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.

Russian Politics and Law, January 2013 Table of Contents

 

Volume 51 Number 1 / January-February 2013 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the mesharpe.metapress.com web site at http://mesharpe.metapress.com/link.asp?id=K41837771231.

This issue contains:

Security in Central Asia: Editor’s Introduction  p. 3
Dmitry Gorenburg
Russian and U.S. Interests in Central Asia: Prospects for Cooperation  p. 7
Sergei Dorofeev
Central Asia Viewed in the Context of the Afghan Situation: A Discussion at the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations  p. 25
The U.S. Troop Withdrawal from Afghanistan and Regional Security in Central Asia  p. 49
Fatima T. Kukeeva
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Role in Countering Threats and Challenges to Central Asian Regional Security  p. 59
Kuralai I. Baizakova
Energy Cooperation Among Kazakhstan, Russia, and China Within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization  p. 80
Galiia A. Movkebaeva
Regional Security Cooperation Between the Republic of Kazakhstan and the European Union  p. 88
Kuralai I. Baizakova

Security in Central Asia: Editor’s Introduction

This issue of Russian Politics and Law examines security issues in Central Asia. The main focus is on the interaction between Central Asian states and regional powers, particularly in the context of the upcoming NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. The articles include a variety of perspectives from both Russian and Central Asian scholars.

Sergei Dorofeev’s article on “Russian and American Interests in Central Asia: Prospects of Possible Cooperation” opens the issue. In this article, Dorofeev argues that Russia’s primary interests in the region include maintaining sociopolitical stability and regional security, which comprises issues as varied as the fight against Islamist extremism and the drug threat, nuclear nonproliferation, and border control. Secondary interests include maintaining influence over the region’s energy sector and transportation infrastructure, promoting Russian language and culture and helping Russian-speaking residents of Central Asia, and encouraging regional integration initiatives such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC).

Dorofeev sees U.S. interests as focused on promoting American values such as democracy and human rights while making sure that no other power acquires controlling influence in the region. In addition, the United States is committed to preventing the destabilization of the region and wants to ensure continued international access to Central Asian energy supplies. The author argues that Russian and American interests coincide most closely in the areas of maintaining regional stability and ensuring energy exports. On the security side, he calls for the management of risk through the establishment of a creative partnership between the CSTO and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which could improve the management of security risks in the region and thereby benefit both sides.

The second article in this issue is actually the transcript of a discussion on “Central Asia Viewed in the Context of the Afghan Situation,” held in December 2010 at the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The speakers at this session included such prominent scholars as Georgii Mirskii and Aleksei Arbatov.

The keynote lecture at the session was given by Dina Malysheva, who argued that Central Asia has in recent years come to receive more attention from the international community because of its energy resources and because of its proximity to Afghanistan. As NATO and the United States begin to withdraw from Afghanistan, Malysheva believes that Russia may have a short-term opportunity to increase its influence in the region. The subsequent discussion addressed the possible long-term impact of the withdrawal of allied forces from Afghanistan on the Central Asian region. The speakers found that increased drug trafficking, political instability, and the threat of Islamism pose significant challenges that the Central Asian states and Russia are as yet unprepared to meet.

Fatima Kukeeva’s article, “The U.S. Troop Withdrawal from Afghanistan and Regional Security in Central Asia,” explores in greater detail the potential impact of U.S. withdrawal on stability in the region. While most analysts limit themselves to examining the interests of global and regional powers, she discusses the positions of the Central Asian states themselves, especially regarding their relations with Afghanistan. Although the five states of Central Asia, Russia, the United States, and Europe would all like to see an economically and politically stable Afghanistan after the NATO withdrawal of troops in 2014—not least to maintain regional security—each party brings to the table its own cost–benefit analysis, causing some disagreement over how to achieve a workable settlement. Most of the parties involved agree that regional cooperation is the best route forward, but they disagree on whether this cooperation should take place through increased interaction between security organizations (such as NATO and the CSTO) or through economic initiatives such as the New Silk Road.

In “The Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Role in Countering Threats and Challenges to Central Asian Regional Security,” Kuralai Baizakova describes the origin and history of another regional organization, one with a focus broader than security issues. In its decade of existence, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has become a significant regional player promoting military, political, economic, and security cooperation in Central Asia. As such, it has the potential to grow into an institution representing most of Eurasia, including Russia and China.

