Page 3 of 3 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
... 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.