Energy concerns drive China-Central Asia defence ties

Here’s the latest of my Central Asia series of Oxford Analytica briefs. This one is from late February.

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In shaping its relations with Central Asian states, Beijing has primarily focused on developing energy imports and forging economic ties in other areas. At the same time, China faces several security concerns emanating from the region, most importantly, Islamic radicalism and regional separatism. Beijing has been attempting to address these concerns via multilateral and bilateral cooperation with Central Asian states. The conflicts and tensions are likely to become more acute as NATO begins to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Impact

  • China’s desire to avoid alienating Russia has prompted it to de-emphasise military ties in favour of economic and trade relations.
  • Most Central Asian states prefer the focus on trade relations with China, although Uzbekistan has recently sought to increase military ties.
  • Chinese leaders favour multilateral initiatives, which countries in the region regard as less threatening than bilateral approaches.

Analysis

Although China has long sought to increase its influence in Central Asia, it has sought to do so largely through economic and trade relations, rather than in the security sphere. As a result, China’s military ties with Central Asian states are relatively limited. This is due to a combination of factors:

  •  Beijing is keen to avoid alienating Moscow, which continues to see itself as the primary guarantor of Central Asian security.
  • Central Asian leaders are concerned that China is already enjoying a disproportionate degree of influence in the region. This has led them to be extremely cautious in extending military cooperation.
  • China is reluctant to become the region’s main security guarantor, due to a combination of its long-standing policy of non-interference abroad, and more significant security challenges elsewhere, especially in its maritime region.

Multilateral initiatives

The primary mode of interaction between China and the Central Asian states in the security sphere revolves around multilateral initiatives organised through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). These are closely related to China’s desire to combat terrorism, separatism and extremism. As a result, most multilateral security activities in the region that involve China revolve around counter-terrorism.

Peace Mission exercises

The Peace Mission series of counter-terrorism exercises have been held since 2003. The most recent took place in Tajikistan in June 2012 and included participants from all of the SCO member states except Uzbekistan. This was the smallest of the eight exercises held to date, highlighting the lack of emphasis on the military component of regional cooperation within the SCO. Uzbekistan has consistently refused to participate in the SCO exercises. The Uzbek leadership’s fear of domination by external powers — Russia, in particular — has made it keen to avoid any possibility that potential conflicts among Central Asian states might be internationalised.

RATS

China has also established a regional organisation dedicated to fighting terrorism. The Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) of the SCO is dedicated to coordinating the anti-terrorist activities of member states, with a particular focus on radical Islamist organisations. RATS was established in 2004 and is headquartered in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan. In recent years, it has expanded its activities to include counter-narcotics coordination.

Bilateral cooperation

Kazakhstan is the most significant partner in China’s bilateral security activities in Central Asia. The two countries have had regular military exchanges since 1993 and have engaged in numerous, though mostly small-scale, military exercises since 2002. As with the multi-lateral activities, China’s military engagement with Kazakhstan focuses on non-traditional threats such as terrorism and drug trafficking. China provides a significant amount of military assistance to Kazakhstan, but it is limited almost entirely to non-lethal equipment.

Kyrgyzstan

China’s security relations with Kyrgyzstan are more limited and opaque. They are focused primarily on countering Uighur separatist networks. Beijing has also provided equipment to the Kyrgyzstani security forces, but as with Kazakhstan, this has been limited to non-lethal goods such as vehicles and computers.

Turkmenistan and Tajikistan

Security relations with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are not a priority for China. With Turkmenistan, the basis of the bilateral relationship is natural gas exports. Security assistance is provided by Beijing in order to ensure that pipelines and other energy infrastructure are protected. China’s interests in Tajikistan are also very limited due, in part, to the widespread hostility towards the Chinese in Tajikistan, which is largely driven by the success of a recent Chinese effort to renegotiate the border between the two countries.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan withdrew from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in June 2012, not long after President Islam Karimov had signed a strategic partnership agreement with China on the sidelines of an SCO summit. These circumstances, in conjunction with a prior visit to Tashkent by the chief of the Chinese General Staff, have led to speculations that Karimov decided to strengthen the security partnership with China at the expense of the traditionally strong ties with Russia’s military and security establishment. So far, China has not given any indications that it is eager to make this relationship deeper than its security relations with the other four Central Asian states.

Afghanistan concerns

Beijing is concerned with the potential spread of Islamic radicalism and political instability in Central Asia in the aftermath of NATO’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is particularly worried that instability in Central Asia would negatively affect its ability to import energy. The potential for the instability to spread to Xinjiang is an important secondary concern. Both of these threats may be realised if Afghanistan returned to a state of civil war or if the Taliban came back to power and began to export its ideology and methods of governance to Central Asia.

China will continue to tread cautiously, since the political reservations that limited its military involvement in Central Asia are equally relevant for Afghanistan. It will seek to ensure that its security initiatives in the region remain largely multilateral.

