CHINA AND CENTRAL ASIA AFTER THE BEGINNING OF THE ANTITERRORIST OPERATION IN AFGHANISTAN
Sergei Okhotnikov, Independent expert (Moscow, Russian Federation)
The Rear That Became the Frontline
Central Asia that through the centuries changed its historical role many times ranging from a busy crossroad of trade routes and national interests of states to the backyard of great empires has found itself once more in the hubbub of events of worldwide importance. Today, it is the arena of a bitter struggle over influence that reflects the new realities and the local old illnesses. Ambitions of new trans-ocean players and the traditional rivalry of the regional powers (China is one of them) are intertwined there.
It is difficult to adequately estimate the situation in Central Asia and its possible development without providing a careful analysis of the Chinese factor, the role of China in the antiterrorist effort, the way the Chinese assess the threats to their own security, the country’s genuine interests and variants of its local policy. The recent events have posed several difficult questions to Beijing: the region that was seen from China as a more or less tranquil rear has suddenly became the frontline of its foreign policy very much contrary to its wishes.
China’s Near Abroad
At all times, China looked at Central Asia as a natural zone of interest; its contacts with the local countries are rooted in hoary antiquity. It was these contacts that started the Great Silk Road that connected the Celestial Empire with Central Asia and through it with Europe. It is interesting to note that according to the ancient Chinese ideas of the world the neighboring countries were regarded as China’s vassals. In fact, the Chinese army never moved beyond Pamir and Tien Shan and never conquered other countries. This does not prevent the Chinese from saying that the great poet of the Tang dynasty Li Bai was born in a military camp on the territory of today’s Kyrgyzstan.
It was during the heyday of the Qing dynasty, in the middle of the 18th century, that China started displaying genuine interest in Central Asia and pursuing an active foreign policy in the west. There it clashed with mighty rivals, the Kokand Khanate being one of them. The Chinese had to abandon their expansionist designs and return to the old format. The long confrontation ended in 1832 with a peace treaty between and China and the Khanate.
When China had moved into Dzungaria and Eastern Turkestan, it became a neighbor of Russia that, in its turn, had accepted some of the Kazakh and Kyrgyz khanates and the Gorny Altai area into its citizenship. The two countries settled the border issues in Central Asia under the Peking Treaty of 1860 and the Petersburg Treaty of 1881.
By that time the Chinese Empire had entered a period of a steep decline and had to abandon its ambitions in Central Asia: the country found it increasingly difficult to control the Chinese Xinjiang. After the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 that destroyed the monarchy warlords established their control over the western regions which for fifty years remained closer to Central Asia than to China proper.
It was not until the 1990s that China re-discovered Central Asia as its near abroad: having gained independence when the Soviet Union fell apart, the Central Asian republics established diplomatic relations with China to diversify their foreign policy, to leave behind Moscow’s domination and to profit from trade with the rapidly developing “world’s workshop.” Beijing greeted the sentiments and embraced with enthusiasm a clear invitation to serve as the counterweight or even a Russia’s successor in the region. On top of this, the consumer-hungry local markets promised huge dividends to Chinese producers.
There was another important reason why China moved toward its western neighbors: by the time of the Soviet Union’s disappearance the Central Asian stretch of the Chinese border remained unsettled. It was back in 1964 that the U.S.S.R. and the PRC had started talks that developed into prolonged trench warfare because of the sides’ exceptional obstinacy. China felt that it would be easier to negotiate the territorial issues on favorable conditions with independent Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
It should be said that Central Asia proved to be a tough nut for China in many other respects, not only the border settlement. Faced with a single delegation composed of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, China failed to resolve all border-related tasks. Still soon all the regional countries reached border agreements with it. Under the latest, additional agreement between China and Tajikistan signed in May 2002 the latter ceded about 1,000 sq km of its territory to China in the Murgab District in Pamir. There is an opinion that the Central Asian leaders agreed to unjustified concessions under the Chinese pressure and for their own mercenary reasons. This explains, in part, why in spring 2002 the parliament of Kyrgyzstan refused to ratify the Kyrgyz-Chinese border agreement that divided the contested territories as 70 to 30. Still, one can say that the territorial issue has been resolved, which is a great progress.
