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    Central Asia
     Jun 7, 2011

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US breathes life into a new cold war
By M K Bhadrakumar

There might have been a difference of opinion between the classical Greek dramatist Aeschylus and British romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley regarding the circumstances of the release of the Titan god Prometheus from captivity: whether it followed reconciliation with Jupiter, as the classicist thought, or a rebellion, as the romantic insisted. In either case, Prometheus was "unbound".

The exact circumstances of the endgame in Iraq and Afghanistan will remain a moot point, but the outcome is certain to be that the United States, which like Prometheus was chained to a mountain where he was daily punished by Jupiter's eagle and underwent immense suffering, is being "released" to normal life.

For Prometheus, it came as an existential moment and when

Hercules came to unbind him, he was so relieved at the freedom "long desired/And long delayed" that he pledged to his love that they "will sit and talk of time and change/As the world ebbs and flows, ourselves unchanged".

The United States, too, is re-emerging "unchanged". There is a flurry of activity as if making up for lost time - "unilateralist" military intervention in Libya; deployment of a F-16 squadron in Poland; establishment of military bases in Romania; resuscitation of the George W Bush era plans for deployment of a US missile defense system in Central Europe; revival of the entente cordiale among "new Europeans"; threatened "humanitarian intervention" in Syria; renewed talk of military action against Iran; a push for a long-term military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan; revving up of the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into Central Asia; violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Pakistan; the threat of "regime change" in Sri Lanka; and last weekend the announcement of the deployment of light combat ships in Singapore.

All this has happened within a 100-day period. It was almost inevitable that the Caspian great game would be revived, too. After the unexplained hibernation in the period since the exit of the Bush presidency in the beginning of 2009, Richard Morningstar, the US's special envoy for Eurasian energy, has returned to the arena.

If his testimony at the hearing conducted by the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs last week had one single message, it was that the US's Eurasian energy strategy remained "unchanged" in its core agenda, namely, to challenge Russia's potential to use its vast reserves as an energy exporter to re-emerge as a big power on the world stage.

Cold War rhetoric surfaces
The geopolitical agenda of the US's Eurasian energy strategy was spelt out with characteristic bluntness at the same congressional hearing by noted Russia expert Ariel Cohen. There may be nothing strikingly new, arguably, in Cohen's thesis about Russia's "expansionist agenda" reflected in its energy policies, but nonetheless it merits reiteration by way of providing the backdrop to Morningstar's testimony. He was constrained by the norms of diplomatic practice to hold back on direct criticism of Russia, with which the Barack Obama administration is engaged in a "reset" at the moment:
  • The Kremlin views energy as a tool to pursue an assertive foreign policy.
  • Europe's level of dependence on Russia for energy is unacceptably high.
  • Russia's attempts to exclude the US from Central Asian and Caspian energy markets.
  • Russia is using energy to "re-engage" India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.
  • Russia forces neighboring countries to direct their energy exports via its pipeline system.
  • The absence of a "rule of law" blocks Western companies' entry into Russia's energy sector.
  • Russia remains disinterested in developing energy ties with the US.

    Cohen candidly spelt out the geopolitics. One, European demand for energy is projected to grow further and it could lead to greater dependence on energy from Russia, which has serious implications for Moscow's ties with Europe.

    The point is, the US apprehends that Moscow will exploit the growing energy ties to stabilize its relationship with the countries of Western Europe, and that could weaken the spirit of Euro-Atlanticism and incrementally loosen the US's trans-Atlantic leadership.

    Two, Germany has taken a strategic decision to abandon nuclear energy and to instead increase its energy imports from Russia. From the US viewpoint, steadily growing Russo-German ties have not only a historical resonance of great significance for European security but they could eventually weaken European unity and the underpinnings of NATO itself, which the US commands as its principal instrument for the pursuit of its global strategies.

    Three, Russia is aspiring to graduate from the role of energy exporter to Europe to participation in the continent's energy distribution system and retail trade as well. Europe may eventually "face tough choices between the cost and stability of their energy supply, and siding with the US on key issues".

