Like the star gazers who last week watched the longest total solar eclipse of the 21st century, diplomatic observers had a field day watching the penumbra of big power politics involving the United States, Russia and China, which constitutes one of the crucial phenomena of 21st-century world politics.
It all began with United States Vice President Joseph Biden choosing a tour of Ukraine and Georgia on July 20-23 to rebuke the Kremlin publicly for its “19th-century notions of spheres of influence”. Biden’s tour of Russia’s troubled “near abroad” took place within a fortnight of US President Barack Obama’s landmark visit to Moscow to “reset” the US’s relations with Russia.
Clearly, Biden’s jaunt was choreographed as a forceful demonstration of the Barack Obama administration’s resolve to keep up the US’s strategic engagement of Eurasia — a rolling up of sleeves and gearing up for action after the exchange of customary pleasantries by Obama with his Kremlin counterpart Dmitry Medvedev. Plainly put, Biden’s stark message was that the Obama administration intends to robustly challenge Russia’s claim as the predominant power in the post-Soviet space.
Biden ruled out any “trade-offs” with the Kremlin or any form of “recognition” of Russia’s spheres of influence. He committed the Obama administration to supporting Ukraine’s status as an “integral part of Europe” and Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration. Furthermore, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Biden spoke of Russia’s own dim future in stark, existential terms.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov promptly responded in an interview with the Moscow-based Vesti news channel. He said, “I hope the administration of President Obama will proceed from the agreements reached in Moscow. We believe the attempts by some people from within the administration to pull all of us back into the past, the way that Vice President Joe Biden, a well-known politician, did it, are not normative.”
Return to Reaganism
Lavrov added, “Biden’s interview with the Wall Street Journal seemed to have been copied from the speeches by leading officials of the George W Bush administration.” However, it is difficult to be dismissive of Biden as an unauthentic voice. It was Biden who spoke of “resetting” the US’s relations with Russia. He did raise expectations in Moscow. And Obama’s visit to Moscow early in July has been widely interpreted as the formal commencement of the “reset” process.
Now it transpires that the “reset” might take the US’s policy towards Russia back to the 1980s and towards president Ronald Reagan’s triumphalist thesis that Russia could not be a match for the US, given its deeply flawed economic structure and demography and, therefore, the grater the pressure on the Russian economy, the more conciliatory Moscow would be towards US pressure.
As Stratfor, a US think-tank with links to the security establishment, summed up, the great game will be to “squeeze the Russians and let nature take its course”.
There is already some evidence of this coordinated Western approach toward Russia in the European Union’s “Eastern Partnership” project, unveiled in Prague in May, the geographical scope of which consists of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine, and which aims at drawing these post-Soviet states of “strategic importance” towards Brussels through a matrix of economic assistance, liberalized trade and investment and visa regimes that stop short of accession to the EU but effectively encourages them to loosen their ties with Russia. Indeed, the EU thrust has already begun eroding Russia’s close ties with Belarus and Armenia.
An immediate challenge lies ahead for Moscow as the parliamentary election results in Moldova have swept Europe’s last ruling communist party from power by pro-EU opposition parties. The US and the EU have kept up the pressure tactic of April’s abortive “Twitter revolution” in Moldova to force a regime change that puts an end to the leadership of President Vladimir Voronin, who has pro-Moscow leanings. The EU has made generous promises of economic integration to Moldova and Moscow made a counter-offer in June of a US$500 million loan.
However, in a stunning development, China entered the fray this month and signed an agreement to loan $1 billion to Moldova at a highly favorable 3% interest rate over 15 years with a five-year grace period on interest payments. The money will be channeled through Covec, China’s construction leviathan, as project exports in fields such as energy modernization, water systems, treatment plants, agriculture and high-tech industries.
Curiously, China has offered that it is prepared to “guarantee financing for all projects considered necessary and justified by the Moldovan side” over and above the $1 billion loan. In effect, Beijing has signaled its willingness to underwrite the entire Moldovan economy which has an estimated gross domestic product of $8 billion and a paltry budget of $1.5 billion.
