Beef­ing up the Rus­sia-China con­nec­tion

Yet nei­ther side wants a great-game-style con­fronta­tion over spheres of in­flu­ence, be­cause Moscow and Bei­jing also plan to boost en­ergy co­op­er­a­tion.

The Pak Banker - - Editorial5 - Anna Nemtsova

Amer­ica's com­ing with­drawal from Afghanistan will leave a large power vac­uum in Cen­tral Asia-one that both Rus­sia and China are keen to fill. China has the over­whelm­ing eco­nomic clout, while Rus­sia has the long­stand­ing po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural ties to its for­mer em­pire. Yet nei­ther side wants a great-game-style con­fronta­tion over spheres of in­flu­ence, be­cause Moscow and Bei­jing also plan to boost en­ergy co­op­er­a­tion.

How, then, to con­sol­i­date and ex­pand Rus­sian in­flu­ence in its back­yard with­out of­fend­ing China? Rus­sia's se­cret weapon is Vik­tor Ivanov, a for­mer KGB col­league of Vladimir Putin's in Len­ingrad who re­mains a close friend of the Rus­sian prime min­is­ter. Ivanov's of­fi­cial job is head of Rus­sia's anti-drug agency. Un­of­fi­cially, he's Putin's en­voy to open a back chan­nel of se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion with China.

Late last month Ivanov toured Bei­jing and Urumqi, cap­i­tal of the ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim prov­ince of Xin­jiang ( once Chi­nese Turkestan) with a del­e­ga­tion of se­cu­rity of­fi­cials to talk about re­gion­wide anti­nar­cotics co­op­er­a­tion. But "the real rea­son I came to China is to ac­ti­vate the out­moded and rusty Shang­hai Co­op­er­a­tion Or­gan­i­sa­tion," Ivanov told Newsweek. The SCO, founded in 2001, brings to­gether China, Kaza­khstan, Kyr­gyzs­tan, Rus­sia, Ta­jik­istan, and Uzbek­istan in a loose se­cu­rity con­fed­er­a­tion that Rus­sia has been work­ing hard to build into a NATO-style al­liance. A re­vamped SCO would be able to have "a sig­nif­i­cant voice in the in­ter­na­tional arena, in the G8 and G20," says Ivanov.

The Chi­nese seem only too happy to agree. "The sooner the SCO be­comes the al­ter­na­tive to NATO forces in the re­gion, the bet­ter," says Wang Li­jiu, the se­nior Rus­sia re­searcher at the Chi­nese In­sti­tutes of Con­tem­po­rary In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions. "NATO had al­most 10 years to show some pos­i­tive re­sults. Now the SCO should step in." The two Asian giants seem to have rather dif­fer­ent ex­pec­ta­tions from the SCO, though. For China, the al­liance is a use­ful ve­hi­cle for damp­ing Amer­ica's "over­bear­ing strat­egy of en­cir­clement and suf­fo­ca­tion," as China's Academy of Mil­i­tary Sci­ence puts it. For Rus­sia, the or­gan­i­sa­tion is a way of hang­ing on to its po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence in Cen­tral Asia. The SCO is also the ba­sis of an al­ter­na­tive Asian power bloc-com­plete with its own emer­gency devel­op­ment bank, which has handed more than $10 bil­lion in emer­gency fund­ing to mem­bers' bank­ing sys­tems, as well as a joint rapid-re­ac­tion force. And Moscow hopes that the SCO will be a plat­form for in­flu­enc­ing Chi­nese strate­gic think­ing and shap­ing the re­gional se­cu­rity agenda. "We hope to put Rus­sia's ideas in China's mind," says Yuri Krup­nov, di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute of Re­gional Devel­op­ment and De­mog­ra­phy in Moscow.

Moscow's game is to iden­tify as many threats com­mon to Rus­sia and China as it can-and join forces to fight them, very con­sciously set­ting a pat­tern for wider fu­ture se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion. In Cen­tral Asia, they're start­ing with joint ac­tion on drug con­trol. Next, Ivanov sug­gests, "Rus­sia and China, by us­ing the drug is­sue, should put their ef­forts to­gether to sta­bilise the sit­u­a­tion in Pak­istan." To­gether, Ivanov be­lieves, Rus­sia and China can work to pre­vent "US mis­siles be­ing sta­tioned there."

That's big talk, re­veal­ing more about the scale of Rus­sia's am­bi­tions than its real in­flu­ence. But it's clear that Rus­sia wants to stay at the main ta­ble of Asia's de­ci­sion mak­ers, even as its eco­nomic clout is eclipsed by China's. Rus­sia's econ­omy may be a quar­ter that of China's ($1.2 tril­lion ver­sus $5 tril­lion), but Moscow is smart enough to re­alise that the rich­est pick­ings are to be found by mak­ing friends with the big beasts.

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