    Conversely, Cohen anticipates, "As oil prices rise, it is safe to expect Russia's cockiness to return." What is this "cockiness" about? In geopolitical terms, it means a more assertive Russia in global politics. Cohen mentioned India more than once as a worrisome prospect for the US.

    Chalk circles in South Asia
    In essence, countries like India, where the US hopes to become entrenched as a strategic partner, may choose to be autonomous or "non-aligned" if Russia succeeds in developing stronger energy ties with them. With regard to India, in particular, the implications are far-reaching since the US's Asia-Pacific strategy and its containment policy toward China would become seriously debilitated if New Delhi opted out.

    Interestingly, Cohen brings in Syria in this context. He claimed that Russia was "seeking to re-engage in a centuries-old balance of power in the Middle East" and Syria - like India in the Asia-Pacific - is pivotal, which is the reason why Moscow is rebuilding naval bases in Tartus and Ladakiye and is "supplying modern weapons" to it - like it does with India.

    Four, Russia is fostering the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an exclusive preserve to keep out the US, especially in the grouping's energy club. The SCO comprises China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

    The US is getting frantic that the SCO is gearing up to admit India and Pakistan as full members and Afghanistan as an observer. So far, the US had banked on the reservations of Russia and China over the SCO membership claims of Pakistan and India respectively, but the rethink in Moscow and Beijing on this score has set alarm bells ringing in Washington.

    Moscow is outflanking the US by rapidly building up ties with Pakistan. A crucial vector in this accelerating relationship is energy cooperation. Moscow has begun discussing with Pakistan the nuts and bolts of its participation in the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline project.

    The countries are restoring their air links; they have held two summit-level meetings within a year; and begun closely coordinating their approach to the stabilization of Afghanistan (which is integral to the execution of TAPI). Incidentally, Russia's special representative on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov (the Kremlin's ace hand on Afghanistan) visited Islamabad last week for in-depth consultations.

    The thrust of the Russian approach is to augment Pakistan's strategic autonomy so that it can withstand Washington's bullying. And Moscow estimates that Pakistan is keen to reciprocate. As a prominent South Asian scholar in Moscow, Andrey Volodin, wrote last week, "[Pakistan President] Asif Zardari's visit to Russia has shown that Pakistan is actively diversifying its foreign economic ties and foreign policy. This attitude is welcomed by Pakistan's main all-weather ally, China, which is pursuing a policy of 'soft reverse containment' of America in Asia, including Pakistan."

    No more a Turkmen pipedream
    Thus, the Russian-Chinese initiative to induct Pakistan and India as full SCO members holds out the prospect of dealing a devastating blow to the US's strategy to get "embedded" in Asia. The underpinning of a regional energy grid tapping into Turkmenistan's energy reserves gives a profound character to the matrix.

    The fact is that the US all along paid lip-service to the TAPI, but its real interest has been in the so-called Southern Corridor for transporting Turkmen energy to Western Europe so that Russian dominance of the European market would be whittled down.

    Russia is killing two birds with one stone. By diverting Turkmen gas to the huge energy guzzlers of South Asia - India is potentially one of the world's two or three biggest consumers of energy in the coming decades - Moscow is on the one hand undercutting the US's Eurasian energy strategy to evacuate the gas to Europe, while at the same time retaining its pre-eminent footing on the European energy market from being challenged by the Turkmen gas.

    Continued 1 2  

  • Russia frets over Eurasian domino theory (Jun 3, '11)

    Middle East rift mars US-Russia 'reset' (May 26, '11)

      Al-Qaeda had warned of Pakistan strike

    2. Russia's Libya role irks China

    3. Who killed Syed Saleem Shahzad?

    4. Southeast Asia rises in US reset

    5. Humpty Obumpty and the Arab Spring

    6. Pakistan marches to Saudi Arabia's tune

    7. Pakistan: Silencing the truth-seekers

    8. Saleem in the shadow of Massoud

    9. Mao's army on the attack

    10. Unrest in Syria inspires Kurdish activism

    (Jun 3-5, 2011 )


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