Russia, China on comradely terms
By M K Bhadrakumar
Asia Times Online
Westernism is giving way to Orientalism in Moscow's
outlook, if the past week's happenings are any guide. As
Russia's ties with the West deteriorate, an upswing in its
strategic partnership with China becomes almost inevitable.
The resumption of Russia-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty
Organization) dialogue has gone awry. And the nascent hopes
regarding a "reset of the button" of the Russian-American
relationship are belied. With Moscow under multiple
pressures from the West, two top Chinese officials have
arrived in the Russian capital to offer support -Defense
Minister Liang Guanglie and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.
Moscow angrily reacted to NATO's expulsion of two Russian
diplomats on Wednesday. In exceptionally strong language,
it called the NATO move a "crude provocation" and an
"outrageous action". The Foreign Ministry alleged that
certain "completely unscrupulous ... forces" in the West
were "hectically" creating pretexts for obstructing
Russia's dialogue with Europe.
The two diplomats to NATO headquarters in Brussels are the
Russian mission's senior adviser and political desk chief
Viktor Kochukov and mission attache and executive secretary
Vasily Chizhov. They were accused of espionage
"incompatible with the diplomatic status".
The Russian mission to NATO went a step further to allege
an attempt to "disrupt a reset in relations between Russia
and the US". In immediate terms, the scheduled Russia-NATO
foreign minister-level meeting on May 19 in Brussels
appears problematic. Hardliners have prevailed.
Unsurprisingly, Moscow has also ratcheted up its
condemnation of NATO's 27-day military exercise in Georgia,
due to start this coming Tuesday. President Dmitry Medvedev
called the exercises "an open provocation" and warned that
there could be "negative consequences for those who made
the decision to hold them". He accused the alliance of
encouraging Georgia's "re-militarization". Russia seems to
estimate a larger plot to corner it in the Caucasus.
In a pre-emptive move, Moscow on Thursday signed five-year
border defense agreements with Georgia's breakaway regions
of Abkhazia and South Ossetia whereby the two regions will
delegate their border security (including the maritime
frontiers) to Russian forces.
Rivalries over control of Caspian oil provide the backdrop
to these rapid developments involving Georgia. Conceivably,
the hardliners would exploit the spiraling tensions to
brand "revanchist" Russia at the summit meeting of the
European Union (EU) in Prague this coming Thursday, which
is expected to take a view on the two rival pipeline
projects that aim to transport Caspian and Central Asian
gas to Europe - South Stream, sponsored by Russia, and
Nabucco, supported by the US.
At the Prague summit, Europe's dependence on Russia for its
energy supplies will come under scrutiny. There is mounting
frustration among the proponents of Nabucco that Moscow is
steadily advancing South Stream. Yet, leading European
countries like Germany, France and Italy are at ease with
Russia. US attempts to stall South Stream have been of no
Last Tuesday, Russia's Gazprom and the Bulgarian gas
utility Bulgargaz initialed a cooperation agreement on a
feasibility study for South Stream. But the Bulgarian side
cannot formalize the South Stream agreement before the EU
summit meeting of May 7. Washington hopes that the
parliamentary elections in Bulgaria due in early July may
postpone the agreement. It will be a close call.
All these factors are at work in the current tensions
between NATO and Russia. But that isn't all. NATO, with
active US support, is once again making a determined effort
to pitch its tent in Central Asia. The latest Western
attempt to establish a NATO regional centre on terrorism in
Tajikistan comes on top of the US's agreement with
Tajikistan regarding a basing facility for NATO operations
in Afghanistan. The US has secured similar facilities in
Uzbekistan and negotiations are underway with Turkmenistan.
However, no matter the criticality of the Afghan situation,
the US is insisting that NATO should sidestep offers of
help from the Collective Security Treaty Organization
(CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In
effect, the US's containment strategy of the George W Bush
era still remains intact at the operational level in
Central Asia, no matter President Barack Obama's promise to
revamp US regional policy.
