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Russia, China, and the United States in Central Asia: Prospects for Great Power Competition and Cooperation in the Shadow of the Georgian Crisis

Authored by Dr. Elizabeth Wishnick. | February 2009

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(Caveat: The below excerpts from the study do not contain endnotes found in the full study)

Summary

This monograph explores the appearance and reality of a consolidation of anti-U.S. interests in Central Asia via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Sino-Russian partnership. The author asserts that while there is considerable suspicion of U.S. designs on Central Asia, divergent interests within the SCO, among Central Asian states, and especially between Russia and China, serve to limit any coordinated anti-U.S. activity.

The monograph takes a critical look at the SinoRussian partnership and points to differences on energy and economic integration in Central Asia, despite common interests in maintaining regime security and limiting U.S. influence in the region. A section on the implications of the Georgian crisis shows how this war highlighted the divergence in Russian and Chinese interests, while accentuating the vulnerability of the Central Asian states to Russian influence, and underlining the risks involved in U.S. energy projects in the region.

The monograph then addresses the policy implications for the United States of the shifting regional picture in Central Asia. Despite the fissures within the SCO and the competitive tendencies within the Sino-Russian partnership, the monograph asserts that United States will not have an easy time achieving its aims in Central Asia. American policy goals-- energy cooperation, regional security, and support for democracy and the rule of law--often conflict with one another. Declining assistance also leaves the United States with fewer effective policy instruments to recoup its declining influence among Central Asian publics, address underlying conditions which lead to regional instability, and press for accountable governments that have the capacity to address the growing range of transnational threats to the region. The author presents policy recommendations in a concluding section. She notes that, despite the general tendency to highlight the clashing interests among the great powers in Central Asia, the United States also faces many opportunities for multilateral cooperation due the increasing primacy of transnational threats.

Introduction.

The United States is facing an increasingly challenging strategic picture in Central Asia. The tensions in Russia-Georgia relations which had been building in 2008 erupted into a war in early August, involving disproportionate use of force by Russia in its intervention in Georgian territory allegedly to protect Russian and South Ossetian civilians from Georgian shelling. According to the terms of an agreement brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russia's forces pulled back from uncontested Georgian territory by October 10, 2008, but 7,600 Russian troops remain in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which Moscow recognized as independent on August 26.

The Georgian crisis has had far-reaching implications for U.S.-China-Russia relations in Central Asia. One obvious consequence was a ratcheting up of rhetoric by Russian and American policymakers, leading some observers to speculate about a new Cold War. Due to the integrated nature of the global economy, how- ever, Russia cannot afford to isolate itself, and the United States and the European Union (EU) need to work with Russia to address a range of important economic, political, and security issues. Once the Medvedev government complies with international agreements on Georgia, the resumption of dialogue with Russia will be all the more important for global security. Moreover, this monograph argues here that Russian actions in Georgia stemmed in part from a security dilemma that had been developing, according to which both the United States and Russia had been pursuing their security interests in a unilateral fashion, with little regard for the potential impact of their actions on the other state. To emerge from this situation and prevent miscommunication and miscalculation in future crises, greater consultation is needed on key security issues.

The Georgian crisis also has had a major impact on Sino-Russian relations. The Sino-Russian partnership reached a limit when Russia decided to recognize the two break-away regions. Because of China's own concerns with separatism in Xinjiang and Tibet, the Russian action evoked considerable concern in Beijing, and China reportedly stymied Russia's effort to gain the support of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on this issue. For their part, Central Asian states suddenly found themselves in an even more vulnerable position as Russian pressure for economic and political cooperation increased. The potential costs of what might be perceived in Moscow as unduly close relations to Washington became amply apparent in Russia's effort to destabilize the pro-Western government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Nonetheless, to maintain their own independence of action, Central Asian states have continued to seek cooperative relationships with a range of partners, including the United States.

Since 2005, the prospects for democratic change have been dimming, and Central Asian leaders have become increasingly suspicious of what they view as U.S. interference in their domestic affairs. Against a background of renewed concerns about regime security since the "color" revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, and in light of the 2005 protests in Andijan, the Uzbek regime requested that the United States close its base at Karshi Khanabad (known as K2). With the rise in the price of oil, Russian influence in the region and on energy flows has increased. Moreover, Russia has become more determined to restore its influence on its southern flank, partly to guarantee access to needed gas supplies for reexport to Europe and for its own domestic needs, but also to keep the United States at bay. As China's energy needs have grown and its policymakers have sought to develop its western provinces, China, too, has sought to expand its influence in Central Asia. All of this is occurring at a time when Al-Qaeda has become reinvigorated in Afghanistan, instability is deepening in Pakistan, a poor U.S. image pervades the Muslim world, and the United States faces challenges in its relations with Russia and China.

