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China and Russia's Great Game in Central Asia

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One of the main criticisms against Washington's attempt to sanction and otherwise punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for his aggressive actions in Ukraine is that this is driving Russia and China closer together in an anti-American axis. Such concerns are unfounded, first because the two are already close strategic partners, but more importantly, because neither really trusts the other...nor should they.

This is not to say that Sino-Russian cooperation has not been significant. Last year Russia's Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corporation signed a $400 billion contract to jointly build a gas pipeline. They further agreed to do their transactions in their own currencies, rather than the US dollar. Later that month, in a joint statement at the 4th Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building measures in Asia (CICA) - a reinvigorated Asia-Pacific security group in which the United States and Japan are only observers - the two leaders pledged to cement their strategic partnership. Both countries have regularly vetoed or significantly watered down US-sponsored UN resolutions regarding Syria and North Korea. Moreover, China has been noticeably quiet regarding Russia's intervention in Ukraine. And while Beijing is particularly sensitive to questions of sovereignty and territorial integrity - "non-interference" being one of its most sacred principles - and despite close defense ties with Ukraine, thus far, Beijing has refrained from publicly criticizing Moscow.

Fears of a Russia-China condominium are exaggerated, however. Beneath the surface, a creeping competition will erode the foundation of the partnership. The two countries may be enjoying a honeymoon but this is a marriage of convenience. No other place will provide more fertile ground for their geopolitical competition than their shared periphery, Central Asia, a.k.a Russia's "near abroad."

China's presence and influence in Central Asia - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan - have been increasing. The westward strategy articulated by Chinese President Xi Jinping in his "New Silk Road economic belt" highlights Central Asia's importance for Chinese economy and development. Central Asia is resource rich, and, because of its proximity to China offers a great opportunity for cheap, reliable energy imports. China has been investing billions of dollars in the energy sector which include a series of contracts with Kazakhstan worth $30 billion, 31 agreements of $15 billion value with Uzbekistan, and natural gas transactions with Turkmenistan in 2013, which reached about $16 billion. China has also provided loans and aid of $8 billion to Turkmenistan and is expected to provide at least $1 billion to Tajikistan. Last year, China upgraded relations with Kyrgyzstan to a strategic level. Perhaps more important, Beijing views Central Asian countries as important allies in the fight against Islamic extremists that foment ethnic unrest in China's west; Xinjiang is a sovereignty issue, and therefore a "core interest." Finally, as the US rebalances to East Asia, China seeks strategic space to the west.

If Ukraine is Russia's front yard, then Central Asia must be considered its back yard. Russia has longstanding historical, economic, and political ties to Central Asian governments. Moscow has sought to consolidate those relationships through regional integration initiatives such as the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Customs Union, and the Eurasian Economic Union. Moscow is especially keen to maintain control of Central Asian energy and resource exports to protect its own position in the market: Central Asia is a potential competitor to Russia's energy exports, the lifeblood of the Russian economy. Its ownership of the old Soviet pipeline network offers control over Central Asia energy exports. Russia is also able to enhance the quality of its own product by blending it with higher quality oil from Kazakhstan, while maintaining control over price and supply.

Thus far Russian and Chinese interests in the region have converged. Nontraditional security concerns such as Islamic extremism have brought the two countries together, leading to greater cooperation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) - but naming an organization encompassing the Central Asian states after a Chinese city must add salt to the wound. Deeper Chinese engagement in Central Asia makes competition inevitable. For Russia, the stakes are high.

As energy-rich Central Asian countries explore new supply routes, such as the China-Kazakhstan oil pipeline, Russia fears the loss of its leverage and the emergence of new competition. Lower profits from energy exports coupled with economic challenges and plunging currency would accelerate Russia's downward economic spiral.

Economically, Russia is still important for Central Asian countries and remittances from Central Asian workers in Russia sustain their economies. But increasing Chinese economic engagement offers Central Asian countries an opportunity to diversify their economic relations. China is now the largest trading partner of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan.  Its trade with the region reached $46 billion in 2012, almost double that of Russia. Facing an economically stronger China, Russia will have to use more resources to keep pace and keep Central Asia in its orbit. With economic stagnation and the likelihood of protracted uncertainty in its front yard, this may prove challenging for Moscow.

