US sidelined as Central Asia’s ‘Great Game’ intensifies

Benjamin Robertson – The South China Morning Post

Copyright – The South China Morning Post
BYLINE: The SCO is taking steps to tighten its grip on security and energy deals in the region, writes
A fresh salvo was fired this week in the ongoing “Great Game” of international power play when the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), a security alliance dominated by China and Russia, urged the US and its allies to set a timetable for troop withdrawal from Central Asian republics.
In a reference to a term coined in the 19th century to describe the heated rivalry between Russia and Britain as the two powers competed for influence among Central Asian rulers, analysts say that in the new game, the rules are the same and only the players are different.
“Central Asia is a chessboard for competing interests,” says Alexander Neill, head of the Asia Security Programme at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London. “It has huge energy resources and when you look at China’s multilateral engagement, the SCO is clearly something they’re concentrating on in order to compete with American interests in the region … it’s a game of energy strategy more than anything else.”
Formally created in Shanghai in June 2001 as a security forum to combat terrorism, the SCO’s member states include China and Russia, as well as the Central Asian republics of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Since 2001, it has evolved into an economic, energy and security forum. At this week’s meeting in Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana, Iran, Pakistan, India and Mongolia were permitted to attend with observer status, a possible sign of ambitious expansion plans for the organisation.
In a joint declaration, SCO members said: “We support and will support the international coalition, which is carrying out an anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan, and we have taken note of the progress made in the effort to stabilise the situation. As the active military phase in the anti-terror operation in Afghanistan is nearing completion, the SCO would like the coalition’s members to decide on the deadline for the use of the temporary infrastructure and for their military contingents’ presence in those countries.”
America and France have troops based in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Formerly part of the Soviet Union, Central Asia is seen by Russia and China as their backyard. Ruled by authoritarian leaders who are routinely criticised by human rights observers, the region is also home to extremist Islamic groups.
The comparatively recent American presence, in the form of oil money and troops – while initially welcomed by Central Asian states as part of the “war on terror” and a counterbalance to Russia’s own designs on its former provinces – now appears to be under threat.
After last year’s “orange revolution” in Georgia – when president elect Viktor Yanukovych was forced to step down in the face of popular protests and allegations of electoral fraud – and this year’s unrest in Kyrgyzstan, when president Askar Akaev fled the country to Russia, the suspicion is that America is trying to overthrow the area’s traditionally dictatorial and pro -Russian leaders.
Talking at the conference, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov suggested that outside forces were at work “to create instability and undermine the region economically in order to impose their own development model”.
After a massacre in eastern Uzbekistan in May this year, when government troops reportedly killed hundreds of protesting civilians, America and other western countries called for an independent inquiry.
Mr Karimov refused, and subsequently curbed America’s flying rights from its airbase near the capital of Tashkent. Enter China. Only a week after the massacre Mr Karimov was being feted in Beijing, his security policies supported, and a US$ 600 million oil and gas joint venture signed.
Critical of other countries when they raise issues such as human rights, Tibet or Taiwan – all issues Beijing says are internal affairs – China does not knowingly tie its trade deals to preconditions on political reform or human rights improvements.
In recent years China has been adept at filling the vacuum left by western companies either forbidden to, or unwilling to do business in countries that have become international pariahs. Those countries include Sudan, Zimbabwe, Nepal and Myanmar.
This week’s announcement by the SCO appears to be the next move in China’s game of chess. Taking advantage of a rise in anti-American sentiment among Central Asian leaders, China, along with Russia, is hoping to woo regional statesmen into signing firmer security and energy deals.
Behind this is not only China’s own strategic concerns in keeping Central Asia free of US troops – a concern that some speculate stems from the idea that America is trying to create a containment circle to control a rising China – but also from China’s insatiable energy needs.
Already consuming 5.5 millions barrels of oil a day, 30 per cent of which is imported, the US Energy Information Administration estimates China’s demand will rise to 11 million barrels a day by 2025.
Although the majority of imported oil is currently shipped on tanker, the ongoing construction of pipelines across China and into Central Asia may soon change this. “China definitely wants to secure resources now heading west, and divert them to head eastwards,” says Mr Neill.
In part, the success of this policy will depend on what the SCO can become. Greeted with some scepticism by western observers when it first began, the organisation has since mushroomed.
Having taken over the presidency this year, it seems likely that China will press to include the four nations granted observer status at this week’s conference. “They don’t want to give the impression that the SCO is a home -grown baby … the Chinese are playing a game to tidy up their international image and will try and create a major movement … though not necessarily at the expense of creating leverage against Asean or Apec,” says Mr Neill.
Chinese observers concur. “We see the SCO as a possible forum for ironing out differences in Asia,” says Mei Renyi, an expert on Sino-US relations at the Beijing Foreign Language University. “As long as it helps to bring peace and stability in the area, we would like to see the SCO continue. How it develops will depend on how the incorporation of observer nations develop.”
One thing is clear – America will not be invited to sit at this table.

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