centers sprouting up throughout Central Asia clearly undermines the soft-power monopoly that Russia traditionally has enjoyed. 

China’s recent achievements in the region’s energy sphere are also causing concern in Moscow. Since the opening of the China-Central Asia gas pipeline in December 2009, gas from Turkmenistan has started to flow eastward, away from the old Soviet-era network controlled by Russia. It will soon be joined by gas from Uzbekistan. A third pipeline to China is now being constructed, and an additional spur originating in Kazakhstan is also planned. 

Worse still for Moscow, Beijing is now using the cheaper prices it agreed upon with its new Central Asian suppliers as leverage in its pricing negotiations with Russia’s Gazprom for major new contracts. 

The issue of Afghanistan also reveals critical differences, despite the admission of Afghanistan as an S.C.O. observer. China has proposed enhancing the role of the S.C.O. during NATO’s drawdown from Afghanistan, but eschews any actual military involvement and is most interested in aiding reconstruction and the training of Afghans to safeguard its own multibillion dollar investments, including a $3.5 billion outlay in the Aynak copper mine in Logar province. 

Russia prefers to use the drawdown to expand the reach of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization in order to reestablish a presence on the Tajik-Afghan border and deepen its control over the Central Asian militaries, all under the mantra of regional counterterrorism and counternarcotic efforts. And S.C.O. member Uzbekistan adamantly resists increasing the roles of either the S.C.O. or the C.S.T.O., preferring its own plan for Afghanistan.

Finally, the thorny question of the S.C.O.’s membership expansion also divides the core members. No new member was admitted at the summit, and none is likely to be in the near future. Russia would prefer to expand the organization so as to dilute Beijing’s leading influence and is especially keen on supporting India’s membership bid. But China is wary of allowing a regional rival full-blown membership and so has devised an elaborate set of accession rules and technical criteria that it will use to stall on Delhi’s request.

These tensions are not voiced in public. Beijing will continue to underscore the S.C.O.’s positive regional role in building mutual trust, while Moscow will speak to the importance of the organization as a counter to Western hegemony in international politics.

Alex’s piece came out within days of a session at the Republic of China’s National Defense University (NDU) in which a presenter underscored at least twice Taipei’s belief that Sino-Russian security cooperation will likely continue for the indefinite future.

These propositions, as Alex’s op-ed makes clear, are not at all exclusive. Indeed, cooperation with Beijing may be Moscow’s only option insofar as it cannot defend its Far East — at least conventionally — even as fears mount concerning China’s ambitions in the region. So while geopolitical pressures, exacerbated by racial stereotypes and other factors, point toward intensifying Sino-Russian rivalry, it isn’t at all clear how Russia will manage intensifying competition. We may see “public alignment” conjoined with “private rivalry” for some time to come.

Russia’s Return to Afghanistan

The participation of four Russian counter-narcotics agents in a US/ISAF raid on four heroin labs in Afghanistan has left many pundits wondering whether the war in Afghanistan as well as US/NATO/ISAF–Russian relations are entering a new phase.  However, before one can speculate, there are a few misconceptions in news reports that I think should be clarified and corrected in order to place the story into its proper context.

First, several news papers have adopted the narrative that the Soviet military was “defeated” in Afghanistan. The NY Times report (10/29/2010) states,

“The operation, in which four opium refining laboratories and over 2,000 pounds of high-quality heroin were destroyed, was the first to include Russian agents. It also indicated a tentative willingness among Russian officials to become more deeply involved in Afghanistan two decades after American-backed Afghan fighters defeated the Soviet military there.” 

The notion that the mujahideen defeated the Soviet military in Afghanistan is a rather odd interpretation of history. (It seems part of the same myth which claims a decisive role for Stinger missiles while ignoring the neutralization of that technology through the transfer of SCUD missiles to the Kabul regime). The Afghan insurgents never overran a single Soviet military base from 1979 to 1989. And while parts of Afghanistan were not stabilized, it is important to keep in mind that Soviet strategy sought to destabilize and depopulate areas which were firmly under insurgent control. The Soviets did suffer heavy casualties during a nearly decade long occupation, but the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was part of a larger strategy by Mikhail Gorbachev to gain trust and breathing room from the West in order to restructure the Soviet economy.  In any case, the insurgents were not able to overthrow the Soviet backed Najibullah regime in Afghanistan until 1992, three years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.  In large part the reason that the insurgents were unable to overwhelm the Kabul regime was evident in the Battle of Jalabad shortly after the Soviets withdrew in 1989 — the insurgents were simply unable to transition form a guerrilla force to a coordinated military force.  If the insurgents (backed by US and Pakistani intelligence) could not even overthrow the Kabul regime, it can hardly be argued that they defeated the USSR.  It is important to realize that the Soviets were not defeated so as to avoid a simplistic narrative arc which portrays the Russian interest in Afghanistan as either vengeful or foolish.