On the whole, much has been done during a decade of the latest relationships between China and Central Asia. Today, these relations cover all major cooperation fields from a political dialog and military contacts to trade and economic cooperation and cultural ties. There are problems, yet they never diminished the sides’ mutual interest and mutual attraction.
China’s interest in the region’s rich deposits of hydrocarbons and water resources is a powerful moving force of this cooperation. Beijing contributes to the development of the Aktiubinsk and Mangyshlak oil fields and to the Kazakhstan-Xinjiang oil pipeline with the volume of investments probably topping $4 billion. There is an agreement on Chinese participation in completing the Rogun and Nurek hydropower stations in Tajikistan; talks about a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China and a railway mainline between China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan via Torugart are underway.
The Chinese strategists believe that closer economic cooperation with Central Asia is the best possible vehicle for China’s political presence in the region, its involvement in all regional processes, and for creating a “safety belt” along its western borders. The situation changed dramatically after the antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan had been launched. Beijing’s strategic miscalculations became obvious together with its political errors in Central Asia.
The very fact that in the fall of 2001 the regional leaders agreed to deploy American troops in direct proximity to China without seeking its agreement or informing it demonstrated that China had failed to create a mechanism, either bilateral or multilateral, of military-political cooperation. This explains why when time came for an antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan an ally came from the outside and easily destroyed an illusory ideal between China and the Central Asian countries.
It turned out that the Chinese had failed to offer the Central Asian states adequate stimuli that would have kept them within the Chinese political line. Here are a few relevant figures: in 2001 the trade turnover between China and Kazakhstan (the main trade partner in the region) was slightly over $1.5 billion, the volume of trade turnover with Uzbekistan could barely reach $100 million.
Today, Beijing has noticeably stepped up its political efforts in Central Asia by increasing the material dimension of bilateral political relations. In March 2002 during the Central Asian tour of Xiong Guangkai, deputy chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, it became known that China granted $3 million worth military-technical aid to Kazakhstan and $1.6 million to Kyrgyzstan. In May 2002 during his Chinese trip President of Tajikistan Rakhmonov got $1.2 billion.
When talking about the Chinese policies in Central Asia one has to bear in mind that China is pursuing complex and multi-layered tasks there. Its interests are intertwined to an extent that priorities are not easy to identify. If one proceeds from the alpha and omega of the Chinese foreign policy strategy (sovereignty and territorial integrity), one can single out the Uighur separatism factor that is threatening China’s security and is directly related to the neighboring countries: Kazakhstan is home for over 200 thous Uighurs. The democratic freedoms that are developing in the young Central Asian states created favorable conditions for Uighur organizations of all sorts. Some people think that Almaty has become a regional center of Uighur extremism.
There is no doubt that for a long time to come China’s active position will be dictated by its desire to stem separatism and discontinue support for it from abroad. This is quite understandable: China is facing an organized movement that wants to create a state of Eastern Turkestan on the territory of Xinjiang. It relies on a ramified structure, funding from abroad, deep roots, and rich history.
The Western Territories and Eastern Turkestan
Until the early 18th century the territory limited by the Pamir in the west, Hindu Kush, Tien Shan and Altai in the north, Mongolia and the Loess Plateau in the east, and Kunlun in the south (which the Chinese called Xiyu or the Western territories) was taken by two large states: the Khanate of Eastern Turkestan (Yarkand) with the capital in Yarkand and the Dzungarian (Oirat) Khanate with the capital in Yili. Eastern Turkestan was set up in the first half of the 14th century by descendants of Jagatai, son of Genghis Khan. In 1720, torn by internal strife, it fell under the power of the stronger Dzungarian Khanate, later in 1757 it became part of the Qing Empire together with Dzungaria conquered by the Chinese.
To increase its control over the new possessions (that received the name of Xinjiang or a New Frontier) the Chinese created a new system of military-administrative rule. They divided the area into districts, the heads of which were subordinated to the vice-regent of the Qing government in Yili. To preserve a semblance of self-administration the new rulers left the local traditional institutions intact. Chinese were resettled there so that to alter the area’s ethnic makeup.
