RUSSIA AND CHINA IN CENTRAL ASIA: GEOPOLITICAL CHANGES
Vladimir Kindalov, Lecturer at Tashkent State Institute of Oriental Studies (Tashkent, Uzbekistan)
Oleg Limanov, Lecturer at Tashkent State Institute of Oriental Studies (Tashkent, Uzbekistan)
Recently Central Asia has found itself once more in the center of events of world importance: it has become an arena of struggle for influence that reflects the old regional problems and new global realities. Ambitions of the new players and rivalries of the old regional powers, Russia and China in the first place, are intertwined here.
It is impossible either to assess the situation or predict its further development outside a very careful analysis of the Russian and Chinese factors, their role in antiterrorist struggle, the way Beijing and Moscow perceive the threats to their security, their interests, and their Central Asian policies. The 9/11 events and the antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan aimed against al-Qa‘eda and the Taliban completely changed the local situation and confronted both states with a lot of problems. Another important rival, the United States, has come to the area where both China and Russia had already had definite interests.
The antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan altered the Central Asian situation beyond recognition and clearly demonstrated the faults of Chinese policies there.
The aftermath of 9/11 greatly influenced China’s policy: the effect directly depended on the degree to which Beijing was interested in geopolitical changes and was involved in global processes. China could not remain indifferent to these developments because the U.S.-induced geopolitical shifts directly affected the People’s Republic of China. China that has set itself an aim of becoming a global power and of finding a place among the main international players did not remain insensitive to the strong impact of the new situation and tried to use it in its interests.
A number of grave problems with which Beijing cannot cope single-handedly create tension to relieve which China should take account of interests of its neighbors, Central Asia in the first place. The Chinese foreign and defense ministries are grappling with the challenges of Islamic extremism and national separatism coming from the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
By cooperating with all regional countries China hopes to bring stability to its troubled western boundaries and border areas; create necessary conditions for economic development there to narrow the gap between the coastal and inland territories; acquire stable access to energy sources for its rapidly developing industry; oppose the unipolar system and the U.S. mounting domination at the economic, political, and military levels.
The above are vitally important issues that should ensure the state’s security yet while progressing in this direction Beijing is running a risk of confronting other outside forces.
On the whole in the wake of 9/11 the Chinese government was confronted with the following foreign and domestic policy tasks: developing contacts with the U.S. Administration so that to raise them to the real strategic partnership level while strengthening strategic cooperation with Russia; entrenching in Central Asia, and boosting China’s international prestige.
The Chinese leaders are convinced that considerable economic growth and territorial integrity will be possible only if the relations with Washington improve and create a more favorable international atmosphere. This, in turn, will help resolve the problem of Taiwan according to the principle “one state-two systems” as well as help fight ethnic separatism in XUAR and Tibet.
We believe that recently China has somewhat altered its geopolitical priorities. Russia’s place in the regional alignment of forces is still determined by the Russian-Chinese traditional trend toward containing the United States and counterbalancing it while Washington still remains an outside threat: despite this the Chinese leaders have resolved to improve its relationships with the White House.
It should be noted that while changing its geopolitical landmarks China remained dedicated to its commonly cautious foreign policy tactics: today Beijing prefers “to pause and spare strength” especially when it concerns the sensitive issue of Xinjiang and Central Asia that until recent times had remained on the back burner of the country’s foreign policy.
Even when everybody had realized that Washington’s antiterrorist struggle was nothing more than a means of achieving foreign policy aims of its own and that the Xinjiang problem, contrary to what had been expected, would worsen Beijing remained silent. This was another manifestation of the century-old contradiction of Chinese policy: at all times the Celestial Empire had to coordinate its great ambitions with its inadequate real strategic might. The leaders in Beijing are convinced that several decades later this situation will change (if they remain wise) and the People’s Republic of China will get a place worthy of it in the system of international relations.
At the same time, China could have probably followed a slightly different tactics had Washington clearly demonstrated its desire to move closer to Beijing on the issue of Taiwan that is of vital importance for China and on the human rights issue. This could have strengthened the relations between the two countries yet America probably does not want this yet.
China has greatly profited from the removal of the radical Taliban regime (that actively supported the Uighur separatists) from the political scene of Afghanistan and should be grateful to the Americans who invaded the region. China has also profited from the decision of the U.S. Administration made late in 2001 to enter the Eastern Turkestan Liberation Organization in the list of terrorist structures.
Xinjiang has an important role to play in China’s development strategy in the sphere of economy and energy production and because of its military-political and strategic significance. In the latter half of the 1990s, the Chinese leaders launched a program of priority development of China’s western and central areas (that included Xinjiang) designed to eliminate poverty and backwardness—two sores of this vast region. For many years now the central government has been pouring considerable resources into the autonomous region yet Western analysts mainly concentrate on the repressive policies the government pursues in relation to the local Uighurs. The West, and the United States in the first place, are trying to use the human rights issue as applied to ethnic minorities to put pressure on the PRC while the Chinese authorities are demonstrating their unyielding resolution to fight separatism and Islamic radicalism in this autonomous region. These efforts contradict the recent trend toward Washington’s stronger positions in Central Asia and its gradually developing offensive global policies.