Second, it is worth noting (as several news articles correctly point out) that Russia has been cooperating with US/ISAF for some time by permitting logistics operations across Russian territory. Russian cooperation is obviously shaped by its own interests. Russia’s immediate interests in Afghanistan is quite clearly the need to stem the flow of heroin, which they have not been able to curtail through the demand side of the equation.  In essence, the (alleged) violation of Afghan sovereignty is a means of reasserting Russian sovereignty.  (I am saying that the violation of Afghan sovereignty is “alleged” because I do not accept the explanation by the Karzai regime’s media advisor, Rafi Ferdows, that even Afghans on the raid were unaware that Russians were accompanying them since all “yellow-skinned Angreez” look alike.)  Of course, this individual raid is unlikely to have much impact on the drug (and related HIV/AIDS problem) in Russia even in the short term. From a broader perspective, Russia is also concerned about the stability of Central Asia as a region, and Russia is not merely a passive player in regional security.  Russia has been in discussions with Tajikistan about using the Ayni airbase for the CSTO and beefing up security on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border.

Third, while the international media tends to emphasize those elements in a story which seem to produce sparks, conflict, and tension between states, there is little reason to accept the notion that Afghans as a people or their government are inherently opposed to Russian involvement in counter-narcotics. Despite denouncing the (supposedly) unauthorized Russian involvement, the Government of Afghanistan also stated that a bilateral agreement might be a possible route to future cooperation in counter-narcotics.  Afghanistan has cooperated with its regional neighbors to close drug labs in the past. The most recent case prior to the Russian raid was a nine month cooperative mission with Tajikistan’s Drug Control Agency which resulted in the closure of 12 drug labs in Afghanistan and the arrest of 50 drug dealers in the first nine months of this year.  In fact, there was apparently some discussion at last year’s SCO meeting of a quadrilateral counter-narcotics initiative involving the “quartet”: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Russia. Moreover, President Karzai had indicated only a couple weeks ago that Afghanistan seeks the best possible relations and trade transactions with China, India, and Russia.  Similarly, Azizollah Karzai, the Afghan ambassador to Russia (and Hamid Karzai’s uncle), mentioned a few weeks ago that the two countries share a commitment to fighting terrorism and narcotics.

Placed into context, it is likely that Russian counter-narcotics activity in Afghanistan will probably increase in the future.  However, this activity is not likely to be tense or conflictual (particularly because of something like Soviet era animosity); there are ample mutual interests and diplomatic mechanisms to ensure cooperation between the two countries. Finally, in terms of Russia’s relations with the US/NATO/ISAF, the involvement of Russians in the recent anti-narcotics operation does not seem to be a major deviation away from an already established pattern of cooperation on selective issues of vital interest to all the parties involved.

When do we get to call it “balancing”?


I’ve expressed skepticism in the past about the idea that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization represents counterbalancing against the United States. And I still believe that the primary purpose of the organization isn’t to function as a NATO-like block, but more as an alternative or “exit” option for public goods provided by the US.

But The rhetoric certainly sounds an awful lot like, if not balancing, then some sort of proto-balancing.

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – The leaders of Russia, China and Iran said Thursday that Central Asia should be left alone to manage its stability and security — an apparent warning to the United States to avoid interfering in the strategic, resource-rich region.

The veiled warning came at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and on the eve of major war games between Russia and China.

The SCO was created 11 years ago to address religious extremism and border security in Central Asia, but in recent years, with countries such as Iran signing on as observers, it has grown into a bloc aimed at defying U.S. interests in the region.

“Stability and security in Central Asia are best ensured primarily through efforts taken by the nations of the region on the basis of the existing regional associations,” the leaders said in a statement at the end of the organization’s summit in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, attending the summit for the second consecutive year, criticized U.S. plans to put parts of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe as a threat to the entire region.

“These intentions go beyond just one country. They are of concern for much of the continent, Asia and SCO members,” he said.

Washington has said the system would help protect against potential Iranian missiles.

Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t mention the United States in his speech, but he said that “any attempts to solve global and regional problems unilaterally are hopeless.”

He also called for “strengthening a multi-polar international system that would ensure equal security and opportunities for all countries” — comments echoing Russia’s frequent complaints that the United States dominates world affairs.

Even if we reject the full notion of “soft balancing”, we still might consider attempts to substitute for the US–and therefore to erode its influence–as something akin to balancing.

So, here’s the question: at what point would we declare that the SCO, and related policies, amount to counter-balancing, and what’s the justification for your particular threshold?

Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanghai_Cooperation_Organization

Late-night musings


Will we look back on all those arguments about how unipolarity is stable, American primacy is secure, and traditional balance-of-power politics don’t work in hegemonic systems as quaint artifacts of the late 1990s?

Will we conclude that US primacy died in the sands of Mesopotamia, or that secular economic and technological trends ended hyperpower?

Or will we see, in retrospect, that Russian assertiveness, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Sino-US balance of financial terror, European defense plans, and all that jazz, were merely noise?

Image source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/northernireland/getaways/destinations/Rome/images/rome_forum.jpg

Alliance of Eurasian Autocracies?

I haven’t had the time to write my next installment on the balance of power, but it looks like I’ll be addressing some of the key issues I wanted to raise in an incremental form.

The Christian Science Monitor has a provocatively titled story on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO): “Russia, China looking to form ‘NATO of the East’?”

MOSCOW – Russia and China could take a step closer to forming a Eurasian military confederacy to rival NATO at a Moscow meeting of the six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Wednesday, experts say.

The group, which started in 2001 with limited goals of promoting cooperation in former Soviet Central Asia, has evolved rapidly toward a regional security bloc and could soon induct new members such as India, Pakistan, and Iran.

One initiative that core members Russia and China agree on, experts say, is to squeeze US influence – which peaked after 9/11 – out of the SCO’s neighborhood. “Four years ago, when the SCO was formed, official Washington pooh-poohed it and declared it was no cause for concern,” says Ariel Cohen, senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “Now they’re proven wrong.”

Wednesday’s meeting is expected to review security cooperation, including a spate of upcoming joint military exercises between SCO members’ armed forces. It may also sign off on a new “Contact Group” for Afghanistan. That would help Russia and China – both concerned about increased opium flows and the rise of Islamism – develop direct relations between SCO and the Afghan government. While this will be highly controversial given the presence of NATO troops and Afghans’ bitter memories of fighting Russian occupation throughout the 1980s, the Russians have an “in” because they still have longstanding allies in the country.

In attendance Wednesday will be prime ministers of member states Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, as well as top officials from several recently added “observer” states, including Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, and Iranian Vice President Parviz Davudi.

The SCO’s swift rise has been fueled by deteriorating security conditions in ex-Soviet Central Asia, as well as a hunger in Moscow and Beijing for a vehicle that could counter US influence in the region.

“Moscow is seeking options to demonstrate – to Washington in the first place – that Russia is still an important player in this area,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a partner of the US bimonthly journal Foreign Affairs. “China’s ambitions are growing fast, and it also wants to turn the SCO into something bigger and more effective.”

Russian leaders blame the Bush administration, with its emphasis on democracy-building, for recent unrest, including revolution in Kyrgyzstan and a putative Islamist revolt in Uzbekistan. “Washington wants to expand democracy, which it sees as a panacea for all social and geopolitical evils,” says Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policies, which advises the Kremlin. “But it is clear to us that any rapid democratization of these countries (in Central Asia) will lead to chaos.”

A number of realists, such as Robert Pape and T.V. Paul, identify “soft balancing” as the major current threat to American power. The concept itself is rather fuzzy: soft balancing, analysts claim, is any attempt by states to check US power short of traditional balancing (i.e., forming anti-US defensive alliances or ramping up defense spending to counter American capabilities). Thus, soft balancing includes attempts by states to block support for US action by international institutions and instances in which states withhold military support for US military action. It also covers “pre-balancing,” in which states sign cooperative agreements, engage in joint military exercises, and form regional organizations as a way of, on the one hand, signaling their intent to use “hard balancing” strategies in the future and, on the other hand, creating the necessary infrastructure for pursuing “hard balancing” when necessary.