It turned out that this was not enough to prevent social upheavals: Uighurs and Dungans rebelled frequently. The mightiest wave of their uprisings flooded China’s western borders in 1864-1865. As a result five new independent states appeared on the territory of Eastern Turkestan and Dzungaria which in 1867 united into a single state called Yettishar under Yaqub Beg. It proved to be short-lived. An army under Zuo Zongtang who had quenched the Taiping uprising suppressed the Muslim uprising in the east of Xinjiang. In 1875 he was appointed commissar plenipotentiary for military affairs in Dzungaria and Eastern Turkestan. Three years later the state of Yettishar ceased to exist, many of the rebels fled to Central Asia.1
It should be added that at that stage of confrontation in Eastern Turkestan Britain, involved in rivalry with Russia for the influence in Central Asia, was waging a subtle diplomatic game of its own there. The British supported Yaqub Beg and even offered their services for a peace settlement between the Qing Empire and Yettishar. Since that time the shadow of foreign involvement in Xinjiang affairs has been persecuting the leaders in Beijing.
The idea of restoring Eastern Turkestan outside China was still alive. In the context of Muslim unrest in China’s western regions that flared up in the 1930s the military governor of the provinces of Gansu called Ma Zhongying (there were rumors that he was backed up by Americans) and Xinjiang governor Jin Shuren entered into a conflict. In July 1933 the rebels supported by Ma Zhongying formed an Eastern Turkestan Republic under Hoja Niaz. In the Southern Xinjiang the leader of the Uighur army of the Western Area Mamuti seized power. In September 1937 the rebels were routed with the help of the Soviet Red Army, but Mamuti who had fled to Japan refused to accept the defeat. He became head of the Committee for Preparations to set up an Islamic Republic of Xinjiang.
Another revolution was approaching. In 1943-1944 three northern districts of Xinjiang rebelled and defeated a Kuomintang division. An East Turkestan Republic was set up in November 1944 with a prominent religious figure Alikhan-Tiure as its head. A year later Chiang Kai-shek had to recognize the government and grant Xinjiang local autonomy. Despite the fact that later Kuomintang insisted that the leaders of the new republic became members of the coalition cabinet, Xinjiang was living in the conditions of diarchy until October 1949. The East Turkestan Republic disappeared when the People’s Republic of China was formed. Xinjiang became part of it as an autonomous region.2
This is all in the past, yet today history is much closer to us than we are inclined to think.
No Choice Among “Three Evils”
In June 2001 China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan signed a Convention on Fighting Terrorism, Separatism, and Extremism known in China as the “three evils.”
The Chinese have first-hand knowledge of international terrorism, ethnic separatism, and religious extremism. In China the “three evils” are embodied in the movement that wants to restore Eastern Turkestan and that recently has acquired “second wind.” In January 2002 the press secretariat of the PRC’s State Council published a “white book” called “The Terrorist Forces of ‘Eastern Turkistan’ Will Not Avoid Responsibility” that offered the first ever official opinion about the problem of Eastern Turkestan previously carefully ignored. The books says, in particular, that since the early 1990s the separatist Uighur movement abroad (that appeared when the People’s Republic of China had come into being) has been trying to separate Xinjiang from China by force and became one of the cells of bin Laden’s terrorist network.3
It seems that life is more complex than that: separatism and terrorism are two separate phenomena. Erkin Alptekin who has been heading the movement’s political wing for several decades, is living in exile in Turkey. He is the leader of the movement for independence of Eastern Turkestan and chairman of the General Assembly of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples nongovernmental organization with headquarters in The Hague that insists on a referendum in Xinjiang.4 Active separatists of this sort are using the human rights tribune to criticize Beijing that deprives the Uighurs of the right to self-determination and violates human rights across the country.
The fact that the pan-Turkic idea of Eastern Turkestan comes close to the modern Wahhabi slogans about an Islamic Caliphate in Central Asia has created a problem. The Uighur movement became divided—its radical part embraced terror in the early 1990s. It relies on al-Qa‘eda’s financial and military support. The Soviet Union’s disintegration, economic difficulties and ethnic conflicts in Central Asia and international isolation of China in the wake of the Tiananmen events of 1989 gave the extremists a chance.