This monograph explores the appearance and reality of a consolidation of anti-U.S. interests in Central Asia via the SCO and the Sino-Russian partnership. It argues that while there is considerable suspicion of U.S. designs on Central Asia, divergent interests within the SCO, among Central Asian states, and especially between Russia and China serve to limit any coordinated anti-U.S. activity. While a confluence of factors has come together in recent years to limit the U.S. role in Central Asia, this is not the same as the development of a unified countercoalition. The monograph takes a critical look at the Sino-Russian partnership and points to differences on energy and economic integration in Central Asia, despite common interests in maintaining regime security and limiting U.S. influence in the region. A section on the implications of the Georgian crisis shows how this war highlighted the divergence in Russian and Chinese interests, while accentuating the vulnerability of the Central Asian states to Russian influence, and underlining the risks involved in U.S. energy projects in the region.

Despite the fissures within the SCO and the competitive tendencies within the Sino-Russian partnership, the United States will not have an easy time achieving its aims in Central Asia. American policy goals--energy cooperation, regional security, and support for democracy and the rule of law--often run at cross-purposes with one another and with U.S. policies towards Pakistan and India. Declining assistance also leaves the United States with fewer effective policy instruments to recoup its declining influence among Central Asian publics, address underlying conditions which lead to regional instability, and press for accountable governments that have the capacity to address the growing range of transnational threats to the region.

Despite the tendency to depict great power relations in Central Asia as essentially conflictual, the United States also faces many opportunities for multilateral cooperation due to the increasing primacy of such transnational threats. Given U.S. funding limitations, the Obama administration should attempt to coordinate with key allies, such as the EU and Japan, which also have significant policy initiatives in Central Asia and share many of the U.S. concerns. Moreover, the United States also should seek opportunities to engage both China and Russia on areas of common interest, such as achieving stability in Afghanistan, reducing narcotics and human trafficking, preventing proliferation, and encouraging energy conservation and efficiency in Central Asia. Finally, the United States should explore mechanisms to engage the SCO, either within the context of existing Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) initiatives, or through new efforts, such as an SCO plus three format, which could include the United States, Japan, and the EU on issues of common concern like Afghanistan or narcotics trafficking. The monograph develops these recommendations in a final section.

Conclusions: Prospects for Great Power Competition in Central Asia.

In assessing U.S.-Russia-China competition in Central Asia, this monograph has outlined a complex web of relationships in the region. An overview of changing U.S. Central Asia policy over the past 5 years reveals an effort to respond to changing developments on the ground, most recently the Georgian crisis, but also the "color" revolutions, the Andijan events in Uzbekistan and its subsequent decision to end U.S. basing rights at K2, Kazakhstan's economic rise, and leadership change in Turkmenistan. At the same time, the worsening security situation in Afghanistan and growing insecurity about energy supplies has heightened U.S. interest in security and economic cooperation in Central Asia. These concerns have further undermined the already inconsistent and marginally effective U.S. efforts to promote democratic change in the region.

In fact, U.S. policy goals are turning out to be mutually incompatible and counterproductive. The initial phase of U.S. involvement in Central Asia after 9/11 focused on anti-terrorism, highlighting a symptom rather than underlying domestic causes of regional insecurity, such as corrupt and unaccountable governments, and pervasive poverty.156 In recent years, the growing priority of energy in U.S. relations with Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states has created disincentives for further political reforms in these countries. According to a 2008 Freedom House report,

. . . energy needs are increasingly distorting relationships between democracies that consume hydrocarbons and the authoritarian states that produce them. Euro-Atlantic democracies have yet to agree on a common strategy that advances both energy-security needs and basic democratic values. Energy dependence is promoting an uncoordinated and short-term approach to relations with authoritarian governments, the hardening core of which is located in the non-Baltic former Soviet Union. These democratically unaccountable countries are moving farther from the Euro-Atlantic neighborhood and creating alliances and networks outside of the Western community. As energy wealth has emboldened authoritarian rulers, the Euro-Atlantic democracies have seemingly lost their resolve and sense of common purpose in advancing democratic practices.
Christopher Walker and Jeannette Goehring, Nations in Transit 2008: Petro-Authoritarianism and Eurasia’s New Divides

Freedom House points to a correlation between the rising price of oil in the past decade and declining indicators of democratic governance in major energy producers, such as Kazakhstan. This is because energy sector wealth strengthens the hand of authoritarian rulers in countries where accountability was already weak and exacerbates corruption and other rent-seeking behaviors at the expense of democratic governance.

