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The great Beijing-Moscow Central Asia game

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HONG KONG — Although most world attention during the August Russia-Georgia crisis was on the reactions of the United States and Europe, China’s response also made headlines. With China and Russia enjoying a strategic partnership, and sharing a distaste for U.S. “hegemony,” Chinese support for Russia’s action might have been expected.

But at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Russia and four Central Asian Republics) in August, China’s position on Moscow’s action in Georgia was cool. This was explained by pointing to China’s consistent opposition to secessionist movements, given its various problems with Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.

Another reason for China’s position likely lies in its long-standing nervousness over Russian intentions in Central Asia, including in Russia’s Far East, near China’s borders. In the 17th and 18th centuries — around the same time as the Qing dynasty was campaigning to extend its empire westward, largely defining the boundaries of today’s China in the process — the Russian empire was expanding east. The two met in various places, including around what is now the border between China’s northeast and Siberia, where in 1689 they signed a landmark border treaty.

Of course, history did not stop with the Qing. During his first trip to Moscow in late 1949, the first leader of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong, was, in the words of one historian, forced “to acquiesce in the existence north of the Xinjiang border of an independent Mongolian People’s Republic, which by definition was going to remain firmly under Russian influence,” a derogation from the territory controlled by Beijing at the height of Qing power.

Relations deteriorated following the Sino-Soviet split, leading to border clashes during the 1960s. It was only in July 2008 that the two countries reached full agreement on the demarcation of their 4,300 km border, though nationalists on both sides challenge their governments over both historical and recent concessions over borders.

A second important fillip of history came with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The potential problems over border management following independence of the Central Asian republics bordering China led to the 1996 establishment of the Shanghai Five grouping (China, Russia and the three former Soviet republics with which China shares common borders: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan).

The group gained momentum and formed the SCO in 2001, with Uzbekistan as a sixth founding member. In spite of the principle of equality, China plays a dominant role in the organization, which is based in Beijing. The SCO has focused on combating the common concerns of separatism, extremism and terrorism, with the latter given greater prominence in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Joint military exercises have broken new ground. China has since proposed consideration of a central Asian free-trade area. A soft agenda of opposing U.S. hegemony is also part of the group’s raison d’etre, and U.S. nervousness about the SCO reached a peak in 2006 when Iran was invited to become an observer.

From the Chinese perspective, the SCO is indicative of a turn to multilateralism in Chinese diplomacy since the mid-1990s, as well as a focus on ensuring security and stability in its immediate periphery to support economic growth and development, though scholars disagree on the extent to which they give China the benefit of the doubt in evaluating its intentions.

There is also a view that the long-term goal of Beijing is to turn Central Asia into China’s stable “strategic backyard,” with the suggestion that China moved to set up the SCO to fill the vacuum on the Eurasian continent following the Soviet Union’s demise.

There is also evidence of Russian concerns both over the balance within the SCO and that Russia’s resource-rich east is being left too close to a rising China. Part of this jockeying for strategic influence is the very practical issue of access to the region’s rich energy and other natural resources, and Russia has sponsored an alternative Central Asian organization that does not include China, the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

If one of the purposes of the SCO for Beijing is to enhance its strategic influence in Central Asia, then this implicitly encroaches on an area that Moscow has traditionally seen as within its sphere of influence. Shortly after the Georgian incident, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia should have a privileged sphere of influence in Asia, though it’s not clear where, nor what China’s response to that statement has been.

So any sign of a change in Russian policy toward its periphery not only could affect states on its European borders, but also could apply to its eastern periphery. The geopolitics are different: NATO does not impinge on Russia’s eastern borders, there is no evidence that Moscow is currently concerned with a military threat from China in the east, and it tolerated the post-9/11 U.S. presence in Central Asia.

China’s economic interests, its soft power diplomacy, and its posited long-term eyeing up of the strategic vacuum in central Asia left by the Soviet Union’s demise may in the future prompt some push-back from a Russian government that appears to be looking to grow back into its role as a major global power. China’s opposition to Russia’s action in Georgia should therefore be seen against this backdrop. Future tension in Central Asia may not be limited to the part that borders Europe.

Tim Summers, a former British diplomat, is a researcher at the Center for East Asian Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. © 2008 OpinionAsia