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Russia's Security Ties in Asia

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
Updated: August 28, 2008

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Amid growing international criticism for its military actions in Georgia, Russia is seeking support from some of its neighbors. At the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), on August 28, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev hailed "united" support from member countries China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. He called it a "serious signal" to the West (al-Jazeera). But the SCO countries, including China, expressed concern over recent tensions on the South Ossetian issue and struck a cautious note (FT) in their final statement. Meeting in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, the six members, along with observers Iran, Mongolia, India and Pakistan, discussed security, economics, and cultural cooperation (Xinhua)

Unlike the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the SCO is not a mutual defense pact. But political and military coordination is becoming a hallmark of the organization, writes J. Peter Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University. The SCO has held a number of joint military exercises, most recently in 2007 near Russia's Ural Mountains. In October last year, it signed a memorandum of understanding with the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance of several former Soviet states.

To date, the SCO's Afghan policy has been of special concern to Western strategists. The SCO formally seeks to promote Afghan political stability and economic development through its Afghanistan contact group. But under the aegis of SCO, China and Russia, suspicious of U.S. and NATO presence in the region, asked countries in the U.S.-led coalition to withdraw their forces from Central Asia in 2005. The Uzbek government moved to eject U.S. forces from Karshi-Khanabad base the same year. Central Asian countries give operational support for coalition forces in Afghanistan and provide humanitarian aid to northern Afghanistan. However, SCO membership has not stopped (PDF) Central Asian states from developing military cooperation with the United States and NATO, points out Oksana Antonenko, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. And Russia itself has made no move to ban NATO's use of Russian land for nonmilitary shipments to Afghanistan.

Still, some analysts see the SCO as a vehicle for Russia and China to curb U.S. access to the region's vast energy supplies. SCO's possible expansion, especially if it included Iran, would only add to Western suspicions against the alliance. Iran, an observer, has applied for permanent status. The Russian and Iranian presidents will be meeting (TehranTimes) on the sidelines of the summit. Robert Kagan, senior associate at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes in the New Republic: "Russia and China are promoting an international order that places a high value on national sovereignty and can protect autocratic governments from foreign interference."

However, Bobo Lo, director of the Russia and China programs at the London-based Centre for European Reform calls the alliance an "axis of convenience." Writing for openDemocracy, he argues that Russia and China have very different objectives in Central Asia. Russia, he says, wants to reassert its regional leadership there, while China seeks energy ties. Erica Marat, a research fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center writes that they also "envision relations with the West differently." Citing these differences, some experts say the SCO is unlikely to pose a significant threat to U.S. interests in Central Asia.

Recent moves by Russia may also accentuate these differences. China, facing separatist yearnings in Tibet and Xinjiang, is wary of Russia's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. So far, China has kept a low profile on the Russia-Georgia conflict, urging all sides to use negotiations and dialogue (VOA) to resolve the issue. China prefers a world in which major powers "don't touch each other's red lines," Xia Yishan of China's International Studies Institute, a Foreign Ministry think tank, told Newsweek.

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