The Duck of Minerva

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Sino-Russian Tensions and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

June 11, 2012

Alex Cooley — whose book on power-political competition in Central Asia is due out soon — had an interesting op-ed in Friday’s New York Times. He argues that the apparent success of the 12th Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit masks ongoing Sino-Russian tensions in the region:

Since the financial crisis, China has displaced Russia as Central Asia’s leading trading partner, and Beijing would welcome using the S.C.O. framework to further boost regional economic integration and investment. But both Russia and the Central Asian countries fear the political repercussions of Beijing’s growing economic weight. 

China’s pledge to provide a $10 billion loan under S.C.O. auspices for the development of regional infrastructure is actually a replay of a similar offer it made in 2009 to establish an S.C.O.-backed anti-crisis fund. Back then, Moscow refused to co-fund the loan and worked behind the scenes to block China’s disbursal of the funds, fearing that such lending would undermine its position in the region. Meanwhile, Moscow is also pushing its own Eurasian Union and trying to expand its own Customs Union into Central Asia. 

Similarly, Beijing’s pledge to offer 30,000 government scholarships and train 1,000 teachers for the Confucius centers sprouting up throughout Central Asia clearly undermines the soft-power monopoly that Russia traditionally has enjoyed. 

China’s recent achievements in the region’s energy sphere are also causing concern in Moscow. Since the opening of the China-Central Asia gas pipeline in December 2009, gas from Turkmenistan has started to flow eastward, away from the old Soviet-era network controlled by Russia. It will soon be joined by gas from Uzbekistan. A third pipeline to China is now being constructed, and an additional spur originating in Kazakhstan is also planned. 

Worse still for Moscow, Beijing is now using the cheaper prices it agreed upon with its new Central Asian suppliers as leverage in its pricing negotiations with Russia’s Gazprom for major new contracts. 

The issue of Afghanistan also reveals critical differences, despite the admission of Afghanistan as an S.C.O. observer. China has proposed enhancing the role of the S.C.O. during NATO’s drawdown from Afghanistan, but eschews any actual military involvement and is most interested in aiding reconstruction and the training of Afghans to safeguard its own multibillion dollar investments, including a $3.5 billion outlay in the Aynak copper mine in Logar province. 

Russia prefers to use the drawdown to expand the reach of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization in order to reestablish a presence on the Tajik-Afghan border and deepen its control over the Central Asian militaries, all under the mantra of regional counterterrorism and counternarcotic efforts. And S.C.O. member Uzbekistan adamantly resists increasing the roles of either the S.C.O. or the C.S.T.O., preferring its own plan for Afghanistan.

Finally, the thorny question of the S.C.O.’s membership expansion also divides the core members. No new member was admitted at the summit, and none is likely to be in the near future. Russia would prefer to expand the organization so as to dilute Beijing’s leading influence and is especially keen on supporting India’s membership bid. But China is wary of allowing a regional rival full-blown membership and so has devised an elaborate set of accession rules and technical criteria that it will use to stall on Delhi’s request.

These tensions are not voiced in public. Beijing will continue to underscore the S.C.O.’s positive regional role in building mutual trust, while Moscow will speak to the importance of the organization as a counter to Western hegemony in international politics.

Alex’s piece came out within days of a session at the Republic of China’s National Defense University (NDU) in which a presenter underscored at least twice Taipei’s belief that Sino-Russian security cooperation will likely continue for the indefinite future.

These propositions, as Alex’s op-ed makes clear, are not at all exclusive. Indeed, cooperation with Beijing may be Moscow’s only option insofar as it cannot defend its Far East — at least conventionally — even as fears mount concerning China’s ambitions in the region. So while geopolitical pressures, exacerbated by racial stereotypes and other factors, point toward intensifying Sino-Russian rivalry, it isn’t at all clear how Russia will manage intensifying competition. We may see “public alignment” conjoined with “private rivalry” for some time to come.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.