Russia and China May Compete Economically in Central Asia, But Not Militarily
Last week, Open Democracy Russia ran a very good series of articles on relations between Russia and China. One was especially interesting for EurasiaNet readers, about choices that the Central Asian states are having to make between integration with Russia or China. The piece concentrates on the economic sphere, in which, as the authors convincingly argue, integration with the two big superpowers is becoming mutually exclusive.
Of course, Russia and China also have their respective Central Asia integration schemes in the security sphere: China has the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and Russia the Collective Security Treaty Organization. So I asked one of the piece's authors, Raffaello Pantucci, an expert on Chinese-Central Asian relations, about whether there was going to be a similar reckoning in that sphere. Short answer: no. His more detailed thoughts:
The Bug Pit: Is there a similar looming choice to make for the Central Asian states, whether they prioritize ties with the SCO (dominated by China) or CSTO (dominated by Russia)?
Raffaello Pantucci: There is little similar looming choice with regards the SCO and the CSTO. In part this is since the SCO remains a relatively infant security entity, while the CSTO has the advantage of having lots of interoperable forces and equipment. Also, China has no interest in stirring up a security competition having a foreign and security policy that does its utmost to not seem threatening. Having said all of this, it is interesting to see how the SCO has developed as a security actor - it is maybe not as active as some initially thought it would be, but the Chinese are certainly taking advantage of the opportunities it offers to test out equipment and strategy. The ‘Peace Mission’ exercises they regularly undertake are ones that the Chinese are increasingly playing an active role in directing.
TBP: Why has the SCO not turned out to be as active a military organization as China seems to have originally expected?
RP: I’m not entirely sure that was always the focus from a Chinese perspective. The SCO was born out of the ‘Shanghai Five’ – a grouping that was established in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union to help delineate and demilitarize China’s borders with the newly former Soviet states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia. This grouping proved successful and it evolved into the SCO in 2001 with Uzbekistan’s accession. In its founding declaration, the members emphasize their ‘non-alignment, not targeting to the third country or region, and opening to the outside world.’ Instead, they focus on countering the domestic threat of three evils ‘terrorism, separatism and religious extremism’ – a very Chinese phrasing. Terrorism is quite a useful unifying rallying subject that all of these nations agree on, all of whom had (and for the most part have) active networks of some sort operating in their territory.
In fact, the Chinese have always seemed more interested in the economic aspects of the SCO, and analysts will say as much in conversation. Their emphasis has repeatedly been on developing the SCO as an economic actor, something they hope will help them strengthen their economic hand and links in the region. Looking at many of the recent economic moves and discussions within the organization – talk of an SCO FTA, an SCO Development Bank, the large loan vehicles through the organization – the impetus is all coming from Beijing.
TBP: Do you think that Central Asian governments would like the SCO to be more active? Is there any desire for China to balance Russia in the security sphere?
RP: When Alex and me were travelling in Kyrgyzstan, one of the more amusing stories we heard was that the roads the Chinese were building were being designed to carry the weight of a Chinese tank. This apocryphal story may be founded on little more than speculation, but it captures quite effectively a concern that bubbles barely beneath the surface in Central Asia. People in the small and under-populated Central Asian states are worried about being neighbours to the Chinese behemoth. Tracked out, it translates into little desire for China to step in as the main security guarantor. And in practice, the Chinese have not done much in direct security terms. Look back to the troubles in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and there was no evidence of China stepping in – it was rather Russia that ended up standing up as the regional supporter.
A final point to make is that China has little desire to become the main security guarantor in the region. It cuts right against the national ethos of non-interference. Elsewhere around the world it has slowly found itself being dragged into such nettlesome security problems and it is still working out how to address them. Where possible, they would like to avoid this in Central Asia too.
TBP: What do Central Asian leaders expect from China and the SCO long-term? Will they eventually take a larger role in security?
RP: I don’t think the Central Asian leaders see the SCO as being on a trajectory towards a greater security role. The impression is that they see it as a useful way to engage more generally with China and manage Chinese regional goals. The fact that the other main regional security player Uzbekistan has been so hesitant to engage with the SCO as a security actor highlights the distance the Chinese still have to go to turn it into a regional security player that everyone will buy into.
The interesting long-term question is what exactly will the Chinese do if their economic interests are directly threatened by security problems. Will they simply write them off? Or rely on local actors to protect them? Or send their own forces in, either under a Chinese flag or the SCO? The answer at this point is unclear, and this is a question that Chinese policymakers are still struggling with.
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.