As soon as the Taliban came to power in 1995, the headquarters of the Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan or the Party of Allah headed by Hasan Mahsoum moved to Kabul. Under the Taliban regime over two thousand fighters from the Movement’s terrorist wing (The Holy Warriors of Islam) were trained in Afghanistan. According to Chinese information, they took part in kidnapping Japanese academics in Kyrgyzstan in August 2000 and in the aborted invasion of Uzbekistan across Southern Kyrgyzstan in August 2001. There are reasons to believe that the Uighur Party of Allah coordinated its actions with the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Chinese sources insist that between 1990 and 2001 over 200 terrorist acts were carried out in Xinjiang with the support of the Opposition Party of Eastern Turkestan, the Organization of Liberation of Eastern Turkestan, and other Uighur separatist structures that killed 163 and wounded over 440. The terrorists who penetrated Xinjiang and those who help them in China proper (it is believed that there are over 10 thous of them) carry out numerous acts of subversion; they intimidate or even kill loyal Uighurs and members of the local Muslim clergy who fail to support the idea of separation.5
The situation is aggravated by the discontent of the local autochthonous people with Beijing that creates a responsive milieu for the fundamentalist ideas and separatist slogans. The Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region is one of the least developed Chinese regions. The local poverty is set off by the richness of local natural resources. Out of the 20m of Xinjiang population about 8m are Uighurs. The believers are enraged with the mistrust the Chinese demonstrate toward Islam that at times takes ugly forms of defamation. In other words, there is no love lost between the Uighurs and the Chinese.
The acute nature of the problem forced Beijing to elaborate a special development strategy for the western regions of the People’s Republic of China with increased subsidies from the center to create industry and infrastructure, carry out social programs, and invite investments from the industrially developed parts of the country, including Hongkong. Much attention was paid to the oil and gas fields in the Tarim Basin and construction of China’s biggest West-East gas pipeline that will connect Xinjiang with Shanghai. Together these measures are designed to accelerate the region’s economic development and to narrow down the gap between it and the dynamically developing Eastern and Southern China. Liquidation of Uighur separatism is one of the program’s aims.
There is a foreign aspect of fighting the “three evils”—concerted efforts on the international arena. The global antiterrorist campaign that unfolded after 11 September, 2001 suggested Beijing the right course of action.
“Terrorism and Hegemonism Are Two Enemies of Mankind”
China was as shaken by the events of 11 September, 2001 as the rest of the world. The Chinese were shocked, aggrieved, and indignant. Society condemned the acts of terror, though not without individual malicious voices (“hegemonism got its due”). Official Beijing reacted promptly and straightforwardly. On the same day in a telephone call to President Bush Chairman Jiang Zemin expressed his condolences and announced that his country, together with other members of the world community, was prepared to fight international terrorism.
The Chinese capital reacted differently to the American decision about an antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan. The Chinese promptly concluded that the U.S. determination to fight terrorism might conceal Washington’s desire to replace the existing international legal norms with their own rules of the game and to legalize the conceptions of “limited sovereignty” and “humanitarian interference.” Chinese diplomacy had to formulate its positions in the form of a list of requirements for an antiterrorist military action. Put in a nutshell they are: the decision about such operation should be passed by the U.N. Security Council; if an operation is conducted by NATO, the alliance will have to consult the non-European states, the interests of which will be affected; an operation should be carried out according to the U.N. Charter and the generally recognized international legal norms; the world community should be presented with clear and unambiguous proofs of terrorist activities and informed about the concrete goals of retribution acts; loss of civilian lives should be avoided; antiterrorist struggle should not destabilize the situation in the world and create humanitarian crises; in the final analysis the antiterrorist measures should serve the long-term interests of peace and development; the frameworks of such operations should not be extended arbitrarily; terrorism should not be identified with a certain religion or a culture, a state or a nation; this struggle should be of a comprehensive nature and should not be limited to military actions alone but also should expose and remove the main causes of terrorism as a phenomenon; double standards should be avoided, all participants in the coalition should support the antiterrorist and anti-separatist measures, no matter where and by whom they are applied.
