Shanghai bloc in struggle for power in Central Asia between US, Russia, China

Text of report by the website of heavyweight Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta on 18 June

[Article by political analyst Stanislav Pritchin: "SCO At Central Asian Crossroads. Political Demand For Region Is Rapidly Growing."]

Central Asia is once again becoming an arena where the struggle for influence of Russia, China and the US is developing. Several important events that have occurred in recent times rivet attention to the region. Among them is the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) Summit in Beijing, and the first foreign political tour of the newly elected President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, with stops in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Problems in American-Pakistani relations relegate a key role to the countries of the region in transport support of operations in Afghanistan, and exacerbation of the situation surrounding Iran forces their leadership to make a choice: Whom to support in case of the conflict that is coming to a head.

The summit of heads of states of SCO member states and observers, which took place on 6 and 7 June in Beijing, became one of the most notable events of early summer in world politics. The development of the international situation -Washington’s uncompromising position on missile defence, the Western countries’ speaking out in a united front against Syria and Iran, and stepped up US activity in the Pacific Ocean -created an entirely specific background for the negotiations within the scope of the SCO, and especially in Russian-Chinese dialogue. It is no secret that, for a long time, the SCO had been viewed in the world as a rather amorphous organization, without a global mission or specific practical agenda. This is partly true: The participants had very different goals for their presence in the organization, and their foreign policy tasks also rarely coincided. But this meeting of the heads of the organization’s member states and observers took on particular meaning in the international situation that is developing. With each passing year, the US and its NATO allies are acting ever more aggressively on the international arena, and are ever more often finding opportunities for solving their problems by bypassing the UN Security Council, contrary to the standards of international law. After the Arab Spring and the intervention of the Western countries in domestic political crises, especially in Libya, countries that implement an independent policy on the international arena have practically no hopes of retaining their sovereignty in the long-term perspective.

The Beijing Summit did not become a breakthrough event in the fate of that organization, but it did ratify 10 documents (a declaration and nine decisions of heads of the SCO states), which outline the challenges and risks to the organization’s participant countries, and the possible mechanisms for their resolution. Thus, the summit adopted a Declaration of Heads of Shanghai Cooperation Organization Member States on building a region of long-term peace and common prosperity. On one hand, this document stresses that the union within the scope of the SCO is not aimed against third countries, but at the same time presents a list of hot topics in international politics, which evoke concern on the part of the organization’s members. These include missile defence, and the desire for forceful resolutions surrounding Iran. One of the points of the declaration states: "In case a situation arises, which poses a threat to peace, stability and security of some SCO member state or the region as a whole, the member states, in accordance with the organization’s effective documents, shall take political-diplomatic measures for a timely and adequate response."

As the host, Beijing had expected to adopt a number of initiatives, which would have seriously increased China’s economic influence in the organization, and primarily in the countries of Central Asia. Thus, the PRC [People’s Republic of China] leadership had proposed to create an SCO development bank, with staff headquarters in Beijing. Also, supporting the Russian initiative to create a fund for financing various integration projects within the scope of the SCO, Chinese diplomats had proposed the opportunity of using these funds to help participant countries in case of budget problems. China had expected to allocate a contribution of 10bn dollars. However, the PRC is already one of the main creditors and investors for the countries of Central Asia, with Chinese investments in the region estimated at 25bn dollars. If it is approved, the creation of such a bank would have secured the role of main financier and creditor of the region for Beijing. One other PRC initiative was the creation of a free trade zone within the scope of the SCO, which fits into the global economic strategy of expanding sales markets for Chinese goods. This proposal was not supported by the partners, since both Russia and the Central Asian countries have apprehensions about China’s trade expansion. Especially since there is already a regional integration project being implemented on the post-Soviet area -the Eurasian Union, whose initiator is the Russian Federation.

For Russia, the countries of Central Asia remain one of the priorities in foreign policy. This is evidenced by the sequence of Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy meetings after his election as president. The Russian leader made one of his first visits on the way to the SCO Summit on 4 June to Tashkent, and on the way back he visited Astana.

Based on results of negotiations with his Uzbek counterpart, Islam Karimov, two documents were signed: A Declaration on enhancing strategic partnership between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Uzbekistan, and a Memorandum on mutual understanding between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Uzbekistan on continued joint measures for the Republic of Uzbekistan’s accession to the Treaty on the Free Trade Zone dated 18 October 2011. And the Russian LUKOIL company is planning to invest 5.5bn dollars into extraction of energy resources in the republic.

Negotiations with Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana were very productive. Several important bilateral documents were signed, including an agreement that allows citizens of the two countries to stay up to 30 days on each other’s territory without registration. Previously, this period had been limited to 5 days. This measure was expected and necessary to build a single economic area with unrestricted movement of not only goods and means, but also citizens. Based on the results of the visit, both presidents emphasized the strategic importance of relations between the two countries. The leaders of the countries outlined the goal for mutual trade: To increase the trade turnover from the current 25bn dollars to 40bn dollars a year in the next few years. As the Kazakhstani president announced, the launch of the second phase of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, with capacity of 67m tonnes of oil, is expected in the nearest months. This project creates conditions for bilateral cooperation in the energy sphere in the long-range perspective.

The US is also trying to increase its presence in the Central Asian region in order to retain its influence. The main elements of US foreign policy strategy in regard to the region were adopted in 2011. It consists of three major projects: Expansion of the northern network of deliveries, a New Silk Route, and a Central Asian anti-drug initiative. And at the beginning of June of this year, under conditions of tension in American-Pakistani relations, NATO concluded an agreement with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan on withdrawing military equipment from Afghanistan through the territory of Central Asia.

In recent times, there has been reason to presume that Iran also has long-term plans for development of relations with the countries of Central Asia. At the Beijing Summit, Mahmud Ahmadinezhad held bilateral negotiations with the presidents of Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, as well as with the leaders of China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Under conditions of stiffer economic sanctions, Iran is ever more often having problems in finding economic and political partners in the world. Under these conditions, the development of relations with Russia and the countries of Central Asia appears very promising and potentially advantageous to both sides. At the political level, Iran is striving to become a member of the SCO. "Iran is an observer in the SCO. And it is very interested in becoming a full-fledged member of that organization. In my opinion, Iran may become a member already in the nearest future. But under one condition: The countries of that organization must come to a common understanding of the interests that exist today. The SCO needs a strong Iran," the deputy director of the Pars Information Agency, Sayed Jebraili, told me in Tehran. Judging by all, Iran seriously intends to develop relations with its northeastern neighbours, and is undertaking practical steps to do so. At the beginning of May, it organized a scientific tour for experts, scientists and journalists from Russia and the countries of Central Asia. This trip marked the beginning of Iran’s work on opening its country to countries of the post-Soviet area.

In 20 years of independence, the countries of the Central Asian region have not been able to form regional mechanisms for ensuring security and resolving disputes and conflicts, nor to create working institutions for economic cooperation. All this reduces the independence and weight of each of the countries in the region on the international arena and creates all conditions for increased influence of outside players who are pursuing their own global goals. On one hand, competition of the leading powers gives the countries of Central Asia more opportunities for manoeuvre in making use of the differences between them. At the same time, the increased confrontation in the world between the leading countries ever more often leads to a situation where an individual country cannot remain aside, and must assume an unequivocal position. Therein lines one of the main risks of the multi-vector policy, which is so popular in Central Asia.

Source: Nezavisimaya Gazeta website, Moscow, in Russian 18 Jun 12

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