Regarding regional stability, Baizakova argues that the SCO has the potential to serve a unique role in promoting security, because it is the only organization that ties the two major regional powers—China and Russia—into a cooperative framework with the states that comprise Central Asia. She furthermore makes the case for the potential benefits of close cooperation between the SCO, on the one hand, and NATO and the United States, on the other, in ensuring stability in the region during and after the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. She concludes that the best way to ensure regional stability is through the linkage of all major regional political actors in a cooperative organization; for her, the SCO is the only organization that can serve this purpose.

The last two articles in this issue focus on Kazakhstan’s foreign policy. Kazakhstan is arguably the most powerful country in the region, both in terms of economic and military power. Galiia Movkebaeva, in “Energy Cooperation Among Kazakhstan, Russia, and China Within the SCO,” focuses on the economic side.  She shows that China, Kazakhstan, and Russia are making progress in energy cooperation, but so far largely on the basis of bilateral agreements. She argues that the SCO Energy Club, established in late 2011, offers opportunities to expand that cooperation in a way that benefits all the organization’s members and observer states. Regional energy coordination would make it easier to develop multinational infrastructure projects, allow the member-states to coordinate their extraction and export/import policies, and develop joint measures to ensure mutual energy security.

The last article in this issue, by Kuralai Baizakova, is titled “Regional Security Cooperation Between the Republic of Kazakhstan and the European Union.” It addresses the security aspects of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy. Baizakova argues that Kazakhstan stands to gain a great deal in terms of both economic development and improved security from enhancing its partnership with the European Union (EU). Kazakhstan’s chief interest is to ensure the security of energy exports, an area that is also of critical importance to the EU. The two sides also share an interest in improving border security in order to reduce the flow of narcotics through the region.

The author believes that Kazakhstan can benefit even more from positioning itself within the transatlantic relationship between the European Union and the United States, using the experience of this bilateral and multilateral cooperation to develop its economy and establish a stable democracy in which human rights are respected.

While I am less certain about the priority placed by any of the Central Asian governments on establishing stable democracies and promoting human rights, it seems clear from the articles in this issue that both Central Asian and Russian scholars see the integration of Central Asian states into regional and international institutions as the best, and possibly only, way to ensure their long-term political stability and economic development. The departure of the United States and NATO from the region over the next few years will undoubtedly lead to a number of challenges for these states’ security and internal stability. Regional organizations such as the CSTO and the SCO are likely to be required to step up to fill the resulting gaps.

Russia and China vie for influence in Central Asia

I’m still swamped with various projects, so in the meantime, here’s another Oxford Analytica brief. This one is from mid-December…

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Although China and the United States have focused greater attention on Central Asia in recent years, Russia remains the dominant power in the region. Its size and the cultural, political and economic connections that remain from the Soviet period are such that Central Asian countries are reluctant to take any actions that would antagonise Moscow. For Russian leaders, Central Asia serves as a buffer zone that protects Russia’s southern border from potential threats.

Impacts:

  • Increasing Chinese economic presence in Central Asia will curtail Russia’s efforts to limit China’s regional political influence.
  • After NATO’s exit from Afghanistan, Russia and Central Asian states will cooperate to prevent radical Islam from destabilising the region.
  • Shifting patterns of energy demand and supply will reduce Russia’s ability to use energy as a tool for political influence.

ANALYSIS:

Russia’s various initiatives in Central Asia are shaped by three interest groups with widely divergent interests that often work at cross-purposes to each other:

  • The military and defence industry is focused on the role of great power competition in the region; it seeks to promote arms sales and to increase Russia’s military presence.
  • The energy industry focuses on securing exclusive rights to gas transit from Central Asia to Europe.
  • The security services concentrate on the transnational threats to Russia from radical Islam, terrorism and drug smuggling.

Maintaining monopoly

Throughout the last decade, Russia sought to maintain its energy-transit monopoly on the export of petroleum and natural gas from Central Asia. Until 2005, all major export pipelines from the region went through Russia giving it control over transit fees. Russia’s monopoly over natural gas transit to Europe also gave it political and economic leverage over downstream countries dependent on supplies of Russian natural gas for domestic consumption.

The construction of alternative pipelines over the last decade has eliminated Russia’s monopoly on hydrocarbon transit from Central Asia. Energy-producing states in the region can now sell their products to China and Iran. At the same time, changes in patterns of supply and demand for natural gas in Europe have decreased the political and economic significance of Russia’s remaining monopoly on natural gas supply to some European countries. The development of new methods of shale gas extraction in the United States has increased the supply of LNG to Europe at the same time as the 2008-09 global financial crisis has led to a sharp drop in demand for natural gas.

