BACKGROUND: In every respect, America's war against terrorism has diminished China's power and standing in Central Asia. The Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO), the linchpin of its strategy to fight terrorism and separatism, has been discredited and shown to command no effective military resources or political support by the members. Although this organization had actually agreed to collective security resolutions that would have committed China to project its military power abroad in the case of an attack against its members, when the time came they turned to Washington. Indeed, September 11 showed the hollowness of China's policy to fight terrorism at home while trying to appease the Taliban through offers of trade. China's response to the attacks of September 11, where it demanded a veto over American actions, submission to the UN, the highest possible legal standard of proof that Al-Qaeda had indeed launched the attacks, and lackluster intelligence cooperation with Washington suggests that China cannot be considered a dependable opponent of terrorism. This Chinese approach seems to have registered with Russian President Vladimir Putin and may be one reason why he threw in with the United States and did not support China in September 2001. China has also shown that it cannot project military power abroad or forge a viable coalition to deal with regional security threats and now it openly expresses its anxieties that the U.S. position in Central Asia could become part of an overall American strategy of encirclement directed against it. Its quasi-alliance with Russia that manifested itself through the SCO and both parties' efforts to convert it into an ideological-political counterweight to the U.S.-based alliance system in Asia has also collapsed. Whereas the SCO routinely attacked missile defense and American interventionism abroad and urged that it be seen as the model for interstate relations in Asia, today it apparently is reverting to its original intention of being a confidence-building mechanism that can then promote interstate trade among its members.
IMPLICATIONS: China's strategic grand design lies in ruins. But even greater problems afflict Beijing's policies towards Central Asia. Its efforts to forge lasting energy relationships with Kazakhstan and to build major pipelines to its territory from Central Asia are proceeding with great difficulty and very slowly. Despite years of effort, China has little to show for its efforts in Central Asia. Similarly, its high-handed policies regarding water use in Central Asia and its unconcealed efforts to grab lands from weaker states like Kyrgyzstan under the guise of border rectification have led to large-scale public violence there and even the murder of a Chinese diplomat in Bishkek. Consequently, it is now clear that China does not enjoy much public support in Central Asia and is openly regarded as a hegemonic and threatening power there. At the same time it is widely reported that Chinese diplomats, officials, and analysts of international affairs are very upset with and disappointed by Russia's seeming capitulation to America's military presence throughout the CIS, and acquiescence in U.S. plans for a missile defense. Those two cardinal strategic points, along with the ideological-political attack on American policies of intervention, support for human rights, and defense of Taiwan were the key points that China hoped to exploit in order to cement a lasting partnership, if not alliance, with Russia. In all these respects, China's coordinated military-political-energy strategy vis-a-vis Central Asia has run aground leaving it with few options. Beijing is trying to reinflate the SCO so that it will be something more than a glorified INTERPOL for regional prosecution of defense against terrorists. But at the same time, it is trying to strengthen its relationship with individual states in Central Asia rather than through multilateral channels. Likewise China is retaining the tie to Russia and seeking to buy even more weapons since that connection is a source of leverage upon Moscow. That consideration, of course exists apart from the broader strategic Chinese need for Russian weapons, including submarines. Finally, and perhaps most dangerously, China's government has almost openly advocated an alliance with Iran against the United States. A key element in this approach to Iran is both governments' joint demand that U.S. forces get out of Central Asia as soon as possible. It also is quite possible that we may see renewed or increased weapons and technology proliferation from China to Iran as part of this new approach. In any event it hardly offers Beijing much leverage against Washington in Central Asia or elsewhere.
CONCLUSIONS: The implications of China's strategic defeat are many. First of all, it will force Beijing into an agonizing reappraisal of its relationships in Central Asia and with Russia as well as its ability to leverage Central Asia economically to develop its unsettled Xinjiang province. Second, it confirms the superiority of the American position in Central Asia and its ability to answer security challenges with real assets, not talk. Thus China must find an effective strategic reply to that American superiority. Third, China's search for Central Asian energy sources may end up being redirected to a considerable degree elsewhere, e.g. the new rapprochement with Nigeria. Fourth, there will be lasting public disaffection with Beijing, which will probably not be limited to Kyrgyzstan. Certainly that will make it harder for governments to meet Chinese demands, whatever they may be. Fifth, developments in Central Asia will undoubtedly play an important role in shaping China's emerging new approach to dealing with the United States, a relationship that increasingly does not seem to work out the way China expected it to or wants it to develop. Undoubtedly the next few months will prove most important for China as it strives to develop a new policy in Central Asia and integrate it with Beijing's broader strategic imperatives.
AUTHOR BIO: Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013. The views expressed in this article does not reflect the views of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Copyright 2001 The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. All rights reserved