This was probably not the best diplomatic move by Beijing because the world interpreted it as a readiness to support the antiterrorist operation on certain conditions and with certain reservations.6 It looked as if China was haggling with the United States in an effort of exchanging its support of Washington’s plans for a corrected American position on the Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang issues. Later, the Chinese had to defend themselves: Zhu Bangzao, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, explained that the Western media had deliberately distorted the Chinese position by putting two different questions on the same level.7 It should be added that Russia’s positions of an unqualified support for the antiterrorist operation looked much better and brought it more tangible political dividends.
Whether the accusations were true or not, the implication of the statements issued by the Chinese leaders and the Foreign Ministry was clear: terrorism is a great evil but there are other evils—hegemonism, the policy from the position of strength, and the attempts to interfere in internal affairs of other states. They should be resolutely rebuffed without concentrating on opposing new challenges and threats represented by international terrorism and global problems. It should be pointed out that Beijing’s concern with the Americans’ military plans against Afghanistan were not merely of a general philosophical but also of concrete regional nature. What China was hypothetically afraid of when it supported Russia’s opposition to NATO’s eastward movement became a reality in Central Asia: all of a sudden China discovered U.S. troops at its doorstep. American presence in Central Asia introduced a new element into the seemingly stable balance of forces in the region.
Chinese analysts interpreted the results as an absolute victory of Washington and a serious defeat of Beijing. In the language of classical Chinese stratagems this step can be described as “stealing a sheep with an easy hand,” that is turning a disadvantage to an advantage. The antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan which the world community unanimously supported legalized, by the same token, American presence in Central Asia that Americans had wanted so much. Having appreciated the stratagem, the Chinese decided to reciprocate with a stratagem of their own by “turning sorrow into strength.”
Turning Sorrow into Strength
The relations between China and the U.S. were at a low level during the first half of 2001, before 11 September. Having arrived at the White House, George Bush assumed a bellicose tone in relation to China that was described as “rather a strategic enemy than a strategic partner.” The anti-Chinese rhetoric coming from Washington developed into a harsh opposition to Beijing in all respects: human rights, a non-proliferation regime, trade disputes. China was accused of funding the election campaign of the Democrats, of stealing American military secrets and other conceivable and inconceivable sins. On the one hand, the Republican administration wanted to demonstrate that its approaches differed from Clinton’s foreign policy. The previous president wanted to include China in the system of international political and economic relations. On the other, President Bush wanted to show Beijing its place and to jack up the price of future normalization. The Chinese did not want to play at give-away.
Washington toughened its position on Taiwan. In spring 2001 the U.S. administration took several anti-Chinese steps: it was decided to sell a large party of the latest weapons to Taipei; President of Taiwan Chen Shuibian received an American entrance visa. Finally, President Bush announced that the United States was prepared to do everything necessary to protect Taiwan. This worsened the relations between the two countries.
The incident with EP-3, an American spy aircraft, complicated the relations still more. On 1 April, 2001 it violated Chinese air space over the Hainan Island and was rammed by a Chinese fighter. The Chinese pilot was killed while the American aircraft had to land on the Chinese territory. The resultant diplomatic crisis pushed back the bilateral relations while military contacts were suspended.
In summer 2001 the sides had started sending signs that they wanted to improve their relations which still left much to be desired. No one can say how this would have ended but for the new situation that took shape after the terrorist acts in New York and Washington.
Having supported the antiterrorist coalition, China automatically became one of the Washington’s antiterrorist allies. The events took the following course: on 19 September in Washington Foreign Minister of China Tang Jiaxuan negotiated a start of an expert dialog on antiterrorist measures; on 24 September a Chinese delegation arrived in the United States for the first round of consultations. In October Chairman of the PRC Jiang Zemin met President Bush for the first time in Shanghai, in February the American president visited China with a working visit, during which the sides agreed on settling a mechanism of medium- and long-term cooperation in fighting terrorism. The FBI opened its office in Beijing.
