The recent comments of Chinese General Zhu Chenghu – in which he threatened the United States with nuclear attack over the issue of Taiwan – represent the most public manifestation of China’s growing belligerency on the world stage. The concerted effort on the part of the Chinese to establish their hegemony over the critical region of Central Asia has been comparably covert, but no less menacing. With America entering the area militarily following the September 11th attacks, these Chinese efforts have only intensified, giving rise to a new “Great Game.” Viewing American deployments as dangerous encroachments into their territorial periphery, the Chinese are determined to eject America from Central Asia. Their efforts represent a direct challenge to America and her regional allies, as well as a serious threat to America’s stated goal of encouraging democratic institutions in formerly authoritarian nations.
The most recent example of this broad strategy came on July 5th, when the Shanghai Cooperation Organization - a partnership of six nations including four Central Asian states as well as China and Russia - called for a “final deadline” for the withdrawal of American and allied forces involved in combat operations in Afghanistan. Such a declaration came as a shock to the anti-terror coalition, which relies on these bases for much of its in-theater firepower. Considering the vast amount of largesse and economic aid foisted upon the nations of Central Asia by the United States since 9-11, what could have prompted them to take such an ungrateful stance?
To answer this question, one has to take a close look at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Created largely at the behest of China in 2001, the SCO was designed to facilitate cooperation on fighting terrorism and separatism. However, the SCO soon expanded its docket and began to actively facilitate the rapidly growing Chinese influence throughout the region. The Chinese have energetically promoted and funded the SCO, seeking to structure it as an anti-American alliance totally reliant on their support. Once one understands the history of the SCO and the role China plays within it, the motive behind the July 5th deadline announcement becomes clear. The People’s Republic of China, as the main power behind the SCO, was undoubtedly the catalyst for the recent effort to challenge the presence of U.S. bases throughout the region. Such a hypothesis was supported recently by General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who charged China with “bullying” weaker Central Asian nations.
Being a member of the Chinese-led SCO has benefits that an American-sponsored alliance could never match; namely, a SCO member has few rules to follow other than loyalty to the alliance. Since every single SCO member nation (except for, only recently, Kyrgyzstan) in Central Asia is ruled by despots, the organization is a welcoming oasis for human rights abusers and corrupt dictators. The poster boy for this alliance of thuggery is Islam Karimov, the dictator of Uzbekistan, whose regime has been widely recognized as thoroughly corrupt and violently intolerant of any political dissent. The most recent display of this aggressive absolutism occurred on May 13, 2005, in the eastern city of Andijon, where Karimov’s forces gunned down hundreds of anti-regime protestors. Hiding behind his familiar cover of fighting Islamic terrorism, Karimov refused to allow foreign investigators or observers to visit the scene. The United States, worried about losing its military basing rights in Uzbekistan, failed to aggressively challenge the massacre at first, but did eventually push for an international investigation.
Luckily for Karimov, his Chinese friends in the SCO were more than happy to pat him on the back and justify the massacre. Less than two weeks after the Andijon slaughter, Karimov was welcomed with open arms in Beijing by Chinese President Hu Jintao. During his visit, the two heads of state signed the "China-Uzbek Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation," which would, in the laughably understated words of the Chinese foreign ministry, “strengthen Chinese-Uzbek relations.” The Chinese also applauded Karimov for his work in crushing dissent in Uzbekistan, “honoring” Uzbekistan for its recent “efforts to protect its national independence.” Karimov’s visit to Beijing was a sickening victory lap for anyone who cares about democracy in the region, but serves as a prime example of China’s ability to attract anti-democratic forces into their policy orbit.
This acceptance of regional strongmen has served to greatly expand China’s economic reach throughout Central Asia. Such influence is extremely important given the vast mineral and energy deposits found throughout the area, deposits which may rival those found in the Middle East. Fueled by its own growing energy dependency, China has expanded its own Central Asian holdings and operations dramatically. In May 2005, the Chinese agreed on a $600 million dollar deal with Uzbekneftegaz, the state oil monopoly of Uzbekistan, giving China almost exclusive access to that nation’s developing oil fields. In a similar vein, the Chinese have invested heavily in Kazakhstan’s energy holdings, funding the construction of a massive oil pipeline that will eventually extend from the enormous deposits in the Caspian Sea basin to Shanghai. Additionally, the region’s mineral wealth is of intense interest to the PRC, with the Chinese pouring $20 billion dollars into efforts to construct an extensive mining system throughout Kazakhstan.