These factors decreased Russia’s ability to set prices and to use its control of energy supply for political ends, thus reducing the importance of future Caspian pipeline transit. Russia is now likely to focus on energy production in the Caspian Sea region and has already begun to develop several oil and gas fields that it controls jointly with Kazakhstan.

Keeping China at bay

China has sought to increase its economic and political influence in Central Asia without alienating Russia for a number of reasons. For example:

  • Central Asia has become one of China’s primary energy suppliers;
  • Central Asia serves as a security buffer zone between China and both Russia and the United States; and
  • China seeks to prevent Uighur separatists in Xinjiang from using Central Asia as a safe haven.

To further these goals, China made large investments into the Central Asian economies and, in particular, in energy infrastructure. The region provides raw materials to China in exchange for finished products such as machinery, food and consumer goods.

Russian leaders fear that their country’s position in Central Asia is gradually being displaced as China’s political influence and economic power grow. To maintain its sway in Central Asia, Russia has focused on ‘tying’ China into regional networks and institutions while retaining levers of influence through institutions in which China is not a member.

In the security realm, Russia has combined participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with its role in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). While the SCO provides a neutral forum where Russia can discuss security and plan joint operations and exercises with China, the CSTO allows Russia to address Central Asian security issues without China’s participation. At the same time, Russia has sought to counter China’s economic influence in Central Asia by setting up the Customs Union, which, in 2014, is expected to include Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Recent discussions concerning the establishment of the Eurasian Union in 2015 are also part of the effort to cement Central Asian economic ties to Russia.

Ensuring political stability

Although most of the regimes in the region have endured for over 20 years, Central Asia is now entering a period of potential political instability.

  • Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are all bracing for a potential resurgence of Islamist radicalism in the aftermath of the likely US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.
  • Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — both states ruled by authoritarian presidents in their mid-1970s — are highly vulnerable to succession risks.
  • Kyrgyzstan is still recovering from two episodes of violent regime collapse in the last decade.

The potential destabilising influence of radical Islamist groups and drug smuggling networks is a key concern for Russia. Moscow believes that the current Central Asian leadership has been able to contain the threat of radical Islam and is worried that a regime change, combined with the withdrawal of NATO troops, would facilitate the spread of radical Islam to Russia.

These concerns have led Russia to provide various forms of security assistance to the region’s more vulnerable states. In the last year alone Russia has:

  • extended leases on military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan;
  • sold weapons to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan;
  • sought to persuade Uzbekistan to re-engage with the CSTO; and
  • agreed to provide 1.3 billion dollars to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to modernise their military forces and ensure their security after the departure of Western troops.

The extension of Russia’s military base agreements with Central Asian countries, together with Kyrgyzstan’s decision to ask the United States to vacate the Manas base after the NATO departure from Afghanistan, will leave Russia as the sole security provider to vulnerable states in the region.

CONCLUSION: Russia’s security relations with Central Asian states will strengthen as they face the consequences of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. At the same time, Moscow’s efforts to remain the dominant economic partner of the region’s key players will likely falter as China strengthens its position as the main recipient of Central Asian energy exports and a key supplier of imported consumer products.

Russian-Central Asian Security Relations

I was recently asked by the Slovak Atlantic Commission to write a short article reviewing security relations between Russia and Central Asia for their Euro Atlantic Quarterly. With their permission, I repost the article below.

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Russian policies in Central Asia are shaped by three divergent perspectives. The geopolitical/military perspective focuses on the great power competition in the region; the perspective of the Russian energy industry focuses on securing exclusive rights for gas transit from the region to Europe; and the security perspective focuses on the transnational threats to Russia caused by radical Islamism, terrorism, and drug smuggling through the region.[1]

The internal tension among these perspectives is the main source of inconsistency in Russian policies in the region. Depending on which perspective is in ascendance, Russian officials alternate between focusing on soft security threats, which are best dealt with through the establishment of cooperative mechanisms with states both in and outside the region, and taking steps to limit the influence of outside states in the region as part of its effort to retain a monopoly on energy transit and to come out on top in its rivalry with the United States in the region.

Russia’s energy interests in Central Asia

Until recently, Russia’s primary energy policy goal in the region was to control the export of petroleum and natural gas from Central Asia to Europe. Until 2005, all major export pipelines from the region went through Russia, giving it significant leverage over transit fees and sales prices. Control over natural gas transit was also important politically, as it could potentially be used as leverage over downstream countries dependent on supplies of Russian natural gas for their domestic consumption.