Multilateral mechanisms may not be able to mediate the competition. Beijing has been pushing for further regional economic integration through the SCO, but Russia has resisted any multilateral framework that is not under its leadership. China is also suspicious of organizations that it does not control.  It isn't clear that the SCO can reconcile and contain the pressures created by the two countries' competing visions of regional economic integration.

Nor will shared interests prevent competition. Many see arms trade as an example of a strong China-Russia axis. But while Russia sells thousands of weapons to China, it sells even more to India, China's strategic competitor. Russia refuses to sell China its most advanced weapons to protect its intellectual property and for fear that China's military could become too strong. Consequently, the arms trade has become a source of tension between the two countries and volume has decreased significantly in recent years. Perhaps Moscow remembers Lenin's prediction that "the Capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them."

Finally, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan could produce a vacuum in South Asia that could threaten stability in neighboring states.  Many of the fiercest elements of the Taliban are Central Asian fighters, who gained experience and established networks in Afghanistan.

Central Asian governments have already expressed concern about the return of these fighters to their home countries to continue jihad.  Seeking to stop the contagion, China and Russia will fill the vacuum both in South Asia - after all the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in the 1970s - and Central Asia. Expect greater competition over who will guarantee regional security, and therefore exert more influence in regional capitals.

The real problem is that wherever Russia turns it encounters China and vice-versa. In the Russian Far East, Moscow fears Beijing's encroachment, for example. Far from the capital and sparsely populated, the Russian Far East has absorbed increasing numbers of Chinese merchants, changing the demographic landscape in China's favor and prompting talk of long-term annexation, even if Beijing is yet to roll out a new map with more dashed lines to the north.

Central Asia is no less important than Ukraine. And there are Western limits to Putin's desire to rebuild Russian influence (read: NATO). The near abroad is likely to be next. Moscow is likely to become aggressive toward China if it starts losing its diplomatic grip on this region. Russian President Vladimir Putin has put growing emphasis on "defending Russian compatriots"; there is no reason to think Central Asia will be exempt from this "humanitarian" tendency in Russia's foreign policy. China is unlikely to accept a redefinition of Russian interests that comes at its expense.

In the end, geopolitical competition will prevail. China is beginning to reassert itself as a continental power, while Russia struggles to maintain its economic and political supremacy in Central Asia. Facing greater competition from the US in East Asia, Beijing is shifting attention westward to take advantage of what it perceives as a vacuum in Central Asia. Over the long term, it is highly unlikely that China will accept a geopolitical straightjacket. The 21st Century version of the Great Game is on.

Virginia Marantidou is a WSD-Handa fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. Ralph A. Cossa is president of Pacific Forum CSIS.

Image: The Kremlin. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Egypt: The "Coup Was Actually Liberal..."

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Over the last few years, Egypt has become an object lesson in how narrow interests, greed, and politics can quickly undo noble ideas and aspirations. The time since former President Hosni Mubarak’s departure has been a period of political cynicism, unprecedented violence, and economic dislocation. Yet for all the troubles bearing down on Egyptians, there are many who believe that the country’s trajectory is positive. This is not just elites grateful that the military intervention of July 2013 has restored the old—in their minds, natural—political order, but widespread optimism. Treat the polling with caution, but they demonstrate an overwhelming amount of support for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Friends in Cairo insist that “as much as 80 percent of the population” supports the new program and believe that Egypt’s new leader has set the country on a proper course. If that is the case, then why do Egyptians seem so furious?

Among the most angry is that group of people invariably described in Western accounts as “secular, liberal, and politically active.” There is no doubt that there are those who seem to benefit in some way (financial? political?) from their ostentatious anger while others have become deranged in their fury. For example, Tarek Heggy—a self-styled intellectual who once sought speaking engagements at Washington think tanks, universities, libraries, and other places that helped cultivate his image as a man of letters—recently wrote: “They [Americans] are ruthless and brutal criminals that [sic] deserve a 9th September, 2001 [sic] EVERY SINGLE DAY [caps original].” Heggy is, of course, one end of an extreme and few people ever took him seriously to begin with. There are also Egyptians who are anti-Muslim Brotherhood and anti-coup. Still, in between those people and Heggy, there is a significant number of Egyptians who were eloquent and tenacious advocates for progressive political change during the Mubarak era, but have now become among the most ardent defenders of the July 3 coup, supporters of the new old order under President Sisi, and enthusiasts for dismantling the Muslim Brotherhood, official excesses and all. How did this happen?

