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    Central Asia
     Dec 24, 2009
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China resets terms of engagement in Central Asia
By M K Bhadrakumar

At the same time, China is assuming an enormous responsibility in the region as at no time previously. The gas pipeline makes China a "stakeholder" in Central Asian security. The bond now goes far beyond fighting the three forces of "terrorism, separatism and extremism", which was how China focused its phenomenally successful diplomacy in the mid-1990s.

Looking ahead, the coming year will see the US intensify efforts to counter China's influence in Central Asia. The alarm bells are ringing in Washington. At the US Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee special hearing on Central Asia on December 15, George Krol, the deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, said: "This administration does not consider


Central Asia a forgotten backwater, peripheral to US interests. The region is at the fulcrum of key US security, economic, and political interests. It demands attention and respect and our most diligent efforts and the Obama administration [is committed] to this very approach." [Emphasis added.]

Never before has an American official stated US intentions towards post-Soviet Central Asia in such strong words. Indeed, there is an implied warning to Beijing that the US is watching its forays into the region closely and will not let them pass without challenge.

From present indications, the US attempt is to widen the gyre of its AfPak strategy so as to draw the Central Asian region into it. In empirical terms, a case already exists for including the region in the AfPak strategy. For one thing, the Northern Corridor for supply of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) contingents in Afghanistan and the sourcing of materials from the region for Afghan reconstruction already make the regional governments important collaborators in the war effort.

The increased presence of NATO troops in Afghanistan can only lead to a bigger role for Central Asian countries that is bound to bring them into a closer working relationship. There is also reason to believe that the Afghan war has already spilt over to Central Asia. The exact background to this remains open to interpretation but the fact is that there has been a spurt in militant activities in Central Asia (and Xinjiang).

Deputy Assistant Secretary Krol framed it diplomatically by underlining that a policy priority of the US will be "to expand cooperation with the Central Asian states to assist coalition efforts to defeat extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan and bring stability and prosperity to the region". This goes hand in hand with the effort to "increase the development and diversification of the region's energy resources and supply routes".

Potential threats that could come from Central Asia, apart from the possibility of "state failure" would compel the US to pay close attention to the region, Krol said. He also invoked archetypal fears about terrorists getting hold of weapons of mass destruction, which has proved a useful argument for substantiating US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"While these [Central Asian] countries voluntarily relinquished their nuclear arsenals after the fall of the Soviet Union, today the region is still engaged in activities relevant to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, namely, uranium mining, plutonium production and the fabrication and testing of biological and chemical weapons," Krol said.

In a measure of US determination to place itself in a lead role in Central Asia, the Obama administration has announced the constitution of a new framework of annual high-level bilateral dialogue with each of the region's countries.

... as it runs out of options
US interests would have been best served if Russia and China were at loggerheads in Central Asia. But that does not seem to be the way things are happening.

Moscow looks favorably on China's investments in Central Asia, according to Stephen Blank of the US War College. "By opening the RFE [Russian Far East] to Chinese investment and blessing similar investments in Central Asia, Moscow is reversing its policies toward both the Far East and Central Asia,'' Blank wrote in August. "In effect, this and other similar deals open the door to a huge expansion - with Moscow's assent - of China's strategic profile in both regions. The creation of a new regional order in the RFE and Central Asia is beginning to take shape and China is set to become the region's security manager, ensuring foremost that its portfolio investments are safe and secure."

The shift in the Kremlin's traditional policy with regard to the RFE has been necessitated largely by the downturn in the Russian economy following the global economic crisis and the sharp drop in oil revenue. Moscow was pursuing a policy aimed at developing the RFE and eastern Siberia almost exclusively through revenues from energy exports to Europe. But with the slackening energy demand in the European market and sharply reduced income from exports, the Kremlin cannot sustain the pursuit of such a dogged policy option anymore. It has been compelled to rethink.

This was evident in May when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev admitted that the development of the RFE needed to be coordinated with Beijing's regional strategy of rejuvenating northeast China's dilapidated industrial base. Unsurprisingly, the Russian policy shift also implies the jettisoning of any attempt to prevent Chinese economic penetration of Central Asia.

Secondly, Moscow faces difficulty in underwriting the security and stability of the Central Asian region on its own steam. This is despite the region's direct impact on Russia's national security interests. At the same time, Moscow has a congruence of interests with China in forestalling NATO's expansion into the Central Asia's security. The interplay of these factors encourages Moscow to regard favorably the stepping up of Chinese involvement in Central Asia.

Of course, writings appear in the Russian media occasionally about China's economic "conquest" of Central Asia, but official policy does not seem to encourage such a perspective. The new thinking in Moscow with regard to Chinese investments in RFE and Central Asia may have already begun to pay off. Medvedev claimed during a visit by Hu to Moscow in June that Russia and China had clinched deals worth $100 billion by a "special mechanism" facilitating massive Chinese investments in regional projects. It is going to be very difficult for the US to disrupt these plans. As Blank put it: "For all those who are watching for the emergence of China as a dominant economic and political player in Asia, these new deals with Russia have a profound significance that we overlook at our peril."

China has the huge advantage of financial muscle. It can simply outspend the US or European countries. Short of stoking the fires of militancy and ethnic unrest in Xinjiang, the US may have run out of options to disrupt China's emerging leadership in Central Asia. On its part, Beijing knows that the stability of Xinjiang is crucial for China's Central Asia policy - and vice versa. The two have become inextricably linked in the Chinese regional strategy.

Beijing knows that "foreign devils on the Silk Road" - militant groups with foreign backers - can harass China by blowing up long stretches of the pipelines which are impractical for Beijing to protect in Xinjiang's vast mountains and deserts. That is one solid reason why Beijing has not been taken in by the US overtures for cooperation in Afghanistan nor is enamored by Obama's standing invitation to step into South Asia as the arbiter of peace and regional security.

Beijing is extremely wary of the hidden intentions behind the Afghan strategy Obama recently unveiled. In fact, Chinese criticism of the US troop surge in Afghanistan has become quite forceful lately. Last Thursday, the People's Daily wrote:
Yes, sometimes history does recur ... The shadow of the Vietnam War even now still hovers ... what unfolds is replicating the model in Iraq, and further back, in Vietnam.

The war-torn Afghan population will not side with the slumbering Karzai government nor will they welcome the US presence. On the other hand, the bigger footprint made by the enhanced US troops and its NATO allies only help fuel the insurgency and trigger more fierce resistance ... Taliban dies hard.

The predicament facing the US and the one-year old Obama administration is that at the time, there seems no policy that can reverse the undoing in Afghanistan, even with more troops and better-placed tactics. But the young president will try whatever he can to steer clear of the pitfall that would turn the superpower into an occupying power.
China (and Russia) have reason to be on guard that Obama's Afghan surge and the new strategy as a whole essentially aim at pursuing longstanding US strategic interests of controlling Central Asia and containing Russia and China through "soft power" - methods different from those of the previous US administrations. Clearly, the Russian-Chinese cooperation in Central Asia factors in the US game plan in the Hindu Kush, which is shrouded in mystery. Having said that, China will also find it worrisome that Russia tends to speak in two voices at times about its ties with NATO within the "reset" of relations with the US.

The specter of an open-ended US military presence in the region haunts China. After all, China was the US's accomplice against the Soviet Union in the Afghan jihad in the 1980s and should know that Washington has myriad ways to make use of radical and extremist elements as instruments of geopolitics. China can see right in front of its eyes the horrible example of its "all-weather friend" Pakistan, which by associating with US strategy in Afghanistan has been dragged into the vortex of instability and become the target of religious extremists and militants.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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