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    Greater China
     Jun 16, 2006
China and Russia embrace the Shanghai spirit
By M K Bhadrakumar

Foreign Affairs magazine last autumn featured an essay titled "China's search for stability with America", in which it addressed the "cauldron of anxiety about China".

Naturally, it evoked much discussion in intellectual and diplomatic circles, and raised the question of whether the "Chinese dragon will prove to be a fire-breather", to use the words of Robert Zoellick, US deputy secretary of state.

Its author was Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University and director of the Institute of International Strategic Studies at the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China.

In any contemplation over China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is meeting in Beijing this week, what



invariably comes to mind is a passage in Wang's essay about the equilibrium of China-US-Russia equations in the international system. Wang wrote:
It helps to understand US power and Washington's current global strategy. Here is a Chinese view: in the long term, the decline of US primacy and the subsequent transition to a multipolar world are inevitable; but in the short term, Washington's power is unlikely to decline, and its position in world affairs is unlikely to change ... For a long time to come, the United States is likely to remain dominant, with sufficient hard power to back up aggressive diplomatic and military policies.

A pattern of cooperation and coordination among the world's major powers, institutionalized through the G8 [Group of Eight] , has taken shape, and no great change in this pattern is likely in the next five to 10 years. To be sure, some of the differences between the United States and the EU, Japan, Russia and others will deepen, and Washington will at times face coordinated opposition ... But no lasting united front aimed at confronting Washington is likely to emerge. It would be foolhardy, however, for Beijing to challenge directly the international order and the institutions favored by the Western world - and, indeed, such a challenge is unlikely.
Wang introduced yet another fascinating thought in his essay regarding the "paradox" of Sino-American relations. He argued that only a decline of economic strength would erode US military muscle, which in turn could ease the strategic pressure on China.
But any such slide would also hurt China's economy. Again, any decline in US influence could trigger regional instability - but any increased religious fundamentalism and terrorism in a region such as Central Asia could threaten China's own security, especially along its western borders, "where ethnic relations have become tense and separatist tendencies remain a danger".

Similarly, in the field of energy, while Washington could be "eyeing Central Asian oilfields near China's border", Wang recommended that Beijing and Washington "should try to make sure that the other side understands its intentions and should explore ways to cooperate on energy issues through joint projects such as building nuclear power plants in China".

The point Wang was making in all these shrewd observations was that "history has already proved that the United States is not China's permanent enemy".

The complexities of China's equations with regard to Russia are no less relevant to an understanding of the SCO. As China would see it, already in the latter part of the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, Russia began rediscovering where its national interests lay and Russian diplomacy began moving away from an exclusive Euro-Atlanticist outlook. (Interestingly, this coincided with the first appearance of the "Shanghai spirit".)

In the Chinese estimation, President Vladimir Putin after his election in 2000 gave a sense of direction to these nascent tendencies - "putting the national interests at the core, making economic revival the top priority, installing national spirit as the driving power, instituting powerful political mechanisms as the nation's political basis ... using historical lessons as a mirror, taking fully into account Russia's specific situations in charting the development road, creating a favorable international climate for the country and trying to reinstate Russia as a first-class world power", to quote Yu Sui, a Chinese scholar at the Research Center of the Contemporary World in Beijing.

China estimated the main impulse of Putin's foreign policy to be one of implementing all-around diplomacy geared to maintain global and regional balance. Clearly, Beijing realized that Russia's diplomacy of independence was driven by the principle that national interests overrode everything else.

As Yu puts it, "In the face of accelerating globalization and bearing the brunt of the US's unilateralism, Russia is in a disadvantaged position." Within this paradigm, Yu identifies Russian diplomacy's principal characteristics as pragmatism laced with an occasional "toughness"; balancing or maneuvering between the East and West; a shying away from "confrontations and making enemies"; and maintaining a low profile without making a "loud noise" about its goal of reaching world-class power status.

What emerges is that China is not laboring under any illusions that either by itself or in cooperation with Russia, the SCO can be turned into an alliance for confronting Washington.

Most Western observers ignore this aspect - unwittingly or otherwise. From China's point of view, the SCO embodies a close but unaligned partnership (also described in Chinese commentaries as "partnership and non-alliance") with Russia. (The SCO also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.)