Let’s acknowledge that Western analysts—including this one—have been less interested in understanding why people might be anti-Mubarak but pro-Sisi than in dismissing them as faux liberals. We have all come to believe in the alleged axiom of Egyptian politics: Faced with a choice between democratically elected Islamists and the authoritarianism of the military, the liberals will choose the officers, revealing themselves to be not so liberal after all. That seems self-evident, but liberal supporters of the post-July 2013 political process argue that the coup and their support for it were actually quintessentially liberal. To them, the military’s intervention precluded Egypt’s slide into a new authoritarianism of a particular religious bent from which there could be no hope for the survival of liberalism. These folks also make the case that their (mostly Western) critics mistakenly fuse liberal principles and democracy, failing to recognize that democracy can bring about both its own demise as well as that of liberalism. Moreover, the first concern of many of those Egyptian intellectuals who opposed Mubarak but support Sisi is preserving and advancing liberal ideals, which is more important—for now—than the ballot box. It’s an interesting and informed argument, steeped as it is in John Locke. Yet the argument seems like a leap of faith. It is hard to imagine that as Egypt’s authorities go about re-engineering the political institutions of the state to ensure that something like the January 25 uprising never happens again that they are simultaneously creating an environment where liberalism can not only be sustained, but also thrive.

The “coup was actually liberal” line of reasoning is an intellectualization of something else I have heard from numerous contacts. Some months ago, I was Skyping with an Egyptian friend when we stumbled into a discussion of the contradictions of the pro-Sisi liberals. I asked her how one could be an eloquent defender of human rights for herself and others like her, but not for those who happen to have a different view of the world. In an honest, but also enigmatic moment, she declared, “Steven, you have no idea what the year under Morsi did to us. It affected us deeply.” I pressed her, but she could not fully articulate what she meant. Of course she was furious over Morsi’s arrogance, authoritarianism, and incompetence as well as the post-coup violence, which she blamed squarely on the Brotherhood. All of this was perfectly understandable, but there was clearly more going on inside her head that she was not ready to explain.

During the summer of 2013, Egyptians argued that the conflict going on within their society was over Egypt’s identity. Liberals and others claim that in supporting the coup they were protecting Egypt’s polyglot, tolerant, outward looking, and cosmopolitan culture (it does not matter that these things are not necessarily true, just that the people believe they were defending these alleged attributes). What seems lost in all the fury directed at the Brotherhood at the time and ever since is the very fact that the Brothers were crucial actors in forging Egypt’s identity over the better part of the last century. The Brothers were not the only influential voices in Egypt, of course. Liberals, nationalists, Copts, and Nasserists shaped Egypt, but there was also an undoubtedly important role for the Brothers. They were critical in framing the way in which many Egyptians thought about everything from religion, culture, and education to the way Egypt related to the region and the world. When Mubarak fell, the Brothers offered a vision of society that, if the parliamentary elections of 2011 and 2012 are any indication, resonated deeply with many Egyptians. This is not to excuse the authoritarianism of the Brotherhood and Morsi’s disastrous year in office, but whether pro-Sisi liberals like it or even know it, the Brotherhood has had a profound impact on the way many Egyptians interpret their reality.

It may very well be that people are rejecting what the Brothers have been offering them in the last 86 years, but no one should deny the significance of the Brotherhood in forging Egyptian identity in the twentieth century. The way in which the regime and its supporters have essentially declared that the Brothers are not authentically Egyptian is a politically motivated misconception and misinterpretation of modern Egypt. Yet what remains to be explained is how a group of people who loathed Mubarak and hated Morsi have come to revere Sisi whose record demonstrates as little respect for democracy and liberalism as his predecessors. I remain respectfully stumped.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s From the Potomac to the Euphrates blog here.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsEgypt

Hong Kong Protests: Tiananmen Square 2.0?