The construction of a number of alternative pipelines over the last decade has eliminated Russia’s monopoly on hydrocarbon transit from Central Asia. Energy producing states in the region can now sell their products to China and Iran. At the same time, changes in patterns of supply and demand for natural gas in Europe have decreased the political and economic significance of Russia’s remaining monopoly on natural gas supply to some European countries. The development of new methods of extracting shale gas in the United States increased the supply of LNG to Europe at the same time as the 2008-09 global financial crisis led to a sharp drop in demand. These factors combined to sharply reduce Russia’s ability to set prices or to use its control of supply for political ends. This effect is likely to last for at least the medium term.

This change in European natural gas dynamics has reduced the political importance of future Caspian pipeline routes for Russia. Instead, Russia is likely to focus on increasing the economic benefits of energy production in the Caspian. To this end it has focused on developing several oil and gas fields it controls jointly with Kazakhstan. The most significant of these is the Kurmangazy offshore oil and gas condensate field, with estimated reserves of 7-10 billion barrels of oil. Russian energy companies also have partial control or minority stakes in several other Kazakhstani fields, all currently in the survey and exploration stage.

Competition with China

In recent years, Russian leaders have become increasingly concerned about the rise of Chinese influence in Central Asia. China’s political strategy in Central Asia is focused on turning the region into a strong, accessible, and secure region for Chinese influence without generating strong Russian opposition. The region is significant for China for three reasons. First of all, it has become a critical source of energy resources for China. Second, China views the region as a security buffer zone between it and both Russia and the United States. Finally, China seeks Central Asian support in its ongoing fight against Uyghur separatism in Xinjiang.[2] To further these goals, China has made large investments in the Central Asian economy, and particularly in energy infrastructure. Most Sino-Central Asian trade consists of the supply of raw materials from Central Asia to China and the subsequent import of finished products such as machinery, food, and consumer goods from China into Central Asia.

Russian leaders fear that their traditional influence in Central Asian politics is slowly ebbing away as their economic position in the region is replaced by China. While Russian is still frequently the lingua franca in Central Asian markets, the products being sold are mostly Chinese.[3] To maintain its influence in the region, Russia has focused on tying China into regional networks and institutions while retaining levers of influence through institutions in which China is not a member. In the security realm, the most important role in this regard is served by the interplay between the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which provides the two countries with a neutral forum in which they can have security discussions and plan joint actions and exercises, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which allows Russia to have a role in providing security Central Asian states without Chinese interference. At the same time, Russia seeks to counter China’s economic influence in Central Asia through the formation of a customs union with Kazakhstan and its potential future extension into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.[4]

Seeking to Ensure Political Stability

Russian leaders are concerned about the fragility of political regimes in Central Asia. Although the states in the region appear strong on the surface, their state structures are relatively weak, best by corruption, and dependent on patronage networks for their continued functioning. These types of regimes may succumb to a rapid loss of power, much as the Mubarak regime did in Egypt in 2011 and as the Akayev and then Bakiyev regimes did in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and again in 2010. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the two central states in Central Asia, are entering periods of greater political uncertainty as they face inevitable battles to succeed their aging presidents.

Russian leaders are concerned that the sudden death or overthrow of one of the Central Asian leaders will result in prolonged internal instability and could provide an opportunity for radical Islamist groups to attempt to seize power or launch a civil war. They see the current set of Central Asian rulers as a bulwark against the threat of radical Islam coming from Afghanistan and fear that instability in the region could make it easier for radical Islamic groups to infiltrate Russia.

Despite the increasing attention paid to Central Asia by the United States and China in recent years, Russia for now remains the dominant power in the region. The other former Soviet states in the region are loath to take any actions that would antagonize Russia. Russia has used the cultural, political, and economic connections left from the Soviet period to maintain its role in the region. Russian leaders consider Central Asia to be a critical buffer zone protecting Russia’s southern border from potential threats. For this reason, they will continue to act to ensure that Russian interests in the region are safeguarded.


[1] “The Caspian Sea region towards 2020,” ECON-Report no. 2007-008, 17 January 2007.

[3] James Brooke, “China Displaces Russia in Central Asia,Voice of America, 16 November 2010.

[4] Dina Tokbaeva, “Central Asia Focus of Russia-China Rivalry,Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 21 December 2011.