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    Greater China
     Jun 7, 2012


China and Russia flex muscle at the West
By Brendan O'Reilly

Beijing and Moscow will send a clear message to the world at the ongoing Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. The leaderships of China and Russia have drawn two lines in the sand - an unequivocal "No" to bombing Iran, and another unambiguous "No" to regime change in Syria brought about through a Western bombing campaign.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Beijing yesterday to start his first overseas visit after he was elected as the Russian leader again, which highlights the importance he attaches to his country's relations with China. And in Beijing, no less, he is scheduled to hold talks with his Iranian counterpart, Mahmud Ahmadinejad. This is indicative of the joint Russian and Chinese geopolitical strategy.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Wenmin spelled out the

 

shared Russian and Chinese viewpoint on the ongoing crisis in Syria:
"On the Syrian issue, China and Russia have stayed in close communication and coordination both in New York, Moscow and Beijing ... The position of both sides is clear to all - there should be an immediate end to violence and the political dialogue process should be launched as soon as possible".
Besides lauding Sino-Russian cooperation on the issue, Liu explicitly made clear the two nations' consistent objection to the use of force to resolve the Syrian issue: "China and Russia share the same position on these points and both sides oppose external intervention into the Syrian situation and oppose regime change by force." [1]

The gauntlet has been thrown down. China and Russia will not authorize the use of force against the Syrian government in the United Nations Security Council.

Furthermore, Beijing and Moscow are playing defense against perceived Western militarism and aggression. In order to understand their shared interests and methods on the global stage, it is useful to examine the origins of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization itself.

The SCO grew out of the "Shanghai Five", a block of nations formed in 1996 that included China, Russia, and the newly independent states of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The initial goal of this group was to relax border tensions between the member states. In June 2001, it was expanded to include Uzbekistan, and was renamed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The central aims of the new grouping were to combat the so-called "Three Evils" of terrorism, separatism, and extremism.

The focus on the "Three Evils" is suggestive of the fundamentally conservative nature of Russian and Chinese strategy. Russia and China contain large tracts of land inhabited by occasionally restless ethnic minorities. Russia, China, and the "-stans" all face internal challenges to their rule from political Islamists. The essential mission of the SCO is therefore a perpetuation of the political status quo in Central Asia.

From these rather humble beginnings, the SCO has become a quasi-military and political alliance. Beginning in 2003, member states have held joint military exercises, called "Peace Missions". Under the auspices of the SCO, China and Russia held their first ever joint military exercises in 2005. The latest and the largest of these "Peace Missions" saw over 5,000 Russian, Chinese, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Kazak soldiers take part in joint drills within Kazakhstan.

Mongolia, India, Pakistan and Iran are, for the time being, "observers" in the SCO. Iran formally requested admission as a full member in 2008, but its membership has been postponed due to ongoing UN sanctions against Iran. Belarus and Sri Lanka have signed on as "dialogue partners."

There have been worries in the United States and Western Europe that the SCO may be developing into a nascent anti-Western alliance. Although such a development has been denied by the SCO's member states, there are signs that such a coalition may be forming. However, such an alliance would not be aggressive in nature. The member states of the SCO cooperate with one another, in no small part, in order to prevent effective Western pressure for changes in domestic policies and leadership.

The two heavyweights
Russia and China are obviously the most significant constituent states of the SCO. These countries, despite a long history of mutual distrust and conflict, have a common interest in resisting American hegemony.

Russia feels threatened by the continued eastern expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The former Soviet states of eastern Europe are viewed as Russia's sphere of influence. Russia is particularly concerned about the potential NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia. This expansion, if enacted, would require the United States and its European allies to go to war with Russia in the event of an outbreak of military hostilities between Russia and these neighboring states.

Meanwhile, China is concerned about the US pivot towards Asia. Continued arms sales to Taiwan and support for the Philippines in the ongoing standoff in the South China Sea are particular areas of concern.

Both Russia and China feel threatened by the continued development and deployment of anti-missile technology by the United States. These two powers, particularly Russia, fear that this defensive system is aimed at challenging their strategic influence with regards to the doctrine of Mutually-Assured Destruction. American claims that this technology is aimed at alleged "rouge states" such as Iran, have been met with skepticism.

Besides these strategic concerns, both leaderships are wary of what they perceive as ongoing attempts by the United States to interfere in the domestic politics of the their two nations.

Middle Eastern affairs
Ahmadinejad's scheduled appearance at the SCO summit comes at a crucial time. The ongoing standoff over Iran's nuclear program, and the resulting regional tensions and fears, are matters of grave concern to the Russian and Chinese leadership.

