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    South Asia
     May 17, 2011


A SCO canopy for South Asia
By M K Bhadrakumar

Grand visions take time to realize but they seldom die. They may languish but they regenerate and take new unexpected forms. The ''Great Central Asia'' strategy envisioned by the George W Bush administration is most certainly one such grand vision.

The complex intellectual construct involved many strokes: The US would expand its influence into Central Asia by rolling back Russia's traditional and China's growing influence there. Washington would encourage New Delhi to work as a partner in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and lay a new Silk Route via South

 
Asia to evacuate the fabulous mineral wealth of the land-locked region, consolidate its presence in Afghanistan on a long-term footing, and establish itself along Xinjiang and Russia's ''soft underbelly''. In so doing, it would create the conditions needed to win the ''new great game'' in Central Asia.

The strategy was unveiled in an article in the summer 2005 edition of Foreign Affairs magazine by Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the John Hopkins University. Starr proposed a matrix for a "Great Central Asia cooperative partnership for development" with the US taking the lead, the five Central Asian states and Afghanistan entering as the main members, and India and Pakistan participating.

Starr wrote, ''The main idea of the proposal is to take the US control of the situation in Afghanistan as an opportunity, promote optional and flexible cooperation in security, democracy, economy, transport and energy, and, make up a new region by combining Central Asia with South Asia. The United States is to shoulder the role of a midwife to promote the rebirth of the entire region."

A dream come true
The Bush administration lost no time adopting the tantalizing idea and integrating it into the US's regional policies. In the event, however, the Bush era got dissipated in the Iraq quagmire and the idea of ''Great Central Asia'' languished. Hopelessly distracted by the economic crisis and the war in Afghanistan, the Barack Obama administration, too, neglected the brilliant strategy. Meanwhile, Russia and China grasped its potential and wondered if only it could be turned on its head.

Russian and Chinese diplomats duly got to work and are now ready to unveil their new avatar in the forthcoming summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Astana on June 15. To sum up a long story, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a terse remark on May 15 following a meeting of SCO foreign ministers in Almaty, Kazakhstan, ''A few days ago, Afghanistan submitted a request to grant it observer status. The request will be considered at the upcoming [SCO] summit.''

What he didn't say was that earlier in the week, Afghan Foreign Minister Rasoul paid a four-day visit to Beijing and discussed his country's proposal with the Chinese government. The Afghans, Russians and the Chinese seem to have acted in concert and with a speediness that probably took the Obama administration by surprise. The US has been consistently discouraging Kabul from any dangerous liaison with the SCO.

Kabul's ''defection'' constitutes a setback to the US's diplomacy in the Central Asian region, which Washington has been lately insisting is brimming with renewed energy. It certainly weakens the push by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) push to secure long-term military bases in Afghanistan. Put simply, it reduces Washington's capacity to pressure Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai.

In turn, it secures for Karzai new benefactors for the stabilization of his country, which on the one hand enables him to significantly reduce the level of his current dependence on the US, while on the other hand compelling Washington to be sensitive to his demands as the leader of a sovereign country.

Lavrov further revealed that India and Pakistan had both submitted formal applications for upgrading their observer status to full membership of SCO and he hinted that the Astana summit would grant the membership. Clearly, Moscow and Beijing have simultaneously steered the Indian, Pakistani and Afghan applications.

This suggests a broad conceptualization and understanding of the emergent regional security scenario in South Asia on the part of Moscow and Beijing. Ironically, Afghanistan is all set now to become the ''hub'' that will bring Central Asia and South Asia together - except that the historic process is taking place not under US stewardship, as Starr conceived, Bush probably wanted and Obama failed to follow up, but under Chinese and Russian partnership.

Moscow-Beijing axis
Evidently, Moscow and Beijing have pressed the pedal to give SCO a decisive push and make it a rival to the NATO as a provider of security for the Central Asian states - and for Afghanistan. This is happening when NATO is claiming in the Central Asian capitals that it is revving up ''strategic'' cooperation with the region. In reality, SCO (which has China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the current line-up) will be poaching into the US and NATO's exclusive Afghan preserves while insisting that it is enamored of cooperation with the Western alliance.

The Russian-Chinese coordination on strategic issues is indeed graduating to a qualitatively new level. Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa are three main arenas where Moscow and Beijing have decided to enter into ''tight cooperation'', to borrow an expression of a Russian news agency.

Moscow and Beijing seem to have arrived at the conclusion that notwithstanding the US's steady decline as a global power, the Obama administration is bent on resuscitating its global strategies as the preponderant world power and that with the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington is likely preparing to give a jump start to the process.