Chinese President Hu Jintao told journalists in Beijing recently that the SCO followed the "principle of non-alignment".

An intriguing thought, indeed. But, shorn of verbosity, the so-called "Shanghai spirit" actually embodies a new security concept, which calls for "mutual trust and common security, partnership and non-alliance, openness and transparency, equality and consensus, mutual benefit, and not being against any third country or regional groups".

No wonder, as Putin wrote this week, it needed "persistence, commitment and endurance" to make the SCO work so far. What it adds up to is that the SCO is the sum total of the very minimum that at any given point its member countries can come to agree on.

On the positive side, such a protean form gives enormous maneuverability to the SCO. Consider for a moment that in the formalization of the two momentous decisions impacting on the Central Asian region's security and stability in the past 15 years of the post-Soviet period - the establishment of US military bases in the region after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US and the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan - the SCO did not even figure as a protagonist.

Again, the SCO could do nothing to prevent the "Tulip Revolution" in Kyrgyzstan or the uprising in Andizhan in Uzbekistan, though they were unfolding incrementally.

Yet it was the SCO that finally drove home the point that the United States cannot take for granted that its military presence in Central Asia will continue for ever. Here too the SCO did not have any enforcement mechanism when it sought a timeline for the withdrawal of US troops from Central Asia.

Surprisingly, it wielded a moral authority that took most observers by surprise - including Washington. Similarly, it is debatable whether Uzbekistan could have withstood US attempts for regime change without the shade offered by the SCO umbrella.

Even more fascinating is the ease with which the SCO exposed the hollowness of "color revolutions", thus reassuring the besieged leaderships in the region consumed by the fear of revolutionary change - and of its aftermath.

The SCO simply, adamantly, insisted that the packaging, exporting and spreading of democratic revolutions like a module across a broad array of settings full of local circumstances was not acceptable. Color revolution as a constructive strategy of regime change had to withdraw quietly from the Central Asian political landscape.

Thus, despite its visible lack of tooth and claw, the SCO indeed is, as Putin described, "a reality both in regional and global politics", and it plays "a significant role in ensuring stability in the vast Eurasian territory".

Born into crisis
The SCO was born in a situation of near-crisis proportions when it became obvious to both Russia and China by the late 1990s that urgent coordinated efforts were needed in tackling the new centers of international terrorism, separatism, as well as national and religious extremism in the region - what China calls the "three evils". (It is important to bear in mind that the creation of the SCO preceded September 11 and the establishment of a US military presence in Central Asia.)

In the late 1990s, Russia, China and the Central Asian states faced multiple threats. Taliban-ruled Afghanistan had become a revolving door for militants from Chechnya, Xinjiang, the Ferghana Valley, Kashmir, etc. As Putin said, "We [SCO member countries] recognized that it is only through multilateral partnership that we can ensure peace and economic development in our vast region."

Hu Jintao also said recently, "It is the original intention as well as the key mission of the SCO to jointly maintain peace, security and stability in the region ... The SCO is one of the earliest international organizations to hold up the banner of fighting against terrorism, and has played an important role in coordinating anti-terrorism cooperation among member states".

But at this point, the Russian and Chinese approaches to the SCO begin to display some subtle distinctions. Having in effect come on top of the fight against the "three evils", the SCO must certainly move forward.

Putin has suggested the SCO should coordinate its efforts and develop "common approaches toward guaranteeing security in the Asia-Pacific region". He said this could be achieved by establishing close relations with the regional organizations and structures that are already functioning.

In Russian thinking, "Such a network of partners will allow us [SCO] to avoid unnecessary duplication and operating in parallel, and to act in the common interest without creating exclusive clubs or divisiveness."

China, in comparison, puts emphasis on the strengthening of cooperation and coordination within the SCO on major international and "hot spot" issues and on concerted joint efforts in pushing for the establishment of a new political and economic world order.

The Chinese approach is far more sweeping than what Russia has in mind. China emphasizes that the SCO adopted a common position on the Afghan situation and expressed common views on multipolarity in the international system, democratization of international relations, economic globalization, multilateralism, etc. Surprisingly, Putin in an article on the SCO summit, "SCO - a new model of successful international cooperation", does not even touch on these aspects.