The air bases of the antiterrorist coalition in Central Asia are another permanent threat: the Chinese know that American control established with the help of America’s military presence allows Washington not only to continue the containment policy but also to destabilize the situation in China as a whole and in explosive Xinjiang in particular. Chinese experts who visited Central Asia in the last twelve months insisted that the republics should clearly decide how long the American military would be allowed to remain in the region within the framework of the agreements they had signed with the United States. Speaking at the international conference “Central Asia and China: Looking for New Geopolitical Landmarks” held in Almaty on 15 July, 2002 Li Fenglin, former Chinese ambassador to Russia, spoke about his country’s dissatisfaction with the situation in the region. He was convinced that Central Asian security should be ensured by the concerted efforts of the local states without any outside interference and by international structures, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in the first place.
New local developments call for a new Chinese Central Asian strategy for a short- and long-term perspective. In the 1990s, Beijing being engrossed in its own domestic problems preferred to wait and see. In 2001, WTO membership plunged China into the world market economy and is drawing it into globalization processes. These new geopolitical realities changed Chinese foreign policies. Today, China has become aware that Central Asia does not seriously threaten stability in troublesome Xinjiang. When the border and territorial issues were settled the threat of negative influence emanating from the area was completely eliminated from the point of view of Chinese politicians.
At the same time, new worldwide developments force Beijing to promote its plans more vigorously; in Central Asia China is stepping up its military-technical cooperation with the local countries. In March 2002, during a Central Asian trip of General Liang Guanglie, Army Chief of Staff of the China’s People’s Liberation Army, it was announced that China would extend $3 million-worth free military-technical aid to Kazakhstan; to Kyrgyzstan, $1.6m; Uzbekistan, $1m. Later, in May 2002, President of Tajikistan Emomali Rakhmonov received from Beijing $1.2m during his visit to China.
This shows that China no longer regards economic growth as an absolute priority and has also moved military development to the top of the list: in the last 14 years its military spendings have been increasing. In 2001, they amounted to 121 billion yuans ($14.5 billion); in 2002, they increased by 17.7 percent to reach 141 billion yuans (about $17 billion). The state is still concentrated on the social and economic reforms with an aim of building up a “developed economic system” by 2030 with the per capita GDP increased 4 times. Many experts expected that these plans would urge the Chinese leaders to change their global foreign policies and assume a new role based on the country’s successful reforms and all-round modernization. The 9/11 events irreversibly changed the situation.
China will change its Central Asian tactics in the nearest future. It should be said that in the post-Soviet period its interest in the region was gradually building up together with its influence there. Early in 2002 when Russia started drifting closer to NATO and the U.S. Beijing stepped up its activity in Central Asia.
Obviously, Beijing did not want to aggravate its relations with Washington for strategic considerations and because of the international context when Russia, the main Chinese partner in opposing the United States, was playing into the U.S. hands while China found itself excluded. The Chinese leaders never tire of saying that it is Moscow’s rather than Beijing’s interests that are affected by the stronger American military presence in Central Asia. This shows that the Chinese strategists hope to win in the long-term perspective by remaining an “outside observer” and playing on the Russian-American contradictions. One can say that each of the sides in the RF-U.S.-PRC triangle will try to exploit the contradictions between two other sides in its interests. The post-9/11 more active Moscow-Washington cooperation in the sphere of global security; the Russia-NATO Council “NATO at 20” and a cooperation agreement between NATO and Russia signed in May 2002 left Beijing in an unfavorable situation.
Meanwhile the United States cannot ignore the “Chinese factor” even if it wants to do this. Beijing’s share in peaceful and sustainable development of the APR is growing; China supports the U.S.-led antiterrorist effort while an alliance between China and Russia is a weighty political force. This curbs Washington and prompts vacillations between harsher and milder courses in relation to Beijing, between the talk about the “Chinese menace” and “close partnership.” China has become resolved to steadily develop its Central Asian policies to deal with the threats to its own security and to promote economic growth especially in its northwestern corner.
Today, China has all the necessary conditions to pay more attention to the Central Asian republics—Beijing’s economic interests there are vast. It needs Central Asian energy resources, its capacious market and transport and communication possibilities. Politics, the American factor and the Xinjiang separatists remain absolute priorities. The new stage of Chinese politics will transform its present mainly political interests into specific economic aims. In the mid-term perspective China will be able to considerably strengthen its positions there and successfully compete with Russia, the United States, Iran, Turkey and other countries.
The post 9/11 situation in the region was not conducive to resolving the tasks the Chinese leaders had posed themselves and created more threats to China’s security. The current situation may push China toward a more active strategy in Central Asia and turn the region into one of the foreign policy priorities. In this way China will work toward greater security in the vitally important western sector and toward closer cooperation with the Central Asian countries.