Russia and China have been reacting to these same pressures on the ground as the United States. In response to the "color" revolutions, they achieved broad agreement on the priority of regime security and the need to limit the long-term military presence of the United States in Central Asia. These are also two key areas--defining the political path of Central Asian states and securing a strategic foothold in the region-- where the United States finds itself in competition with Russia and China.

Nonetheless, the Russia-China partnership should not be seen as an anti-U.S. bloc, nor should the SCO be viewed as entirely cohesive. Thus in assessing U.S.- Russia-China competition, it is important to note that the United States is not necessarily squaring off against Russia and China together. To the contrary, there are areas where Russia and China are in competition with one another, particularly in the economic realm, which provide opportunities for U.S. policies. Moreover, the lack of consensus between Beijing and Moscow over economic integration within the SCO has weakened the organization's cohesiveness, while leaving room for projects to integrate Central Asia economically with South Asia, East Asia, and Europe, as well as for other diplomatic initiatives to engage Central Asian states on transnational issues of common concern.

The tendency to view U.S.-Russia-China competition in the region with 19th century lenses, as some sort of "new great game" obscures the impact of globalization and the common interests the great powers share in addressing transnational problems. The United States, Russia, and China all have an interest in addressing narcotics trafficking, human trafficking, and illegal arms trade in the region. They also have a common stake in achieving stability in Afghanistan and routing Al-Qaeda from the region. To the extent that Russia, China, and the SCO as an organization share these goals, the United States will face opportunities to expand region-wide as well as for bilateral cooperation with Russia and China on transnational problems.

In the short term, Russia's intervention in Georgia has created new obstacles to Russian-American cooperation in Central Asia and elsewhere. The meeting on October 22, 2008, between Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Nikolai Makarov, Chief of the Russian General Staff, was a hopeful sign that the two countries are trying to work together to resolve pressing global problems. They discussed exactly those issues that are most promising for cooperation in Central Asia: NATO's relations with Russia, improving cooperation on counterterrorism, nonproliferation, and narcotics trafficking.

Competition to secure basing arrangements and energy contracts only benefits authoritarian regimes at the expense of enduring regional security. U.S. dialogue with Russia and China on security and energy in Central Asia would contribute to regional stability and help bring out areas of shared interest. With China in particular, a fellow energy importer, the United States shares many common interests in energy in Central Asia, particularly the diversification of supply routes away from frameworks monopolized by the Russian energy sector. Although available reserves in individual Central Asian states create competitive pressures for access to energy supplies, expanding Sino-American dialogue on energy security would create better understanding of each country's concerns and generate ideas for moderating demand.

Policy Recommendations.

First, the United States needs to develop a set of achievable and consistent policy goals for Central and South Asia. The U.S. diplomatic approach to Central Asia is premised on the elaboration of a broader regional strategy that seeks to integrate Central and South Asia. Despite the possible merit in seeking to view Central Asia within a South Asian context, both to support stability and reconstruction in Afghanistan and to encourage regional economic integration more broadly, the Bush administration did not develop a coherent strategy to this end.

Instead, the U.S. Government pursued a Pakistan policy, an India policy, and policies towards individual Central Asian states. Although some progress has been made in encouraging the development of regional transportation and electricity links in Central Asia, the United States cannot hope to succeed in viewing the region as an integrated whole if the countries concerned fail to have such a vision themselves. Moreover, as was noted in the first section of this monograph, the United States pursues different priorities in relations with the five Central Asian states.

U.S. policies towards Pakistan, India, and Central Asian states also often work at cross-purposes. For example, even as the priority of human rights concerns declined in U.S. policies towards Central Asian states since 9/11, in the case of Pakistan, U.S. support for the authoritarian government of its long-time ally, Pervez Musharraf, well after he lost the confidence of pro-democracy segments of the Pakistani population, undercut the entire premise of democratization as a U.S. policy goal for Central and South Asia. Similarly, the effort to encourage further U.S.-India cooperation through a separate U.S.-Indian agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation, despite India's unwillingness to accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, undermines U.S. nonproliferation efforts elsewhere in the region and outside.

Second, the United States needs to redress the imbalance in aid to Central Asian states. Although security assistance to the region is needed in support of U.S. and NATO Afghanistan missions, regional stability will not be achieved if greater efforts are not taken to address regional development needs and encourage accountable governance. The decline in Freedom Support funding is particularly short-sighted in this respect and more needs to be done to address poverty, encourage the development of civil society, and address social problems such as the environment and public health.

