Don't Worry, Russia: China's Not Starting A "Central Asian NATO"
In an apparent attempt to assuage Russian concerns, Chinese defense officials have clarified their intentions to create a military bloc along with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. They emphasize that it is not to be a "Central Asian NATO" and would "complement" the efforts of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which Russia is a member, rather than exclude Moscow.
The initiative in question was announced during a visit by General Fang Fenghui, the chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, during a visit to Kabul last month. Details have been scant, but the initiative was a surprising one given China's traditional deference to Russia in Central Asia security affairs. And Russian media have accused their Western counterparts of deliberately misconstruing the initiative in an effort to sow discord between the two giant neighbors.
"Western media outlets branded the suggestion as a 'Central Asian NATO' claiming to threaten Russia’s influence in the region," wrote the Russian state news agency Sputnik wrote.
In an attempt to clear up the misunderstanding, Sputnik had an interview in Beijing with unnamed Chinese defense ministry officials. "China consistently opposes the creation of military alliances, we will never participate in such alliances, so we cannot speak about any ‘Central Asian NATO,'" the officials were quoted as saying. They added that all four of the countries in question participate in some fashion in the SCO -- China and Tajikistan as members, Pakistan as a prospective member, and Afghanistan as an observer. "That is why we decided to create a quadripartite coordination mechanism for defense agencies, this mechanism would become an efficient complement to antiterrorism cooperation in the SCO."
Sputnik isn't the first Russian outlet to suggest that the Western media is engaged in skulduggery in its coverage of this proposal. "American publications about the 'displacement of Russia' from the region are a disinformation campaign aimed at breaking the cooperation between China and Russia in Central Asia," wrote another site, Nakanune.ru.
Who, precisely, is behind this diplomatic sabotage? Nakanune continued: "As it turned out, rumors about the supposed appearance of an alliance can be traced to a single article, published on a fairly strange site about Eurasia," they wrote, linking to The Bug Pit's post of March 21 about the Chinese announcement.
The Bug Pit is flattered by the attention, but readers will recall that it was not this blog which dubbed this Chinese initiative an "alliance," compared it to NATO, or claimed that it threatened Russian interests in Central Asia. It only reported that two prominent Russian analysts had made those arguments:
"There is a danger in this new alliance, along with Pakistan and Afghanistan China is including Tajikistan, which Russia has until recently considered part of its zone of influence," said Andrey Serenko, of the Russian think tank Center for the Study of Contemporary Afghanistan, in an interview with the newspaper Izvestiya. "Russia's involvement in Ukraine and the Middle East have resulted in us losing our position in Central Asia. It appears that in this 'Central Asian NATO' under the Chinese umbrella, Russia may be the odd one out."
"The attempt to create this sort of military alliance, were it to be realized, would de facto reject the antiterror component of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization," wrote Central Asia analyst Alexander Knyazev in a piece in the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "The existence of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in this case is completely being ignored. [Both groups are Central Asia-focused security organizations; China and Russia are both in the SCO; Russia leads the CSTO.]
The Bug Pit is simply the messenger here. But clearly this Chinese "mechanism" has hit a nerve in Moscow, a fact that also has been recognized in Beijing. "Some Russian scholars have defined the alliance proposal as a Central Asian NATO. Given concerns that China might challenge their regional or even global interests, some established powers do not want to see China play a bigger role in Central Asian security," wrote Xiao Bin, a research fellow at the Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in a piece in the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times.
"China proposed a four-nation alliance against terrorism based on its own commitment. All this shows that China eyes a bigger role in maintaining security in Central Asia," Xiao continued. "China wants to take part in international anti-terror cooperation in its own way. As China is entering the center of the world stage, it needs to find a way that suits its national interests and expand converging interests with its neighboring countries."
What's Russia's role in this? Sputnik's sources were noncommittal: "Addressing speculation of Russian exclusion from the mechanism, the officials named SCO-level cooperation as a backbone in comprehensive Russian-Chinese strategic partnership contributing to regional peace and stability."
In any case, The Bug Pit welcomes its new readers from Sputnik and Nakanune and hopes that, with further reading, they'll find that it's not such a strange site after all.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.