Sunday, July 02, 2006


China will rule the 21st century, and everyone knows it.

From the Taipei Times :
Even with its limited military power, China has managed to create an illusion of being the world's alternative superpower. Take, for instance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is made up of China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Iran was invited to the latest SCO meeting as an observer, as was India, Pakistan and Mongolia. These countries might be candidates for full membership, which will make the SCO an even bigger affair, with China as the driving force. Russia, like China, is equally interested in keeping the US out of its geopolitical sphere.

The visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave the SCO meeting a special significance as a competing forum, as did his pronouncements. Asked about talks with Russia and China regarding new proposals to rein in its nuclear program, Ahmadinejad reportedly said, "On our peaceful nuclear program we have continued consultation with these countries and all of us are seeking a diplomatic, peaceful solution to this matter and all of us are trying to prevent the inquisitive tendencies of some powers."

This is an unmistakable reference to the US and its European partners, to draw an unfavorable comparison with China and Russia.

The SCO is not an Eastern version of NATO, although it doesn't hurt China to be seen as pioneering an alternative global forum. It is not NATO-like because its constituents, particularly the four Central Asian countries, are small developing nations with nothing much to contribute except their oil reserves. Their oil riches, though, make them key pawns in big power rivalry.

China and Russia regard the US presence in this area, by way of oil investments and military bases, as a potent threat to their security. Uzbekistan's decision to close a US military base on its soil, after being angered by US criticism of internal political repression, obviously pleased China and brought Beijing closer to its brutal regime.

China must hope other states will follow Uzbekistan's lead. Last year the SCO called on the US to leave its bases in Central Asia. So far that hasn't happened. This might remain the case unless the authoritarian regimes in these states perceive a threat to their existence from internal political upheavals that have US acquiescence and encouragement.

Although the US would like these regimes to be politically tolerant, Washington is unlikely to put itself at odds with them as they are also its allies in the war on terror. Besides, the alternative might be militant Islam because much of the unrest in these states is centered around political Islam.

At the same time, Central Asian members of the SCO are unlikely to put all their eggs in the basket that is Chinese/Russian tutelage. Their proximity to these two giants makes them vulnerable to Chinese and Russian machinations.

So although the SCO forum gives China and Russia an advantage over the US and the West in this region, the battle for supremacy has just begun.

The politically unstable nature of these countries, and the Central Asian region in general, is likely to make the power game even more complicated and dangerous.

Even though Russia is a central actor in this old, great power game, it is China that dramatizes its strategic significance. Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) described Sino-Russia relations as being at an"unprecedented high," with "an obvious strategic ingredient." Indeed, the SCO will soon be staging a large-scale joint military exercise in Russia.

The point is not whether the SCO will become a serious danger to US interests. The danger comes from China seeking to flex its political and economic muscles to create a larger than life image of an alternative power center. Indeed, even the so-called "strategic ingredient" of the China-Russia relationship lacks substantive foundation.

What brings them together, at the present time, is a shared fear of US incursions into their geopolitical sphere. Excluding this, they are great strategic rivals, historically and in recent times. Any rise in China's influence in the Central Asian states will not be to Russia's liking, since until recently, they were part of the Soviet Union.

At this point of time, though, it suits China to create the illusion of a grand China-Russia strategic equation as a counterweight to the US.

While China is dramatizing the SCO as an alternative forum, it is doing even better in the Asia-Pacific region. The inaugural meeting of the East Asia summit in Kuala Lumpur last December has given China a forum to further its political ambitions. With the US excluded from an emerging East Asia community, China will loom large in the new Asian political architecture.

The US is losing out to China politically. Commenting on the first East Asia summit, Jean-Claude Pomonti wrote in the Le Monde Diplomatique, "The road may be long, but China is set on tipping the regional balance of power back in its favor."