What next

China will continue to emphasise economic relations with Central Asia while soft-pedalling military ties, which will largely focus on the security of Chinese energy imports and continued stability in Xinjiang. Despite increased security concerns in the aftermath of the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, China will not attempt to become a regional security guarantor. It will leave that role primarily to Russia and focus instead on establishing its economic dominance in Central Asia.

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Great Powers vie for sway in Central Asia

Here’s an Oxford Analytica brief from early February on basing in Central Asia.

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As NATO and the United States prepare to withdraw the bulk of their military forces from Afghanistan in 2014, both regional powers and local actors in Central Asia are preparing for the aftermath. NATO countries have already negotiated short-term access to new and existing military bases in the region to facilitate the step-by-step withdrawal of their troops. At the same time, the United States and Russia are working out deals with local players to maintain their military presence in an effort to preserve regional security, as well as guarantee their long-term influence in Central Asia.

Impact

  • The Russian military presence in Kyrgyzstan is becoming more entrenched due to the recent changes in the legal status of its facilities.
  • US influence in Central Asia will decline after NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, as the region is not a US foreign policy priority.
  • Given its de facto economic dominance in Central Asia, China is cautious about stepping up its military involvement in regional affairs.

What next

The Western focus on Afghanistan will decline after the NATO operation is completed. The United States will seek to maintain a presence at the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan, but the number of personnel there will depend primarily on the supply needs of the US troops remaining in Afghanistan after 2014. Russia, on the other hand, will aim to solidify its position as the dominant regional security provider. Finally, China will continue to strengthen military ties with Central Asian states, though it will stop short of the potentially incendiary step of sending its forces to the region.

Analysis

Over the past few months, discussions of post-2014 military bases in Central Asia have resurfaced. Although Moscow and Washington remain the key contenders in their efforts to ensure continued military access to the region, several other countries involved in NATO operations in Afghanistan have sought to secure access to the bases as they are beginning to plan troop withdrawals. For example:

  • Germany wants to maintain its lease on the base in Termez, Uzbekistan; and
  • France recently signed an agreement with Kazakhstan to develop a military transit hub in Shymkent.

Both countries are almost certainly going to pull out of these bases once the withdrawal of their troops is complete. Russia and the United States, on the other hand, will likely stay for the longer term.

US-Russian Manas rivalry

The Manas transit centre in Kyrgyzstan served as the key link in the US effort to bring equipment and troops to Afghanistan. It is poised to play a similar role during the US withdrawal from the region. At the same time, there is a great deal of competition for access to Manas after 2014.

United States

Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev sees the base as a regional airport. The United States appears to support Atambayev’s plan and has already submitted a proposal to transform the facility into a civilian aviation hub. This may prove beneficial in future negotiations with Kyrgyzstan should Washington decide to retain some local military presence. The mid-January visit to Bishkek by the US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake was widely perceived as the first step toward bilateral discussions on the future of the Manas Transit Centre.

Russia

Moscow is also keen to provide assistance for Manas redevelopment as it seeks to ensure base access while, at the same time, hoping to prevent the United States from remaining in the country. A delegation of Russian state officials visited Bishkek in December 2012 for discussions about the possibility of establishing a joint Kyrgyzstani-Russian logistics centre at Manas.

Russia: Access to Kyrgyzstan facilities

In December 2012, Russia succeeded in convincing Kyrgyzstan’s government to allow it to consolidate into a unified military base its existing local facilities. These consist of:

  • a weapon test range in Karakol;
  • a signals centre in Kara-Balt;
  • a radio-seismic laboratory in Mayly-Suu; and
  • an airbase in Kant.

Until now, these facilities were governed by several agreements that made them more vulnerable to political pressure from the Kyrgyzstani side. To reduce the risk, Moscow had been looking to change their status for the last two years. The new agreement will last for at least 15 years.

The deal appears to have ended speculation that Russia was planning to build a second military base in southern Kyrgyzstan near Osh. Although Moscow was keen to build a base in that region for several years, the importance of this initiative diminished after the United States announced in the summer of 2010 that it will not proceed with its plans to establish a counter-terrorism training centre in the area.

Russia: Long-term presence in Tajikistan

In October 2012, Russia finalised with Tajikistan an arrangement to extend its lease on local military facilities for 30 years. Tajikistan agreed to forego significant rent payments in exchange for:

  • 200 million dollars toward the modernisation of its armed forces;
  • additional economic assistance, including Moscow’s help with the construction of hydroelectric power stations; and
  • fewer restrictions for Tajik migrant labourers in Russia.

Fuel supplies hurdles

Several obstacles have been delaying the ratification of the agreement in Tajikistan’s parliament. They include duty-free Russian fuel shipments. Moscow insisted on a clause that would prevent Dushanbe from re-exporting the fuel and, after initial reluctance, Tajikistan relented in late January 2013.

