Co-operation in Central Asia a test of Sino-Russian closeness

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 December, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2001, 12:00am

The expanding unity of Central Asia through the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation serves as a testing ground for whether or not China and Russia can work together in practice.

If Central Asia joins forces, it could lead to a more important global role for, and give more substance to, the Beijing-Moscow strategic partnership.

The earliest incarnation of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, the Shanghai Five - made up of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan - first met in Shanghai in 1996 to stabilise and, to some extent, demilitarise shared borders through mutual reduction of armed forces along 7,000km of frontiers.

As border tensions diminished, better co-ordination in combating religious fundamentalism, ethnic separatism and international terrorism rose to the top of the group's agenda. Uzbekistan joined the group this year.

China and Russia have emerged as the prime movers in seeking to protect a wide arc of Eurasian territory from the effects of terrorism from Afghanistan.

Such co-operation also spills over into other areas, like opposing US hegemony and countering US influence in Central Asia.

Bates Gill, director of the Centre for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the Shanghai Five was indicative of efforts elsewhere in the world to seek security-related mechanisms without the participation of the US. 'This will mark a new stage in the efforts of countries such as China and Russia to find ways to assert themselves more effectively in a world they see as dominated by the US,' Mr Gill said.

The Shanghai pact has achieved some impressive results in solving border issues and expanding economic co-operation. Neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, India, Iran, Mongolia and Turkmenistan have expressed interest in joining.

An expanded Shanghai Co-operation Organisation would draw Central Asia further into the Beijing-Moscow sphere of influence and could undermine US influence in the region.

The structure of the organisation, which only requires each state have its own co-ordinator, has barely begun to take shape. The members are working towards UN registration to boost the organisation's status. Once the body has been registered, the headquarters of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation will have the status of a regional group like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Members showed their apparent determination to turn the loosely organised forum into a quasi-pact addressing common political-military threats with an eye-catching move at their summit in June. The six presidents agreed, for the first time since the formation of the Shanghai Five, on their armed forces working together directly in combating the threat of Islamic radicals in Central Asia.

The collaboration will range from joint operations planning to military technical assistance. For the first time since the 1960s, the Chinese and Russian military will co-operate directly.

In another first, China agreed to participate in joint military exercises with fellow Shanghai pact members this autumn.

The deputy director of the Centre of Russian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Lu Nanquan, said the military agreements demonstrated an important change in China's perception about its security and a fundamental change of policy on multi-lateral organisations.

Together, the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation countries have a population of 1.5 billion, thousands of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons and combined conventional military forces of 3.6 million. Although their military co-operation is within the framework of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, it might eventually help China and Russia forge a military-political strategic alliance.

On bilateral co-operation, the leaders of China and Russia made another important move in July by signing a strategic treaty on friendship and co-operation, the first of its kind in 50 years, to strengthen ties and reaffirm support for the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty - giving a red light to US missile-defence plans.

The Sino-Russian treaty on neighbourly relations, friendship, and co-operation was signed not long after a successful test of the US anti-missile system. The treaty will commit Russia and China to refrain from hostile actions against one another and to consult in cases of threats to the security of either side - a section that a US analyst said would concern Washington.

Despite the fact that the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation is getting into shape under the spearhead of China and Russia, Professor Zhai Xiaoming, of the Nanjing People's Liberation Academy, said he doubted the group would push Sino-Russian ties much further. He said they had been trying to strengthen ties since the Qing dynasty.

'In the 50s, China and Russia again tried to forge military alliance but the two fell out over ideology. History has shown that the effect of Sino-Russia strategic ties did not work out well,' Professor Zhai said. 'I believe the relations Sino-Russian leaders now enjoy are already the best they've achieved. Dialogue between Russia and China is at its most cordial and optimistic in decades. The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation might not help much to push ties further.

'Russia is keen to integrate with the Western world, hoping it would help it to get back to the leading status it once enjoyed in Eastern Europe.'

Professor Zhai said the foundation to develop Russian-US ties was stronger than that of Sino-Russian ties. 'Russia needs the US for its technology and market, while China is a less attractive partner in these matters,' he said, adding China and Russia had yet to make a positive move to boost trade other than in weapons.

US President George W. Bush has tried to engage China and Russia to avoid being outmanoeuvred. Washington fears China and Russia, though not matching its strength in military and economic terms at this stage, might in the decades to come cause a profound shift to the international power matrix by curtailing US influence in Asia.