The Chinese move is undoubtedly a geopolitical positioning. In an interesting tongue-in-cheek commentary recently, the People’s Daily noted that “under the [Barack] Obama administration, the meaning and use of ‘cyber diplomacy’ has changed significantly . . . US authorities . . . stirred up trouble for Iran through websites such as Twitter . . . [Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] said that this is the essence of smart power, adding that this change requires the US to broaden its concept of diplomacy”.
Moldova is a country where China has historically been an observer rather than a player. This is Beijing’s first leap across Central Asia to the frayed western edges of Eurasia. Why is Moldova becoming so terribly important? Beijing will have calculated the immense geopolitical significance of Moldova’s integration by the West. It would then be a matter of time before Moldova was inducted into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), before the Black Sea became a “NATO lake” and the alliance positioned itself in a virtually unassailable position to march into the Caucasus and right into Central Asia on China’s borders.
What we may never quite know is the extent of coordination between Moscow and Beijing. Both capitals have stressed lately of increased Sino-Russian coordination in foreign policy. The joint statement issued after the visit by the Chinese President Hu Jintao to Russia in June specifically expressed Beijing’s support for Moscow over the situation in the Caucasus. Clearly, a high degree of coordination is becoming visible across the entire post-Soviet space.
Islamists on the Silk Road
Thus, it is conceivable that Moscow would have sensitized Beijing about its intention to set up a second military base in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, which is located in close proximity to China’s Xinjiang, and is a principal transit route for Central Asian Islamist fighters based in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
There are definite signs of a revival of Islamist activities in Central Asia and the North Caucasus. China is carefully watching its fallout on Xinjiang. Though Western commentators take pains to characterize the renewed Islamist thrust into Central Asia as an outcome of the Pakistani military operations along the Pakistan-Afghan border areas which used to be sanctuaries for militant groups, the jury is still out. Chinese experts have pointed out that with the easing of cross-strait tensions in China’s equations with Taiwan, the scope for US meddling in China’s affairs has drastically reduced and this, in turn, has shifted US attention to China’s western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.
There is much strategic ambiguity as to what is precipitating the fresh upswing of Islamist activities in the broad swathe of land that constitutes the “soft underbelly” of Russia and China. Within 48 hours of the outbreak of violence in Xinjiang earlier this month, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi telephoned his Russian counterpart and Moscow issued a statement strongly supportive of Beijing.
On July 10, a similar statement by the secretary general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) followed, endorsing the steps taken by Beijing “within the framework of law” to bring “calm and restore normal life” in Xinjiang following clashes between ethnic Uyghurs and Han Chinese. The SCO statement reiterated the resolve to “further deepen practical cooperation in the filed of fighting against terrorism, separatism, extremism and transnational organized crime for the sake of [safeguarding] regional security and stability”.
Again, China has underscored that the regional security of Central Asia and South Asia is closely intertwined. Commenting on the SCO statement, the People’s Daily said it “demonstrated that the SCO member states understood well that the situation in Xinjiang bears closely on that of the entire surrounding region . . . Some Central Asian countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan also fell victim to these evil forces . . . The evil forces have also crossed the border to spread violence and terrorism by setting up training camps. Links have been discovered between these forces and the recent riot in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang. The fight against these evil forces will greatly benefit all Central and South Asian countries as evidence has shown that the ‘three evil forces’ are detrimental not only to Xinjiang but also to the whole region.”
Significantly, in another commentary, the People’s Daily launched a blistering attack on US policies in fanning unrest in Xinjiang. “To the Chinese people, it is nothing new that the US tacitly or openly fans the winds of resentment against China . . . the US indiscriminately embraces all those forces hostile to China . . . Perhaps, it is a customary practice for the US to adopt the double-standard when weighing its interests against others. Or, perhaps, it has some ulterior motive behind to ensure its supreme position will not be challenged or altered by splitting to weaken others . . . Since the end of the 1980s, the US has never moderated its intention to stoke so-called ‘China issues’ . . . This time, in their efforts to fan feuding between Han and Uighur Chinese by harboring and propping up separatist forces, the US is jumping out again to be the third party that would, for the secret hope, benefit from the tussle.”