Today, China and the U.S. hold regular consultations on the problems of terrorism in the format of interdepartmental delegations composed of representatives of the Foreign Ministry, the ministries of finance and defense, central banks, law enforcement bodies, and special services. They exchange intelligence and work together to stem financial support for terrorists.
China’s participation in the antiterrorist coalition helped overcome a serious crisis in its relations with America. There is a new channel of cooperation that stabilizes their bilateral relations. It is interesting to note that soon after a demonstration of its solidarity with the U.S. China joined the WTO—an event that the U.S. has been frantically opposing for 15 years.
At the same time, Chinese diplomacy is trying to use antiterrorist cooperation to resolve the country’s most urgent problems such as to force the Americans to recognize China’s fight against the Uighur terrorists in Xinjiang as part of the world community’s efforts to oppose international terrorism. The logic is simple: China itself is a victim of terrorism, the movement for setting up the state of Eastern Turkestan is connected with international terrorism that is trying to pose as fighters for the freedom of confession, human rights and self-identification of ethnic minorities; there are no “good” and “bad” terrorists. On 29 June, 2002 first secretary of the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan Wang Jianping was murdered in Bishkek. China interprets the crime as an evidence of terrorist activity of clandestine Uighur groups in China.
It seems that Washington is in no hurry to respond to these overtures: the United States is prepared to recognize in principle that Chinese Uighurs did fight on the side of the Taliban, yet is insisting that the legal rights of ethnic minorities should be observed.
Nevertheless, Beijing does not despair—recently many voices have been heard saying that the undermining activity of the Taiwan, Tibet, and Uighur separatists and activists of the Falungong sect should be regarded as a threat to Chinese national security. This invites America to take a fresh look at the familiar things while China is inclined to insist on its old approaches.
Challenges, Threats, and Countermeasures
Official statements and reports made in China describe the international position of China as the most favorable since 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was formed, yet one should not doubt that the Chinese are aware of the worsening foreign policy situation. Beijing no longer believes those who say that the antiterrorist struggle has become the global priority. The world is far from being stable, which means that there are new threats and challenges on top of the old ones.
Chinese experts say, in private, that the United States and its consistent implementation of the strategy of containment of China present the main real threat to their country’s security. The Bush Administration has taken unprecedented measures to encircle China. The following factors are regarded as interconnected components of these measures: the plans of creating the National Missile Defense system (NMD) and the theater missile defense (including Taiwan) in Asia as well as Washington’s increasing military cooperation with Taipei; a stronger military alliance with Japan and encouragement of Tokyo’s more active military policy in the Pacific; bilateral and multilateral mechanisms of security consultations with certain Asian and Pacific countries; perpetuated American military presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia.
Naturally enough, Beijing is still suspicious of Japan and India, it is concerned with the developments on the Korean Peninsular, the explosive nature of the territorial issues in the South China Sea, the conflict between India and Pakistan, and continued instability in Afghanistan. However, no threat of armed clashes with China’s involvement emanates from the above countries and seats of tension. Washington is a different matter—its actions are undermining global stability, aggravating the situation around Taiwan, China’s main concern, and destroying the balance of forces in Central Asia.
The Chinese recognize that the nature of threats has changed in the new epoch and are prepared to work together with the world community to create antidotes to them. At the same time, they are convinced that peace and development are two major priorities of mankind and that their absence presents the main threat to international security. Beijing believes that this problem should be resolved through establishing a new and just international political and economic order. The main obstacle to this is obvious.
The Chinese foreign policy strategy has created a triune task that can be described as follows: to encourage China’s modernization, to complete the great cause of reuniting the Motherland, and to promote peace and development across the world. The Chinese analysts are convinced that the American hegemonic policies are the main obstacle on the road to realization of these tasks.
Today Beijing does not want confrontation with Washington because its economic advance toward prosperity and might depends, to a great extent, on its cooperation with the U.S. At the same time, Beijing is not prepared to be sitting on its hands. Having reassessed the threats and challenges to its security, Beijing is actively correcting its foreign policy and is taking more or less conspicuous countermeasures.