One of the big difficulties with the “soft balancing” argument is that it is very hard to draw a distinction between the normal “stuff” of international diplomacy – such as ongoing disagreements between the US and other states, hyperbolic statements by officials, and agreements designed to serve a variety of state interests other than balancing – and “soft balancing.” As Steve Brooks and Bill Wohlforth argue in the International Security forum I mentioned a few weeks ago, a lot of “soft balancing” looks like pretty typical international bargaining. Brooks and Wohlforth also point out – correctly, in my view – that “balancing” is almost a kind of international norms: journalists, diplomats, and other officials routinely describe cooperative agreements and policies as attempts to “balance against the United States” or to “restore a multipolar order.” They do so, for example, to grab headlines or to make a policy more attractive to their domestic audiences. Unfortunately, their collective tendency to label almost any diplomatic maneuver – from arms-sale agreements to statements of common strategic purpose – “balancing” obscures more than it reveals.

There’s also a significant difference between “soft balancing” as an indicator of future balancing – the “pre-balancing” argument – and “soft balancing” as a way of increasing the costs to the US of exercising power. A lot of supposed pre-balancing activity does nothing to undermine US power, while many of the other categories of soft-balancing activity aren’t good indicators of pre-balancing. Put more simply, advocates of the soft-balancing hypothesis would do well to think harder about the discrete activities and policies they lump together under the rubric of “soft balancing.”

My point? The CSM article raises all of these issues in a very concrete way. If this isn’t an example of soft balancing, it is hard to imagine what would be. Yet a lot of the problems with the soft-balancing argument caution against reading too much into the statements and declared aims of the Russians and Chinese for the SCO.

Indeed, the Heritage Foundation expert quoted in the article, Ariel Cohen, makes a big deal out of the SCO, while others quoted in the article point out that it is difficult to see this as the origins of an effective anti-US coalition:

An SCO summit last June demanded that the US set a timetable to remove the bases it put in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan with Moscow’s acquiescence in the wake of 9/11. In July, Uzbek leader Islam Karimov ordered the US base at Karshi-Khanabad to evacuate by year’s end.

But two recent visits to Kyrgyzstan by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appear to have secured the US lease on that country’s Manas airbase indefinitely – albeit with a sharp rent increase.

“There is nothing to cheer about,” says Mr. Cohen. “Washington has signaled to the Russians that we won’t be seeking any new bases in Central Asia. Basically, we are doing nothing to counter the moves against us.”

In joint maneuvers last August, Russian strategic bombers, submarines, and paratroopers staged a mock invasion of a “destabilized” far eastern region with Chinese troops. This month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov proposed holding the first Indian-Chinese-Russian war games under SCO sponsorship. “In principle, this is possible,” he said. “The SCO was formed as an organization to deal with security issues.”

Should states like India and Iran join, the SCO’s sway could spread into South Asia and the Middle East. “India sees observer status [in the SCO] as a steppingstone to full membership,” says a Moscow-based Indian diplomat who asked not to be named. But he added that India, which has recently improved its relations with the US, does not want to send an anti-US message. “We would hope the Americans would understand our desire to be inside the SCO, rather than outside,” he says.

While the SCO’s potential looks vast on paper, experts say internal rivalries would preclude it from evolving into a NATO-like security bloc. “What kind of allies could Russia and China be?” says Akady Dubnov, an expert with the Vremya Novostei newspaper. “The main question for them in Central Asia is who will gain the upper hand.”

Still, the idea of a unified eastern bloc has strong appeal for some in Moscow. “It’s very important that regional powers are showing the will to resolve Eurasian problems without the intrusion of the US,” says Alexander Dugin, chair of the International Eurasian Movement, whose members include leading Russian businessmen and politicians. “Step by step we’re building a world order not based on the unipolar hegemony of the US.”

Says Cohen: “Eventually they’ll wake up to this challenge in Washington. But will it be too late?”

Indeed, the standard arguments made against the proposition that anti-US “hard balancing” is imminent are all here: the inherent difficulties faced by rivals and former rivals in their attempts to act collectively, the fact that the US is less of a threat to many other states than their own regional rivals, and so forth. At the same time, a lot of the specific activities happening under SCO auspices are far short of an anti-American grand alliance; from my perspective, they look more like standard regional security and confidence-building measures carried out by relatively weak security organizations.

The extent of anti-democratization rhetoric quoted in the article is itself interesting. Advocates of soft balancing might interpret it as evidence that the Bush administration’s “grand strategy” is setting counter-US balancing in motion, but its self-serving character also suggests the more mundane “politics as usual” interpretation favored by those who dismiss “soft balancing” as much ado about nothing.

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