There is no need, therefore, to second-guess that China supported the Russian initiative to call a quadrilateral regional security summit meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on Thursday, which was attended by the presidents of Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The Russian move poses a geopolitical challenge to the US, which has been monopolizing conflict-resolution in Afghanistan; keeping Russia out of the Hindu Kush; attempting to splinter the SCO-driven Sino-Russian convergence over regional security in Central Asia; stepping up diplomatic and political efforts to erode Russia’s ties with Central Asian states; and expanding its influence and presence in Pakistan and steadily brining that country into the fold of NATO’s partnership program.
The tempo of the regional security summit in Dushanbe was set by Tajik President Imomali Rakhmon when he told his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari at a meeting on Wednesday that he expected to work closely with Pakistan to prevent the rise of instability in Central Asia. “We do share similar and close positions on these issues and our countries should have taken coordinated actions aimed against this antagonistic phenomenon,” Rakhmon said.
Conceivably, China will also use its influence on Pakistan to nudge it in the direction of regional cooperation rather than passively subserve the US’s regional policies. Zardari‘s initial remarks at Dushanbe, though, have been non-committal. He blandly responded to Rakhmon, “We will stand together against the challenges of this century.”
Moscow tabled as an agenda item for the Dushanbe summit a proposal for regional cooperation that involves selling electricity from Tajikistan’s Sangtudinskaya hydroelectric power plant (in which Russia has invested $500 million and holds a controlling 75% equity) to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ironically, the idea was originally an American brainwave aimed at bolstering the US’s “Great Central Asia” strategy that hoped to draw the region out of the Russian and Chinese orbit of influence.
Russia Draws a Maginot Line
Equally, it is all but certain that while China is not a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Beijing will draw satisfaction that Moscow is building up the alliance’s presence in Central Asia as a counterweight to NATO. After the unrest in Xinjiang, Beijing has a direct interest in the Russian idea of creating an anti-terrorist center in Kyrgyzstan and advancing the CSTO’s rapid-reaction force (Collective Operational Reaction Forces) in Central Asia.
No doubt, the outcome of the CSTO summit meeting in the resort town of Cholpon-Ata in Kyrgyzstan this weekend will be keenly watched in Beijing. On the eve of this summit, an aide to the Russian president revealed in Moscow on Wednesday that an agreement had been reached in principle about the opening of a Russian base in Osh under the CSTO banner. A Kremlin source also told the Russian newspaper Gazeta that the summit meeting would discuss the situation in Afghanistan.
Viewed against this backdrop, the joint Russian-Chinese military exercises, dubbed “Peace Mission 2009”, held on July 22-26, cannot be regarded as a mere repetition of two such exercises held in 2005 and 2007. True, all three exercises have been held under the framework of the SCO, but this year’s has been in actuality a bilateral Russian-Chinese effort with other member states represented as “observers”.
Major General Qian Lihua of the Chinese Ministry of Defense claimed that the drills were of “profound significance” when the forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism are “rampant nowadays”. He said that apart from strengthening regional security and stability, the exercises also symbolized the “high-level strategic and mutual trust” between China and Russia and became a “powerful move” for the two countries to strengthen “pragmatic cooperation” in the field of defense.
Taking stock of the military-to-military cooperation between China and Russia, Qian said:
First, high-level exchanges have become frequent. It has become a routine for the two nations to arrange an exchange between defense ministers or chiefs of general staff at least once a year. Frequent exchanges between defense departments and high-level military visits have effectively driven the smooth development of bilateral military relations between China and Russia.
Second, strategic consultation has become a routine mechanism. Since 1997, the militaries of China and Russia established a mechanism to hold annual consultations between the two sides’ leadership at the level of deputy chief of the general staff. So far, 12 rounds of strategic consultation have been held, which has promoted mutual trust and friendly cooperation.
Third, exchanges between professional groups and teams have become pragmatic. The militaries of China and Russia have conducted pragmatic exchanges and cooperation in many forces and corps including communications, engineering and mapping.
Qian anticipated that with the Peace Mission 2009, the “strategic mutual trust and the pragmatic cooperation between the two militaries will enter a new stage”.
China’s concern is palpable in the face of the rise in militant Islamist activities in Central Asia. “The terrorists are quietly trying to take cover in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan . . . They’ve lived in Afghanistan for a long time,” as Tajik Interior Minister Abdurakhim Kakhkharov put it recently. The Rasht Valley in the Pamir Mountains where the terrorists are gathering is only “trekking distance” from the Afghan (and Chinese) border.