This refers, first and foremost, to the diplomatic efforts to mobilize potential allies. China is strengthening its strategic partnership with Russia, it has established good-neighborly relations with all immediate neighbors, preserved its partnership with Pakistan, is playing a more active and constructive role in Afghanistan’s postwar rehabilitation, increases its cooperation with the Central Asian states, maintains normal relations with Iran, increased its attention to Southeast Asia, initiated a free trade zone China-ASEAN by 2010, is very active in the East Asian Three and ASEAN + 3 format.
Second, China tries to neutralize possible enemies: it has improved relations with the United States, strengthened its contacts with the EU, stopped anti-NATO rhetoric, is making advances to Japan, supports an idea of a dialog and cooperation with Australia, and has agreed on more constructive relations with India.
The third foreign policy novelty is fresh approaches to some of the international problems. China has moved away from its former unqualified support for Pakistan in its conflict with India, took a more balanced position in relation to the Kashmir problem and calls on the sides to resolve it in a peaceful way. Beijing has become more active in the Middle East, it is showing more interests in the international efforts to settle the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Fourth, China willingly joins new multilateral dialogs and mechanisms of cooperation, it has discarded its old bias toward bilateral diplomacy. As distinct from the past, today Beijing is prepared to let its units take part in peacekeeping operations, develop operational cooperation in antiterrorist struggle, and take part in multilateral military exercises.
All this is increasing China’s prestige across the world, extends its field of maneuver, allows it to influence the course of events, including the situation in Central Asia. It seems that China pins its greatest hopes on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) set up in June 2001 by China, Russia, and the main regional countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan).
The New Epoch Should Be “Shanghai” in Spirit
The SCO offers an absolutely new experience to China: it is for the first time in its history that the country not only participates in setting up an international organization but is also one of its leaders. The PRC has an experience of U.N. membership in which it sits in the Security Council as one of the victors in World War II and one of the founding states. It should not be forgotten, however, that in 1945 it was a different China, the China of Kuomintang, and that the U.N. was set up for different purposes and with a different scope.
Beijing’s turn to multilateral forms of international cooperation, which it has been treating with caution throughout many decades, is significant. What is even more important is the fact that by initiating the SCO China positioned itself as a key regional power capable of shouldering responsibility for maintaining military-political stability, together with other countries, and promoting economic cooperation in Central Asia.
Expansion of Islamic extremism and destabilizing influence of the Afghan factor in the 1990s showed that the region needed a power capable of ensuring peace and security there. The CIS and the Collective Security Treaty could not do this, which attracted other volunteers—the U.S. and NATO. The OSCE also offered its services: in December 2001 the Conference on Enhancing Security and Stability in Central Asia was held in Bishkek. In this context China is more interested than others in setting up, as promptly as possible, a system of regional security with its own participation, or better still, under its leadership before new cataclysms happen there or before outside forces introduce such system from above. Obviously, the Chinese want neither of the variants. As soon as the antiterrorist operation unfolded in Afghanistan, China finally acknowledged Russia’s right to regard Central Asia as a zone of its interests. Today Russia is seen from Beijing as a natural partner and ally. In fact, China is unable and unwilling to guarantee peace in the region. For this reason the SCO is important as a structure without alternatives that will discuss and resolve regional security problems. This is a more serious task than technical cooperation within the antiterrorist struggle.
No matter how strange it looks, the Shanghai Organization started as mere agreements among five regional countries on sensitive military-political issues: in 1996 they signed an Agreement on Confidence-Building Measures in the Border Area and in 1997 an Agreement on Cutting Down Armaments and Armed Forces in the Border Area. Later, the disarmament issues developed into an independent trend of cooperation of the five neighboring countries. The idea of confidence-building measures proved fruitful and produced good results and a new term “the spirit of Shanghai” that describes the atmosphere of partnership based on trust.