The Buzz

Hong Kong is not Beijing, 2014 is not 1989, and Civic Square is not Tiananmen Square. Still, the images of tens of thousands of Hong Kong Chinese demonstrating in the streets for democratic reform cannot help but bring back memories of a quarter century ago. Like the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations in Beijing, those in Hong Kong are spearheaded by extraordinarily passionate, articulate, and inspiring young leaders. Both movements include Chinese people from all walks of life. And both movements, while at heart represent a call for fuller democracy and more direct political participation, also engage issues of economic well-being and inequities within the system. Of course they are linked in other ways as well: had the 1989 Tiananmen protests turned out differently, there likely would be no need for the 2014 student boycott of their classes and more broadly based Occupy Central demonstrations in Hong Kong.

That the two sets of protests twenty-five years apart are not the same, of course, leaves open the hope that the demonstrations underway in Hong Kong will not result in the same violent suppression that befell those in Tiananmen. Hong Kong, unlike Beijing, has a strong recent history of large-scale peaceful demonstrations, and the protestors in Hong Kong include experienced politicians as well as passionate students and citizens. Students in Hong Kong have even received a degree of institutional support from at least one university, the University of Hong Kong, which stated in a letter that it “will be flexible and reasonable in understanding the actions of students and staff who wish to express their strongly held views.” Moreover, Hong Kong’s rule of law will likely afford greater protection to the demonstrators: in the midst of the protests, several student leaders were arrested and then released; in referring to one of them, a judge noted that seventeen-year-old Joshua Wong had already been held longer than was lawful and that there was insufficient cause to keep him further.

And yet the question remains: what are the next steps? While various groups within the larger protest movement in Hong Kong have slightly different lists of demands, the resignation of the unpopular Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and the ability to vote for at least one candidate for chief executive not preselected by Beijing top most people’s lists. Given these reasonably straight-forward demands, Beijing has a number of options. It can: enforce a harsh crackdown in Hong Kong in the hopes that brutally suppressing the protestors will stave off further reform demonstrations; confine the protests to a small area of Hong Kong and hope that they run their course: eventually the students will return to school and the occupy central protestors will return to work; remove Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, who has been a weak and unpopular leader from the outset as a stopgap; or establish a committee including representatives of various Hong Kong political actors to consider the next stage of suffrage, post-2017. (It could also, of course, decide to grant the protestors their biggest demand—an open slate of candidates determined by universal suffrage for the 2017 election—but this seems well outside the realm of possibility.)

None of the options is likely very attractive to the Chinese leadership. All come with not insignificant political and economic costs. No doubt, the government wishes that the Hong Kong activists would simply concede, perhaps following the advice of Tsinghua University Professor Daniel Bell, who suggests that Hong Kong political activists are doing more harm than good. He notes, “The Hong Kong special administrative region is the most important experiment in political reform. But the system assumes that the central government has the ultimate power to determine what works and what doesn’t. If that power is threatened, the experiment may be put to an end. Hong Kong political activists who, willingly or not, harm the relation with Beijing also harm the chance for Hong Kong-style political reform in mainland China.” Of course, Dr. Bell may want to consider that Beijing has already had fifteen years to witness the success of the Hong Kong political experiment and has done nothing to emulate it on the mainland. It hardly seems reasonable to ask the Hong Kong people to keep their interests at bay in the hopes that mainland leaders might suddenly come to appreciate the value of universal suffrage.

There is no easy solution—the best outcome for now might be to test the waters by replacing C.Y. Leung not with a lackey of Beijing or a democracy activist but with a politician such as Anson Chan or Christine Loh, who have impeccable political credentials, as well as strong managerial experience. The next three years could then be a test case for what a more independent-minded Hong Kong leader might mean for the island’s relations with the mainland and provide guidance for further revisions to Beijing’s current limited conception of universal suffrage.

Hong Kong is not Beijing, and here is hoping that Beijing knows that too.

Editor's Note:This piece first appeared on CFR’s Asia Unbound blog here.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsPolitics RegionsChina

President Abbas’ Speech to the UN: A Lost Opportunity

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Last week Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave a controversial speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

Reactions have been strong. The U.S. State Department said “President Abbas’ speech today included offensive characterizations that were deeply disappointing and which we reject. Such provocative statements are counterproductive and undermine efforts to create a positive atmosphere and restore trust between the parties.” The Palestinians replied by saying the American comments are “irresponsible, indecent and rejected.” What did Abbas say?