Third, the United States should work with its allies in the EU and Japan to coordinate assistance and avoid overlapping efforts. In July 2007 the EU announced its "Strategy for a New Partnership for Central Asia" and designated a Special Representative to the region, Pierre Morel. Although the EU provided $2 billion in aid (1.3 million euros) through the Technical Assistance Program to the Commonwealth of Independent States (TACIS) from 1991-2006, the new Central Asia strategy raises funding substantially to $1.17 billion (750 million euros) for 2007-13. The strategy involves a series of dialogues on key areas of concern such as human rights, the rule of law, education, trade, energy, transport, and the environment. Although regional cooperation will be encouraged, 70 percent of the funds for 2007-10 will support bilateral assistance projects.

Japan's interest in Central Asia grew out of former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto's Eurasian diplomacy initiative launched in 1997, which sought primarily to reinvigorate Japan's ties with Russia, while promoting dialogue and cooperation with Central Asia in a variety of areas. Since 2004, Japan has developed a "Central Asia plus Japan" dialogue to encourage regional economic integration and has provided bilateral aid through its "Silk Road Diplomacy." Although Japan has given out some $2.5 billion in humanitarian and economic aid to the Central Asian states since the 1990s, some Western observers believe that Japan's main interest is in expanding its influence in the energy sector, an area where investment is likely to be more effective than aid but where the risky investment climate creates significant entry barriers.

Despite some differences in emphasis, the United States, Japan, and the EU broadly share many of the same priorities and face many of the same tradeoffs, especially achieving progress in human rights while moving forward with energy diversification and counterterrorism projects. Regular efforts to coordinate initiatives on Central Asia would help promote more consistent and effective policies.

Fourth, the United States should engage China in dialogue on Central Asia, both to increase trust and to address common concerns, especially narcotics and human trafficking, proliferation of WMD, terrorism, and stability in Afghanistan. The United States has already been discussing Central Asia in subdialogue discussions at the assistant secretary level. Central Asia could be included in the context of other higher level meetings, such as the Senior U.S.-China Dialogue where regional stability issues often are raised, and also the Strategic Economic Dialogue where energy security already figures prominently on the agenda.

Although the United States and Russia have some competing energy and security interests in Central Asia, they have discussed related common concerns, for example, through the U.S.-Russia Working Group on Counter-Terrorism, the U.S.-Russia Energy Dialogue, and the NATO-Russia Council. Addressing shared interests, for example, in promoting energy efficiency and conservation in Central Asia, preventing loose nukes, and reducing narcotics and human trafficking in Central Asia could be addressed in the context of these bilateral meetings.

Before such dialogue can occur, the Obama administration needs to reevaluate its Russia policy and, once such a review is concluded, speak with one voice to and about Russia. Although the Russian invasion of Georgia brought back unpleasant memories of Cold War era confrontations, as Henry Kissinger and George Shultz reminded us, while the United States needs to express its concern about Moscow's actions, "isolating Russia is not a sustainable long-term policy." Despite many differences, President Obama will need to consider the areas where cooperation with Russia continues to be in American interests. Hasty retaliatory actions such as a commitment to membership action plan for Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO and the acceleration of missile defense deployments in Eastern Europe should be avoided until the Alliance fully thinks through its security interests and the best ways of achieving them.

Fifth, the United States should seek to engage the SCO to improve its understanding of the organization and encourage greater trust between its permanent members and the United States. While some have proposed establishing a relationship between NATO and the SCO, this would serve to equate the SCO with a military alliance, when its own members reject this characterization. A Japanese scholar has suggested a more promising approach which involves creating an SCO plus alpha format, which could include the United States, the EU, and Japan, perhaps to discuss issues of particular concern, such as Afghanistan, counterterrorism, or narcotics and human trafficking.

Another way for the United States to engage the SCO is through the OSCE, particularly in the event Kazakhstan assumes its leadership in 2010. The OSCE and the SCO already have a limited relationship, and the SCO has participated in a number of meetings on counterterrorism in recent years. Nonetheless, the OSCE and the SCO are at loggerheads over political issues, such as election monitoring, which Russia claims is biased. The Russian government has been seeking to dilute the role of the OSCE by creating a new Eurasian forum that would involve the SCO, the CSTO, NATO, the EU, and the CIS.168

Finally, the success of U.S. policies in Central Asia depends on long-term changes in other policy areas. A withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq without seeking permanent basing options in the country, for example, would add to the credibility of U.S. assertions that its military presence in Central Asia is linked to the security situation in Afghanistan. Similarly, a serious effort by the Obama administration to reduce the U.S. dependency on imported energy would enable the United States to be more consistent in its political and economic policies towards Central Asia.