The recent round of talks in Baghdad between Iran and the "Five Plus One" group (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) resulted in little more than an agreement to schedule another meeting in Moscow later this month. The sticking point of negotiations is the continued insistence of the Western powers for Iran to halt the enrichment of uranium to over 20%, and Iran's refusal to do so.

The benchmark price for Brent crude has shot up 18% over the past year, largely on speculative fears of a bombing campaign against Iran and Iran's capabilities for regional retaliation. [2] China is heavily dependent on imported oil, and the Chinese economy suffers when the oil price increases. In the event of an Israeli and/or American strike on Iran, and a subsequent Iranian blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, the price of oil will increase dramatically. China's impressive economic growth over the last three decades may come to a sudden halt, with unpredictable social and political consequences.

Russia's objections to military intervention in Iran are primarily strategic, but also contain an economic dimension. Iran is a bridge between South Asia, the Persian Gulf, and Central Asia. Iran borders the former Soviet states of Turkmenistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Any attack on Iran will have unpredictable consequences in an area Russia views at its sphere of influence.

The Russian government has been adamant in its opposition to any military action against Iran. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, recently reiterated these warnings. Besides predicting a "negative effect for the security of many countries" in the event of an attack on Iran, he said there would be, "dire consequences for the global economy due to unavoidable increase of prices for hydrocarbons, which will slow exit from recession". [3]

China and Russia share political and economic reasons to object to a potential attack on Iran. As usual, their shared motives are essentially conservative - both nations want to avoid geopolitical and economic hazards.

Cooperation against what is perceived as Western adventurism in the Middle East extends beyond Iran to Syria. As permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, both Russia and China have vetoed recent proposed resolutions targeting the Syrian government.

China and Russia fear a Syrian repeat of the Western bombing campaign against Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya. The security council's Resolution 1973 was passed to establish a no-fly zone over Libya, ostensibly to protect the civilian population. Russia and China jointly abstained from the vote, thereby ensuring its success. Two days later a coalition of Arab Gulf states and NATO used the resolution as an opening to begin an aerial campaign with the ultimate goal of enacting regime change in Libya.

China and Russia are keen to avoid a duplication of the Libyan scenario in Syria, and have therefore blocked two security council resolutions calling for sanctions against the Syrian government. Neither country will allow any opening for the West to launch military operations in Syria. Russia wants to maintain its strategic interests in Syria, particularly its sole Mediterranean port facility at Tartus. China fears a spread of sectarian violence from Syria into regional countries, and a resulting increase in the price of oil. Furthermore, both nations want to curtail the practice of Western-led "regime change" for ideological and geopolitical reasons.

It's the sovereignty, stupid
China's ambassador to the United Nations, Li Baodong, defined the Chinese government's view towards the Syrian conflict on Monday, saying, "We [do] not have intention to protect anybody against anybody. ... What we really want to see is that the sovereignty of that country can be safeguarded, and the destiny of that country can be in the hands of the people in Syria." [4]

Li effectively summarized the geostrategic worldview and resulting policies of Russia, China, and the SCO. The sovereignty of each individual country is sacrosanct. It does not matter exactly who is ruling a nation, so long as a government is not imposed from the outside.

This is a clear challenge to the foreign policy of the United States and its Western allies. From Afghanistan and Iraq, to Libya, the US has used its military might to enact regime change against regional rivals. These interventions have been justified in terms of "human rights", "fighting terrorism", and "stopping the spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction". However, China and Russia believe these campaigns were launched in order to advance America's perceived geopolitical interests.

The Sino-Russian alliance, as exemplified by the SCO, is essential a defensive, conservative posture. China and Russia will not tolerate further Western encroachment into the strategically sensitive regions of Western and Central Asia. They will use their growing economic and political clout to block Western attempts at regime change in Syria, Iran, and any other country where China and Russia have geopolitical interests.

Notes
1. Beijing says China, Russia 'united on Syria', SBS Australia. June 5, 2012.
2. Putin to Meet With Ahmadinejad in Beijing Before Nuclear Talks, Bloomberg, June 3, 2012.
3. Russia Concerned about Changing Positions towards Military Action against Iran - Foreign Ministry, Rianovosti, May 20, 2012.
4. China says its not protecting Syria's Assad, Seattle PI, June 4, 2012.


Brendan P O'Reilly is a China-based writer and educator from Seattle. He is author of The Transcendent Harmony.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)





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