Russia risks Chinese goodwill

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 10/08/07):

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) – the fast developing six-country alliance led by China and Russia that is sometimes called central Asia’s answer to Nato – will raise its strategic profile another notch or two in coming days. But Vladimir Putin’s belligerent stance towards the US, Britain and the west is beginning to strain ties with fellow members whose main interest is survival, not confrontation.

Military exercises, dubbed Peace Mission 2007 and involving 6,500 troops and 80 aircraft from China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, began today in Chelyabinsk, in Russia’s Ural region. For the SCO, initiated in 1996 to defuse Sino-Russian territorial disputes, the war games mark its most ambitious attempt yet to build an integrated military security apparatus to complement expanding political and commercial collaboration.

«The drill shows that SCO cooperation over security has gone beyond the issues of regional disarmament and borders for it includes how to deal with non-traditional threats such as terrorists, secessionist forces and extreme religious groups,» China Daily said. But it should not be seen as a threat in the west or in Japan or Korea, said spokesman Sun Haiyang of the People’s Liberation Army. «China respects other countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity … Such exercises have never targeted a third country.»

The SCO’s annual heads of state summit, to be held in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, next week provides further indications of the organisation’s expansive ideas. The signing of a treaty of «long-term good neighbourliness, friendship and cooperation» will be one highlight. Disturbingly perhaps for Nato commanders in Kabul, SCO leaders say they will seek «a closer partnership with Afghanistan in the framework of the SCO-Afghanistan contact group». Nearly 20 years after it retreated, Russia seems intent on returning to Afghanistan.

The Bishkek summit will also be attended by representatives of Iran, Pakistan, and Mongolia, which have applied to join the SCO, and India. Ednan Karabayev, the Kyrgyz foreign minister, said this showed how important the organisation was becoming. «Nowadays the SCO has already become an influential new-type international organisation, which is based upon new values and goals. The SCO is destined to play a vital role in ensuring international security.»

According to the independent Power & Interest News Report, the SCO’s increasing geostrategic clout rests on the converging interests of its two leading members. «The overall aim of the alliance for Beijing and Moscow is curbing Washington’s influence in central Asia in order to establish a joint sphere of influence there,» PINR said.

China wanted security, resources and markets, it said; Russia wanted to regain sway in its post-Soviet «near abroad»; and in the wake of the 2004-5 «colour revolutions» in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, central Asia regimes that relied on «authoritarian, clan-based and crony systems» simply wanted protection from corrosive western ideas of democracy, human rights and free markets.

All shared a desire to suppress Islamist extremism and separatism in whatever form, be it Chechnya, Tibet or Taiwan, and hold on to power. This agenda has led one regional expert, David Wall of Chatham House, to describe the SCO as a «club for autocrats and dictators».

All the same, there are dictators and dictators – and Mr Putin’s numerous recent clashes with western countries, ranging from the missile defence row, the Litvinenko poisoning, opposition to US Black Sea military bases, and Kosovo’s thwarted independence to malfunctioning Estonian computers, mystery bombs in Georgia, and disputed sovereignty over the North Pole are making his partners nervous.

«As Moscow’s relations with the west deteriorate, the Kremlin is doing its best to seek allies and is building up the SCO to counter-balance Nato. In propaganda terms, Peace Mission 2007 will be used to the full,» said Pavel Felgenhauer in the Eurasia Daily Monitor. «But are the other SCO nations ready to line up against Nato?»

No one in the SCO, least of all China with next year’s Beijing Olympics and its trade and development goals potentially in the firing line, seriously wanted confrontation with the west, he argued. «Putin will most likely be left to huff and puff alone.»

Mr Putin’s testosterone-fuelled yah-boo politics, if continued by him or his successors, could yet have the very opposite result – a weakening of the Sino-Russian alliance he forged at the outset of his presidency and the stifling of the SCO. The time may be approaching when a smarter US administration than that led by George Bush takes a leaf from Richard Nixon – and plays the China card again.