Russia already senses that the Obama administration is dusting up the plans for deployments of missile defense shields in Poland and Romania and is setting up a new military presence in these two countries, challenging the historical primacy of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. Moscow's repeated urges to have more meaningful discussions regarding Russian participation in the US's and the European Union's missile defense program are also not being heeded. The much-touted ''reset'' is losing steam, too.

For both Russia and China, Western intervention in Libya has come as a wake-up call. The developments over Syria, the West's double standards over Bahrain, the determination of the US to prolong its military presence in Iraq beyond the end-2011 cut-off date - these are being seen as tell-tale signs of an overarching, well-thought-out and US-led Western strategy to outflank Russia and China in the Middle East and perpetuate Western dominance over the region in the post-Cold War era.

A recent commentary in the Chinese state-run People's Daily also articulated specific concerns over the strong likelihood of a ''more forceful'', ''more aggressive'' policy toward China. It said:
Washington intends to broaden and strengthen alliances with Asia-Pacific partners (Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, India, etc.) ... there is no way that Obama will soften his attitude on US-China relations ... Obama believes that the future of the global order will be determined in the Asia Pacific.

If this description of Obama's beliefs is accurate, then one can see his management of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in a slightly different light: he is winding down these wars not only in order to rebuild America's economy and improve its international standing, but also to recalibrate US foreign policy toward an Asia-Pacific future. In a nutshell, the US overall readjustment of its Asia-Pacific policies comes with tremendous force on its surface.''
New power dynamic
Beijing is obviously jettisoning its reservations about India's inclusion in the SCO. The anticipated US-led shifts in Asia-Pacific would give impetus to Beijing to work on its ties with India and the SCO provides a useful framework to cooperate with New Delhi on regional security issues.

From the Indian perspective, too, working with China on shared concerns such as the stabilization of Afghanistan or the struggle against terrorist activities emanating from Pakistani soil are desirable objectives.

Beijing would be gratified to know that New Delhi has an independent regional policy toward Central Asia and has desisted from identifying with the US's ''Great Central Asia'' strategy. Equally, New Delhi remains skeptical about the prospect of a long-term NATO military presence in Afghanistan.

India's approach to engage Pakistan in dialogue, its calibrated approach to military cooperation with the US and indeed the new sense of ''cooling down'' in the Sino-Indian discords on the bilateral political and diplomatic plane following the high-level exchanges on the sidelines of the recent BRICS summit in China - these would encourage Beijing (and Moscow) to project the SCO as a vehicle for regional security in the South Asian region.

From the Pakistani perspective, too, SCO membership comes at a critical time when Islamabad is torn apart by existential angst of a kind it has never known before. Following the Raymond Davis [1] episode, Islamabad measured up the US's extensive intelligence network within Pakistan, including with various militant groups.

Put plainly, Islamabad suspects US intentions and a transparent working relationship is not going to be easy to put in place. The US Abbottabad operation to kill Osama bin Laden has shaken Pakistan's self-confidence. US-Pakistan intelligence cooperation has ground to a halt.

The impunity with which the US violated Pakistan's territorial integrity, Obama's blunt warning that the US might repeat similar operations, Washington's utter disregard of the groundswell of Pakistani opinion, and Pakistan's own sense of helplessness to safeguard its sovereignty - these will prompt Islamabad to rethink its foreign policy options. China and Russia obviously figure in the Pakistani calculus.

At the same time, India has moved wisely by not only sharing the US's euphoria over the Abbottabad operation. New Delhi also desisted from resorting to rhetoric against Pakistan and lost no time to reiterate that dialogue with Islamabad will continue as earlier planned. There are also nuances in India's Afghan policy with a view to calming Pakistani sensitivities regarding its ties with Kabul.

These overlapping trends have quickened the tempo of regional diplomacy. The same week in which Rasoul proceeded to Beijing also saw Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari visiting Russia and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh undertaking an extraordinary two-day visit to Kabul. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani is also due in Beijing this week.

All these high-level exchanges have essentially sought to break fresh ground in regional alignments. Their leitmotif is the endgame in Afghanistan. Without doubt, regional opinion is vehemently opposed to a long-term US and NATO military presence in Afghanistan.

But the sense in the region is also that Washington will keep pressuring Kabul - just as it is doing in Baghdad - to ram through its geopolitical agenda no matter the regional opposition.

Unsurprisingly, the SCO provides the canopy beneath which regional powers are taking shelter even as the power dynamics are unfolding.

Note
1. Raymond Davis, a contractor with the Central Intelligence Agency, killed two armed men in Lahore in January and although the US said he was protected by diplomatic immunity, he was jailed and charged with murder. He was released in March after the families of the two killed men were paid US$2.4 million in blood money. Judges acquitted him on all charges and Davis immediately departed Pakistan.

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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