Chinese newspaper the People's Daily recently featured a
commentary broadly estimating that while Obama's diplomacy
was characterized by "soft power", that was merely
tactical, since "the US will not give up its dominant role
in world affairs ... Wrapping a big stick in a layer of
soft sponge or putting a carrot at the front and a big
stick at the back, the US has never given up its powerful
military force ... Diplomatic policy is also a kind of
political game. One of its fundamental principles is to
obtain the largest benefit at the least cost. The
adjustment of Obama's diplomatic policy notably predicates
a reduction of cost, without any change in their goal to
obtain the most benefits."
The commentary likely had Central Asia in mind. Both Russia
and China will take note that US regional policy cuts into
their core interests. Russia's state television, Rossiya,
showed a documentary last week accusing the US of using its
air base in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, for running intelligence
operations. Rossiya showed clippings of a windowless
two-storey building in the Manas base, which it said was
the hub of a major US radio-intelligence unit. (Manas is
close to China's missile sites in Xinjiang.) There are
signs that Moscow and Beijing will invest the SCO as a key
instrument to counter the US moves to expand NATO into the
Central Asian region. The SCO conducted war games in
Tajikistan recently, simulating an attack by al-Qaeda from
Afghanistan, in which terrorists seized a chemical factory
and took its workers hostage.
Medvedev has called for a stronger role for SCO in
stabilizing Afghanistan. Arguably, by prevailing on Bishkek
to evict the US from Manas, Moscow signaled that it was
reviewing the rules of the game in Central Asia. A cat and
mouse game is going on. Washington kept up an appearance
for weeks as if it was reconciled with the closure of
Manas, while Moscow (and Beijing) put on an air of
indifference. But now it transpires the Pentagon is seeking
a reversal of the decision by the Kyrgyz government. "We
are still engaged with the Kyrgyz ... They have given us
notification and they want to end the presence of the US
basing abilities in Kyrgyzstan, but the story is not over
there yet," a US official was quoted as saying.
On Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said, "I
think there's actually progress in dealing with the Kyrgyz
on Manas ... And I think we see reason for hope there, that
that can be worked out ... We hope we're getting closer."
On the other hand, Bishkek keeps affirming that its
decision is irrevocable. Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor
Chudinov insisted, "Not a single government official has
been authorized to hold such negotiations. No one. I have
no information about such negotiations."
At any rate, Russia plans to increase the number of
military aircraft at the Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan. "It
is in line with the situation in Central Asia and
Afghanistan," CSTO secretary general Nikolai Bordyuzha
said. There is also a concerted attempt on the part of
Moscow to rally the CSTO. Moscow will host a CSTO summit
meeting on June 14, which is expected to formalize the
creation of the alliance's new rapid reaction forces. To be
sure, Moscow is reasserting its role as the guarantor of
security for Central Asia.
But Moscow also regards the SCO as a forum within which it
has the unique opportunity to coordinate with China. While
receiving the SCO defense ministers who gathered in Moscow
this week, Medvedev said, "Overall, the region in which the
SCO operates is a complex one, and so we have to take into
account the reality that surrounds us, and the need for our
countries to jointly coordinate efforts on a wide range of
issues, including security and the defense capability of
our countries on a collective basis."
The defense ministers' meeting in Moscow on Wednesday saw a
strong affirmation by China on enhanced SCO cooperation to
confront regional challenges. In an oblique reference to
the US, Liang called for the eschewal of "antagonism,
clique politics and unilateralism" and underlined that the
SCO has a role to play in the entire Eurasian region.
Russia and China separately agreed on an intensified
program of bilateral military cooperation that includes as
many as 25 joint maneuvers in 2009 in a demonstration of
the strengthening of strategic ties.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also expressed
similar sentiments earlier in the week after his talks with
his visiting Chinese counterpart. Lavrov said Moscow and
Beijing favored the "comprehensive strengthening of the SCO
as a key factor of the promotion of stability and security
in the Central Asian region". Lavrov summed up that two
chief principles lie at the core of the "dynamically
evolving" Russian-Chinese strategic cooperation. One, the
two countries share a common perspective on the
contemporary world processes.
Two, the two countries will "always support each other on
concrete issues" that directly affect their national
interests. Carefully choosing his words, Lavrov added that
Russia and China agreed during consultations in Moscow that
"such comradely mutual assistance" is only going to be
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the
Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet
Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan,
Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.