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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