The recent Chinese bid for ownership of Unocal is yet another example of this Chinese energy drive in Central Asia. While Unocal’s operations in the United States and the South Pacific have garnered the most attention, the company’s extensive pipeline holdings in Azerbaijan have gone relatively unnoticed. If the sale goes through, China would own a part of the critically important Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which is currently being expanded to handle 60,000 barrels of oil a day. These types of massive economic agreements bring with them considerable political influence, which China is more than happy to use against the United States. Increasingly, Central Asian leaders are taking their economic and political queues from China, whose leaders regularly transit the region developing extensive contacts among regional politicos.
This political conjoining has given rise to disturbing indications of substantial military cooperation and coordination between SCO member militaries and the Chinese armed forces. In 2004, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, usually a fairly insular organization, conducted joint exercises with the military of Kazakhstan. In the most provocative sign of this warming military relationship, SCO leaders Russia and China have agreed to hold joint large-scale military maneuvers later this year. These planned exercises are the culmination of a rapidly developing military relationship between China and Russia which, considering Russia currently maintains military bases throughout the Central Asian region, could aid future Chinese power projections in the future.
This growing Chinese power across a broad spectrum has had negative implications for the United States. The SCO under Chinese stewardship is increasing its opposition to the U.S. on issues far beyond the basing agreements, with recent actions taking on a decidedly anti-American and anti-democratic quality. This confrontational tenor started at the organization’s inception, as the SCO has consistently eschewed any consultation with the United States, denying it even customary observer rights. The SCO has frequently made statements promoting a uni-polar world, while warning against America’s supposedly destabilizing influence. In early July 2005, SCO leader nations, China and Russia, produced a joint declaration which, in a barely veiled swipe at the U.S., warned against the imposition of “models of social and political development from outside.” Other SCO members have quickly adopted this anti-American party line, with Islam Karimov declaring he wanted the U.S. out of his country and deposed Kyrgyzstan leader Askar Akayev blaming America for his overthrow. With such lockstep anti-Americanism becoming the SCO norm, it has become clear that the Chinese intend to use the organization as a counter to American influence rather than a forum for legitimate regional cooperation.
The SCO is a beneficial organization for all nations involved. The Central Asian members - all of which, save Kyrgyzstan, are authoritarian governments - use the group to coordinate their efforts to stifle political reform, efforts which often include violence and torture. Russia is able through the SCO to maintain control over its Central Asian interests, which it has always guarded zealously against perceived American encroachments. The largest beneficiary by far, however, is China. SCO allows them -through the inane niceties of “international law” and the benefits afforded to treaty organizations - to asymmetrically target American commercial and security interests. At the same time, their hold over immensely significant natural resources and strategic territory increases exponentially through the complicity of their allies. Rather than directly confronting America over Central Asia, China can combat it by convenient proxy.
All is not lost, however. Democracy, or at least a primitive form of it, is bubbling to the surface after a decade of widespread economic mismanagement and authoritarian rule. Recent events in Kyrgyzstan have shown other Central Asian dictators just how tenuous their grip on power actually is. Kazakhstan, for one, remains relatively open to the West and has displayed at least an initial willingness to cooperate with the United States on numerous matters relating to international relations and economic reform. The United States should take advantage of these overtures, as well as the democratic developments in Kyrgyzstan, and begin to develop its own Central Asian bulwark, one less dependent on the edicts handed down by the politburo in Beijing. As part of this overall effort, the U.S. should extend increased economic aide and military cooperation to both the governments of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. At the same time, we should look for ways to escape our relationship with the odious regime of Islam Karimov, as our presence has only served to strengthen his hand. The importance of these efforts should not be understated, as effectively ceding the strategically valuable region of Central Asia to the likes of Karimov and his Chinese allies at the SCO would be a disastrous turn of events.