Russia’s Strategy and Tactics
Today, Moscow’s role in the region is much more limited than in Soviet times and is shrinking. In recent years Russia has been demonstrating its desire to distance itself from all sensitive issues; to show restraint when dealing with them and to avoid direct involvement in the conflicts that do not directly affect its national interests. The resultant political vacuum was filled with other outside forces: the United States, Europe, China, Turkey, and Iran.
The Central Asian states need Western investments and financial aid as well as military cooperation with the West, the U.S. included; there is a conviction that Western intermediaries will cope better than Russia with conflict settlement and will be more effective when restraining religious extremists and drug trafficking. This and the increased American military presence caused a lot of criticism in Russia: experts and politicians point out that the Russian leaders have actually abandoned conflict settlement in Russia’s southern border areas and diminished Moscow’s involvement in regional processes. “Everything that Americans are doing in Central Asia and Afghanistan was expected of Russia even if on a smaller scale. It was expected and it never happened. Today the United States is doing this.”1
Russia should remain in the region to minimize the risks and threats still lurking at its southern borders; to diminish the level of ethnic tension; to stop illegal movement of weapons, drugs and migrants. Russian politicians are well aware of Central Asia’s strategic importance yet Moscow shunned direct involvement in a conflict when fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan tried to penetrate Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000—its military forces were tied down in Chechnia. There was another negative factor: having promised Tashkent and Bishkek to deliver weapons needed for the antiterrorist operation it failed to supply the expected quantities. Uzbekistan had to buy more weapons and ammunition from China.
Unwilling to worsen relations with the United States the majority of the Central Asian states agreed to concessions in the military-political and economic spheres in exchange for American assistance in liquidating the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. All the countries except Turkmenistan allowed the United States and its allies to use their air space and airfields.
Moscow and Beijing are naturally very much concerned about these developments; they feel themselves left out of the stream of events; they are afraid, with good reason, that their positions in the region will be undermined since they have nothing with which to oppose American pressure. In an effort not to become a passive witness of massive American diplomatic offensive Foreign Minister of Russia Igor Ivanov visited Tashkent in January 2002 where he stated that Moscow objected to permanent American military bases in Central Asia.
To contain the mounting American influence and to strengthen its relations with China Moscow will tap the SCO potential to the full. What is more, inadequate political and economic possibilities of all Central Asian countries force them to cooperate with strong partners to consolidate the region’s positions in the world. Russia and China are two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—this creates a certainty that these two influential members will defend the interests of the Central Asian states, which partly coincide with their own, in the Security Council.
The Program of Multilateral Cooperation for 2001-2010 adopted by the heads of SCO members and Beijing’s proposals to gradually liberalize trade and investments in the region, to develop transborder trade, and other economic initiatives will supply Russia with undoubted advantages in the sphere of trade and economic cooperation. Intensive economic ties will raise the relations between all members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to a higher level.
In November 2002 Russia set up an air base (with 10 Su-27 fighter planes) in the town of Kant in Kyrgyzstan to the east of Bishkek. The step made in accordance with the previous agreements between the defense ministers of both countries was an adequate response to the local developments. The new base was set up in addition to the already existing base and the 201st Motor Rifle Russian Division deployed in Tajikistan. Military-political cooperation between the two countries is prompted by Tajikistan’s important strategic situation: the republic is expected to prevent the flow of drugs and stop religious extremists coming from still unstable Afghanistan. Moscow knows that political chaos in Central Asia will produce a flood of refugees with which Russia will not be able to cope. Moscow has openly staked on President Rakhmonov in a conviction that he is able better than all other heads of local states to preserve stability in his country and maintain regional security.
One cannot totally exclude a possibility of radical changes in the corridors of power in Dushanbe: either clans competing for power with Rakhmonov (M. Khudoiberdyev represents the Khodzhent clan) or political forces close to the Islamic circles (S. Nuri) may replace Rakhmonov at the helm. This turn of event will undermine Russia’s positions in the country because of its association with the “anti-Islamic” side in the conflict.
On the whole one can say that in the long-term perspective Russia will preserve Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan as its real regional partners. Moscow looks at Tashkent as an important ally where preservation of stability and security in the region is concerned. Uzbekistan has the largest population of over 24 million and is the most stable among its Central Asian neighbors. It can promote Russia’s interests in the region and help implement new joint initiatives of Moscow, Washington, and Beijing.
The Central Asian states are closely watched not only from Moscow and Beijing but also from Washington that is busy developing multilateral economic and strategic cooperation there and, in many cases, turns out to be a serious rival of two other capitals.
It seems that in the mid-term perspective the Central Asian states should pursue a multi-vectoral and efficient policy of balancing the interests of Russia, the U.S., and China for the sake of achieving sustainable economic development, stability, and security.
The situation that is taking shape before our eyes shows that this policy can be realized if the local countries divide the spheres of their interests between Moscow, Washington, and Beijing and avoid confrontation with them.
1 V. Shelia, “Proshchay ili do svidania?” Novaia gazeta, 21 March, 2002.