There are reports of famous Tajik Islamist commander Mullo Abdullo having returned from Afghanistan and Pakistan with his followers after nearly a decade and that he is trying to recruit militants in the Rasht Valley. From various accounts, militant elements from Russia’s North Caucasus, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang are linking up.
To quote the Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, “The Afghanistan situation is affecting not only Kyrgyzstan but Central Asia as a whole. People have come here to carry out acts of terror.” Bakiyev added ominously, “There are still forces out there that we do not know about, who are here and who are ready to indulge in illegal activities. They have one aim: to destabilize Central Asia.” Yet, NATO has pleaded helplessness in stopping the movement of the Taliban in the direction of the Tajik border.
Thus, the million-dollar question is whether the current unrest is a mere distant echo or is tantamount to a replay of the US efforts to fund and equip mujahideen fighters and to promote militant Islam as a geopolitical tool in Soviet Central Asia in the 1980s. That is why Biden’s remarks harking back to Reaganism will be taken very seriously in Moscow and Beijing — that the Russian economy is a wreck, Russia’s geography is ridden with a range of weaknesses that are withering, and the US should not underestimate its hand. China’s bold move in Moldova shows that it may have begun regarding the post-Soviet space as its own “near abroad”.
End of Chimerica?
The point is, there is a hefty economic angle to the maneuverings. The US’s Eurasia energy envoy Richard Morningstar bluntly admitted at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing two weeks ago that China’s success in gaining access to Caspian and Central Asia energy reserves threatened the US’s geopolitical interests.
Interestingly, the renewed spurt of unrest in Central Asia (including Xinjiang) — which Russian intelligence has been anticipating since end-2008 — is taking place along the route of the 7,000-kilometer gas pipeline from Turkmenistan via Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and leading to Xinjiang that is expected to be commissioned by year-end. No doubt, the pipeline signifies a historic turning point in the geopolitics of the entire region.
Well-known economic historian Niall Ferguson has compared “Chimerica” — the thesis that China and America have effectively fused to become a single economy — to “a marriage on the rocks”.
Ferguson anticipates, in the context of the Group of Two “strategic dialogue” between the US and China that took place in Washington this week, that a point will be reached when instead of continuing with the “unhappy marriage”, China may decide to “got it alone . . . to buy them global power in their own right”.
Factors influencing this are US saving rates soaring upwards and US imports from China significantly reducing; the Chinese feeling they have had enough of US government bonds, with the specter of the price of US Treasury bonds falling or the purchasing power of the dollar falling (or both) — either way China stands to lose.
Ferguson sees that China may have already begun doing this and its campaign to buy foreign assets (such as in Moldova), its tentative movement toward a consumer society, its growing embrace of the special drawing rights idea of a basket of currencies to replace the dollar — all these are signs of an impending “Chimerica divorce”. But what does it entail for world politics? Ferguson says:
Imagine a new Cold War but one in which the two superpowers are economically the same size, which was never true in the old Cold War because the USSR was always a lot poorer than the USA.
Or, if you prefer an older analogy, imagine a rerun of the Anglo-German antagonism of the early 1900s, with America in the role of Britain and China in the role of imperial Germany. This is a better analogy because it captures the fact that a high level of economic integration does not necessarily prevent the growth of strategic rivalry and ultimately conflict.
We are a long way from outright warfare, of course. These things build quite slowly. But the geopolitical tectonic plates are moving, and moving fast. The end of Chimerica is causing India and the United States to become more closely aligned. It’s creating an opportunity for Moscow to forge closer links to Beijing.
Surely, a major difference will be that while this month’s solar eclipse is not expected to be surpassed until June 2132, there are no such certainties in the shifty world of big-power politics, especially the tricky triangular relationship involving the US, Russia and China. But one thing is certain. Like in the case of the solar eclipse that was gazed at from all conceivable corners of the Earth, the shift in the geopolitical tectonic plates and the resultant realignment of the co-relation of forces across Eurasia will be watched with keen interest by countries as diverse as India and Brazil, Iran and North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba, Syria and Sudan.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey. This article was first published by Asia Times under the title “China Dips Its Toe in the Black Sea” on 1 August 2009; it is reproduced here for educational purposes.