The SCO ideology was a by-product of the natural development of relations between the two countries. Beijing prefers to seek its roots in the new conception of security it formulated in 1997: “mutual trust, mutual advantages, equality, and cooperation.” Mutual trust means that all ideological prejudices of the Cold War period and the position of strength policy should be abandoned. The mutual advantage principle presupposes that in the conditions of globalization all countries should respect the interests of security of others while universal security is attainable only through recognizing common interests. Equality presupposes equal participation of all countries in what the world community is doing irrespective of their sizes and might while hegemonism and interference with internal affairs of sovereign states should be discarded. The cooperation principle presupposes that all disputes are resolved through talks. This is what “the spirit of Shanghai” means.
The Soviet Union’s disintegration left a glaring political and economic gap in Central Asia. Nature abhors a vacuum, and Beijing started filling it in very quickly. At the same time, Beijing does not want to tread on Moscow toes: after all Russia tried to preserve the Central Asian CIS states in its orbit. What is more, within the frames of strategic partnership Russia can help China to “legalize” its presence in Central Asia, therefore the SCO can serve as a structure in which China and Russia can discuss their interests in the region and try to avoid tension between them.
Central Asia has felt the general trend toward economic regionalization: it got EurAsEC, the CAU, the Great Silk Road project is being developed. All this is a sure sign that the conditions for regional integration have long been created. China, an economic giant that is gaining strength, would like to play patron of business cooperation in Central Asia—the SCO is one of the best formats for this.
Finally, the SCO can be used to influence the Central Asian countries’ domestic and foreign policy and, in particular, their attitude to the Uighur separatism. China is actively pushing cooperation among the SCO members in the field of antiterrorist struggle within a regional structure toward practical steps. The Declaration of the SCO heads of state signed on 7 June, 2002 in St. Petersburg includes an important proposition on setting up a “mechanism of information exchange and finding common positions on foreign political issues of mutual interest within international organizations and forums, including the U.N.”8
The typically Chinese style evident in setting up the SCO offers a glimpse of the style of thinking of the political elite. Its approaches to this structure reveal, to a certain extent, the outlines of a multipolar world, the new conception of security, the new international political and economic order that looked a bit vague before. Today, the Chinese interpretation of these issues is much clearer: Beijing expects to play the first fiddle in decision making, to rebuff all encroachments on its sovereignty and territorial integrity both by terrorists and separatists and those who preach hegemonism, to cut short all steps that may threaten its security, to concentrate on economic cooperation and ignore the contacts in the field of human rights.
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To sum up. For the last twelve months the situation in Central Asia as seen from Beijing changed considerably. China can no longer carry on its traditional strategic course: “even if the situation in the East is tense, everything is calm in the West.” Its rear has become the second frontline, which forced China to seek new ways of ensuring its security and promoting its interests. One can expect more active foreign policy measures, and diplomatic steps very much different from Beijing’s foreign policy of the past. One thing is absolutely clear: China will continue to do its best to play an important role in Central Asian developments by opposing the increasing influence of “players” from other regions.
From the point of view of Russia the new balance of forces in Central Asia and the Chinese political line which is corrected to fit the changing realities offer obvious advantages. The most important of them is Beijing’s interest in close cooperation with Moscow on the bilateral basis and within the SOC, which will survive in the foreseeable future.
1 See: A. Khodzhaev, “Zakhvat Tsinskim Kitaem Dzhungarii i Vostochnogo Turkestana. Bor’ba protiv zavoevatelei,” Kitai i sosedi v novoe i noveishee vremia, ed. by S.L. Tikhvinskiy, Nauka Publishers, Moscow, 1982, pp. 153-202.
2 See: Iu.M. Galenovich, “Belye piatna” i “bolevye tochki” v istorii sovetsko-kitaiskikh otnoshenii, Vol. I, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, RAS, Moscow, 1992, pp. 108-147.
3 See: “True Nature of ‘East Turkistan’ Forces,” China Daily, 22 January, 2002.
4 See: I. Alibekov, “Violence in Kyrgyzstan Hints at Uighurs’ Woes,” EurasiaNet, 11 July, 2002.
5 See: “True Nature of ‘East Turkistan’ Forces.”
6 See: Yuan Jing-dong, “The War on Terrorism: China’s Opportunities and Dilemmas,” CNS, 25 September, 2001.
7 [www.fmprc.cn], 20 September, 2001.
8 Declaration of the Heads of State-member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [www.mid.ru].