Some highlights:

Israel has chosen to make it a year of a new war of genocide perpetrated against the Palestinian people….the occupying Power has chosen to defy the entire world by launching its war on Gaza….the third war waged by the racist occupying State in five years against Gaza….This last war against Gaza was a series of absolute war crimes….In the name of Palestine and its people, I affirm here today: we will not forget and we will not forgive, and we will not allow war criminals to escape punishment….Israel refuses to end its occupation of the State of Palestine since 1967, but rather seeks its continuation and entrenchment, and rejects the Palestinian state and refuses to find a just solution to the plight of the Palestine refugees….Israel has confirmed during the negotiations that it rejects making peace with its victims, the Palestinian people….It is impossible, and I repeat – it is impossible – to return to the cycle of negotiations that failed to deal with the substance of the matter and the fundamental question.

In that speech, Abbas said not one word of criticism of Hamas, nor did he acknowledge what is obvious: that Hamas started this war by its ceaseless bombardment of Israel with mortars and rockets. Presumably he decided that Palestinian domestic politics required him to avoid that truth and blame Israel for the conflict. Nevertheless, he always pays a price when making assertions that his listeners in the General Assembly hall know are not accurate. The accusation of genocide is particularly vile when thrown at Israel. The word has a meaning, and it is obviously absurd to claim that Israel’s actions in the Gaza war last summer were aimed at killing every Palestinian or a very large number of them or at eliminating the Palestinian people.

As to the negotiations, it’s worth recalling what U.S. negotiator Martin Indyk has recently said. Here is one account:

“We gave it everything we had, and we got nowhere,” Indyk said, laying the blame “50-50″ between Netanyahu and Abbas. Negotiations officially ended in April when Abbas opted to press for statehood through the United Nations rather than continue, a move that Israel had long said would be a deal-breaker. In recounting a nearly yearlong series of negotiations, Indyk said that both sides identified the agreement gaps early on and that Netanyahu eventually moved into “the zone of a possible agreement” on such thorny issues as the status of territories, Jerusalem, and mutual recognition of Israel’s and Palestine’s rights to exist. But during Abbas’s visit to Washington in March, he effectively “checked out” from the talks and stopped responding to proposals from the Obama administration on how to close a deal, Indyk said.

Abbas “shut down,” Indyk stated. Indyk spreads the blame to the Israelis and Palestinians both, but that of course was not what Abbas was doing.

Every head of government or head of state who addresses the General Assembly presents his own case, not that of critics or opponents, but when the speeches lose touch with facts and reality they do more harm than good. So it is with Abbas’s words, which have been firmly denounced and rejected not only by the U.S. Government and the Israeli government but perhaps more significantly by the Israeli left as well. This kind of language by Abbas weakens Israel’s “peace camp,” but Abbas does not seem to care. He is playing to a different set of audiences, including the many governments in the United Nations that would not recognize a serious, truthful speech if smacked in the face with it.

Perhaps his main audience is at home, but I wonder how much good it does him, and his Fatah Party, to give Hamas a pass. It is true that Hamas’s popularity rose during and after the war, but that was predictable and the question is where it’s heading now. Hamas promised that this war, and the destruction and death it caused, would be compensated by new and vastly better conditions after the war. But soon it will be getting colder and rainy in Gaza as winter arrives. Will there be a reconstruction bonanza? Will Israel and Egypt open the passages? Will construction begin on a seaport, much less on an airport? And when Gazans see that the answer is no, where will Hamas’s popularity then be?

Abbas’s frustrations must be great, especially after he heard President Obama say very little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict other than to remark that it is simply not central. In his own address Obama said:

The situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure anyone of the illusion that this conflict is the main source of problems in the region; for far too long, it has been used in part as a way to distract people from problems at home.

A speech that merely expresses anger and frustration is unlikely to help Abbas personally, his party, the Palestinian Authority, or Palestinians more generally. It was a lost opportunity–or perhaps more accurately, another lost opportunity. Perhaps the best description is the via the words his own spokesman used in attacking what the United States said: the Abbas speech was “irresponsible, indecent and rejected.”

This piece first appeared on the CFR Blog "Pressure Points" here

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

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