Shanghai Forum: Superpower politics and Central Asian oil

Who said the Cold War was dead? It appears that what happened in late 1991 was a premature announcement of the death of the cold war that existed between the two superpower-led blocks – one led by the United States and the other by the Soviet Union. With the disintegration of the mighty Soviet Union, it was said that the bipolar international political system had become a unipolar one. But has it?

After the collapse of the Communist empire, country after country, which had belonged to Eastern Bloc during the Cold War era, scrambled to join the Western bloc, but not Russia, the successor state to the Soviet Union. In spite of its economic woes in the early days after the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia tried to deal with the United States as though it was still a superpower. But it was only a show. There were no real superpower features in Russia, except for its nuclear arms.

However, over the years, Russia gradually managed to become a power to be reckoned with, thanks to a sharp increase in the prices of oil and gas, its main exports. Russias incursion into South Ossetia in neighbouring Georgia last year – to evict Georgian troops from this Russian loyalist territory – was indeed a statement that asserted its regained superpower status.

As Russia was moving towards regaining its lost international power and stature, it cultivated close relations with China, its southeastern neighbour with which it shares a 4,590 km border. The two countries, during the second half of the cold war period, had been bitter enemies, adopting different versions of the socialist ideology.

However, in the first half of the cold war era, the two communist giants had acted in unison. In fact, China owed its success in developing atomic weapons in1964 to the Soviet Union. In secret agreements signed in 1951 and 1957, China provided uranium ore to the Soviet Union in exchange for Soviet assistance in the nuclear field. The kind of relationship the two countries maintained with each other in the 1950s has returned to define the present-day China-Russia ties. The two countries are often united with regard to many an international issue. At the United Nations Security Council, they are often seen voting in tandem – be it the Darfur issue, the Sri Lankan case or the North Korean missile crisis. They have also sorted out almost all their border disputes in terms of a July 2001 agreement called the Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation.

The ties were further cemented by the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)05ep5c45gfou0445 or the Shanghai Forum, which held its summit meeting in the Russian Ural town of Yekaterinburg on Monday. The SCO is increasingly being seen by the United States and its Western allies as a grouping that is being developed to counterbalance the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a US-dominated western military alliance, which is now fighting the United States war in Afghanistan.

Ostensibly, the formation of the Shanghai Forum is the outcome of Russian and Chinese concerns over the rapid rise of political Islam in the Central Asian countries which were once part of the Soviet Union and now form what Russia considers to be its strategic backyard. Political Islam became a major headache not only for the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, but also for Russia and China. For Russia, the concern was the growing ties between the Chechen Islamic rebels and their Central Asian brothers while China was worried about the support the Uighur Muslim separatist rebels in its Xingjian province were receiving in the neighbouring Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries.

But the rise of political Islam was not the sole factor that went into the formation of the Shangahi Forum. Both Moscow and Beijing were unhappy over the newly independent Central Asian countries’ flirtation with the United States and the West. Four of the five Central Asian countries are rich in oil and natural gas. Needless to say, these countries attracted much Western attention immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Central Asian nations had one big disadvantage. They were landlocked. They depended on Russia for their external trade: This had been the case since they became Russian colonies in the 19th century.

The Soviet Union, during its 70 year existence, deliberately refrained from developing the Central Asian region, largely because of its reluctance to transfer technology to the local Muslim populace. The development activities carried out in the region and factories that were set up there were largely handled by the Russians settled in the area. When they received independence, the Central Asian nations were totally lost. They simply did not know how to govern a nation or run an economy. They began to turn to the West and the International Monetary Fund. Initially, Russia turned a blind eye to these overtures to the West, because it was itself embroiled in a major economic crisis in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But Russia soon realized the danger and applied pressure on the Central Asian countries forcing them to align themselves with Moscow. Russia was also opposed to the setting up of new pipelines that would carry Central Asian oil and natural gas to hot water ports in Pakistan or to the existing pipeline networks in Turkey. Russia wants the Central Asian countries to send their oil via its pipelines in the Caucuses around the Caspian Sea area.  The result of these apprehensions was the formation of the Shanghai Five grouping which brought together Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in April 1997. The grouping came to be known as the Shanghai Six after Uzbekistan, the most pro-US of all the Central Asian countries, joined it in June 2001. Besides economic cooperation, the group’s main goal is combating extremism, separatism and terrorism – a goal that makes it a sort of military alliance.

The Shanghai Forum extended observer status to India, Pakistan, Mongolia and Iran. At this week’s summit, it brought in Sri Lanka as a dialogue partner. But when the United States sought observer status in 2005, the request was turned down, prompting the West to see the grouping as an anti-West security alliance.

However, the 9/11 attacks offered another opportunity for the United States to make inroads into the Central Asian region. The United States set up bases in Uzbekistan and improved military cooperation with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as part of a campaign aimed at neutralizing the threat posed by al-Qaeda. But last year, Uzbekistan, apparently under Russian pressure, asked the United States to dismantle its bases and leave the country.

The politics of the region reminds one of the Great Game Britain and Russia played in the late 19th century. While Russia moved southwards, Britain moved northwards and the two met their waterloo in Afghanistan. Unable to colonise this country, they agreed to make Afghanistan a buffer state. That was the Great Game played then. The present day Great Game is being played by the United States and Russia with China also coming in as a third player.  Chinas entry has,of course, irked Russia.  It all once again boils down to pipeline politics. Beijing is keen on building pipelines that would bring Central Asian oil to its northeastern territory, much as the United States wants to bring the same oil to the world market via a pipeline it intends to build through Afghanistan and Pakistan – while Russia wants to carry it through its own pipeline network.

The United States appears to be savouring the rift in Sino-Russian relation. It hopes the new Great Game will break or strain Beijing-Moscow relations. After all, it was not for nothing that US President Barack Obama called for the formation of a G-2, bringing the United States and China into a global alliance. Russia sees the proposed G-2 as a blow to its superpower image because the United States is treating China as an equal partner rather than Russia.

Superpower politics and oil are certainly a deadly mix for a big explosion in Central Asia.

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