Migration issues

The two sides remain at odds over restrictions imposed on Tajik guest workers. The current migration agreement stipulates that Tajikistan nationals are allowed to stay in Russia for 15 days without registration and are eligible for a work permit of up to three years. Dushanbe is seeking to improve the terms of the agreement while, on its part, Moscow is requesting that Tajikistan control the flow of migrants by sending them through dedicated organisations. Migration law is a critical issue for Tajikistan; remittances from its migrant workers in Russia comprise almost half of the country’s GDP.

Despite delays in negotiations, both sides appear committed to completing the deal, which is likely to be ratified in Tajikistan’s parliament in the next 1-2 months.

China: Military reluctance

Although China has strengthened its military ties with Central Asian states through frequent multi-national exercises and occasional arms sales, it has not attempted to establish a permanent military presence in the region. The strategy is part of an effort to assuage the fears shared by Central Asian leaders of excessive Chinese dominance. It also addresses Russia’s concerns of being displaced by China as the security guarantor, having already been sidelined in the economic realm.

Russian Politics and Law, March 2013 Table of Contents

Volume 51 Number 2 / March-April 2013 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the mesharpe.metapress.com web site at http://mesharpe.metapress.com/link.asp?id=U3W2355N2437.

This issue contains:

Civil Society in Russian Politics: Editor’s Introduction  p. 3
Dmitry Gorenburg
Quo Vadis?: Prospects for Establishing Civil Society in Russia. A Round-Table Discussion Hosted by Polis  p. 6
Mass Protests in the Context of the Russian Power Regime  p. 77
Anton N. Oleinik

Civil Society in Russian Politics: Editor’s Introduction

In the aftermath of the public protests that accompanied the 2011–12 Russian electoral season, the topic of civil society in Russia returned to a level of prominence it had not had in Russia since the immediate aftermath of the period of mass protest that brought down the Soviet government in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. While many analysts had for years written about the unusually quiescent nature of Russian society, the emergence of mass public demonstrations against an entrenched political regime led some scholars to reevaluate their models of the political behavior of Russian citizens.

Most of the issue comprises the presentations made at a roundtable held by the journal Polis. The roundtable, titled “Quo Vadis? Prospects for Establishing Civil Society in Russia,” shows that there is no consensus on the role and functioning of civil society in present-day Russia, much less on its future prospects, among leading Russian academics. Some of the speakers see civil society as emerging from the organizations that have sought to protect and institutionalize Russians’ political rights over the last two decades. Others argue that these organizations are inherently political and therefore cannot be the basis for a true civil society. As one speaker notes, protests cannot be taken as a sign of the maturation of civil society. Supporters of this viewpoint look instead to various nonpolitical social organizations, including ones focused on establishing organizations that help Russian citizens achieve their material, spiritual, and social needs.

The speakers also disagree on the state’s role in developing civil society in Russia. Supporters of the political point of view primarily see the state as an opponent of efforts to build Russian civil society. Others argue that in present-day Russia, civil society cannot be developed without state involvement. While there are many nuances to the argument, the critical disagreement can be summarized in the debate over whether civil society can function successfully only if social actors and the state cooperate in its development or, on the contrary, if its development requires society to battle against a largely authoritarian state to create space for public political activity. The roundtable participants do not resolve this dispute, which also remains at the heart of divisions among different political currents within the Russian Federation.

In “Mass Protests in the Context of the Russian Power Regime,” Anton Oleinik interprets the mass protests in Russia in late 2011 and early 2012 as a reaction to the prevalence of a special model of power relationships in Russia. He argues that dissatisfaction with the absence of feedback in relations between the state and society played a critical role in spawning the protests, utilizing survey data that shows that this reason was given by more than half of all protest participants as a cause of their participation in a critical December 2011 demonstration, while the more specific reason of indignation about voter fraud (also an indicator of a lack of equitable relations between state and society) was cited by almost three-quarters of respondents.

Oleinik discusses scenarios in which the mass protests are a first step toward the transition from the existing equilibrium of the Russian power regime to a new democratic equilibrium regime, placing an emphasis on two tasks. The first is the need to reform municipal and regional governance, which could act as a school for the next generation of officials, who could transfer their experience to the central level as they rise in the ranks. The second is the need to democratize the functioning of universities, especially those that train members of the future governing elite. As with local administration, the educational institutions could act as training grounds for the next generation of government officials, inculcating democratic values that they would in turn enshrine in state institutions during their subsequent careers.

Since these articles were published in mid-2012, the Russian protest movement has visibly lost steam. Vladimir Putin’s regime not only seems strongly entrenched but has initiated a crackdown on independent nongovernmental organizations that has made it increasingly difficult for societal organizations seeking to build civil society to function. As a result, it may be that in the short term, collaboration with the state or withdrawal from political engagement may be the only ways for independent civil society organizations to survive. The longer term offers a much wider array of possibilities, as the gradual emergence of a true middle class in Russia’s larger cities augurs well for the possibility of the gradual development of preconditions for the development of a civic culture in Russia that may lead Russian citizens to create boundaries for state power.