Russia originally visualized the SCO against the backdrop of the security threats to the region. But China had a conceptualization of the SCO against the vast backdrop of economic globalization and political multipolarity in the world order. China probably didn't want to clutter the minds of the other member countries with its grand vision. The fight against the "three evils" was indeed the pressing issue. The current controversy over Iran's possible membership has parted the veil over these nuances.

These nuances also appear in the SCO's economic agenda. It was at the prime-ministerial-level meeting of the SCO member countries in Beijing that China got the guidelines on multilateral trade and economic cooperation formalized.

Accordingly, it was decided that through trade and investment, by the year 2020 the SCO member countries would achieve free flow of goods, services, capital and technology. As a follow-up, 127 projects have been identified for cooperation in various fields, such as trade, transportation, energy, telecommunications, technology, etc.

Going by the patchy record of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Russia would have doubted whether these proposals would ever be realized.

But the actual record speaks otherwise. Xinhua news agency reported that US$2 billion worth of business contracts and loan agreements would be signed during the current SCO summit.

These include a highway project connecting Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, two transmission lines in Tajikistan, a cement plant in Kyrgyzstan with a daily production of 2,500 tons, and a hydropower station in Kazakhstan.

In a gesture that makes Western (and Russian) economic diplomacy look pathetic, China of its own accord offered an export credit package of $900 million for Central Asia. (At the SCO heads-of-government meeting in Moscow last October, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao pledged that China was willing to expand its program of credit loans to Central Asian countries.)

In March, a bilateral credit agreement worth $269 million was signed with Tajikistan. According to reports, discussions are under way on Chinese funding for the restoration of the Dushanbe-Khujand-Buston highway along the Tajik-Uzbek border. Again, in April, China's CAMC company and the Chinese Export-Import Bank signed a contract for building a new cement plant in the southern Kyrgyz town of Kyzyl-Kiya, costing $80 million.

The project will create about 1,000 jobs and generate much-needed revenue for the Kyrgyz government - just the sort of economic activity that Central Asian countries desperately need at this juncture.

China's agreement in April with Turkmenistan for the supply of natural gas from 2009 involves the construction of a pipeline via Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which Beijing has undertaken to fulfill. An interesting salient here is the ease with which China is able mutually to complement its SCO networking with the Central Asian countries and its bilateral cooperation with them.

This came into full view last Friday. When Russia was getting ready to host a meeting of the G8 finance ministers in St Petersburg on that day, Beijing had a meaningful diplomatic event too. Hardly four days ahead of the SCO summit that he was scheduled to attend, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev paid a two-day state visit to China.

Thirteen agreements were signed during the visit. The joint statement on the visit said the two countries would work on the technical evaluation and financing for the construction of a railway line that would also link Uzbekistan.

President Hu accorded a red-carpet welcome to Bakiev at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Bakiev's visit is a good case study of why China's diplomacy has met with such phenomenal success in Central Asia.

Would Moscow schedule a state visit from Armenia or Mongolia on July 10, just ahead of the G8 summit in St Petersburg? But for China, there can be nothing more important in its international diplomacy than seizing an opportunity to consolidate friendship with a neighbor with which it shares a 1,000-kilometer border.

For those in the West who raise eyebrows about the SCO or worry about the dramatic expansion of China's "soft power" in the Central Asian region, Bakiev's state visit to Beijing should be an eye-opener. The fact that the SCO is the first-ever intergovernmental organization to be based in China shows how seriously China views the potential of the body.

There are two reasons that the SCO has gained traction within its short life span of five years. First, as Hu said, "Though there are big differences among the SCO member states in ideology, culture and level of economic development, the reason why the SCO has made such rapid progress and outstanding achievements lies in our insistence on the 'Shanghai spirit'."

Second, to quote Hu again, China-Russia relations have reached an "unprecedented" level and are embedded with an "obvious strategic ingredient". Chinese diplomacy has been vigilant not to tread on likely Russian sensitivities. This leaves the SCO's detractors with hardly any scope to exploit Sino-Russian contradictions on the Central Asian steppes.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)


Resurgent Russia aims for the summit (Jun 15, '06)

US outflanked in Eurasia energy politics (Jun 10, '06)

Russia is part of the West. Honest (Jun 8, '06)

 
 



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