United against unilateralism

Published : Jul 29, 2005 00:00 IST

Two recent developments -- a Russia-China joint declaration and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation's summit in Kazakhstan - point to the emergence of a new alliance to check the U.S. drive to perpetuate a unipolar world order.


THREE years after the United States began its global crusade for primacy, Russia and China have joined hands to stop its post-9/11 push into Central Asia and to create a geopolitical counterweight to U.S. power.

The six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), dominated by the two countries, earlier this month called for deadlines to be set on the U.S. military presence in Central Asia. "Considering that the active phase of the military anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan has come to an end, member-states... consider it essential that the relevant participants in the anti-terrorist coalition set deadlines for the temporary use of the provisional infrastructure and for their military contingents' presence in those countries," the SCO said in a political declaration adopted at its summit meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, on July 5.

Assurances of support for "the international coalition which is carrying out an anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan" and the mention of "the progress made in the effort to stabilise the situation" in that country did little to mitigate the open challenge to the U.S. mounted by the five-year-old Shanghai group, which unites Russia, China, and the four Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. After 9/11 the U.S. set up military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan for operations in Afghanistan, and its military officials have repeatedly said they intend to stay in Central Asia.

The demand for the U.S. military withdrawal from Central Asia reflected the SCO's resolve to take full responsibility for the region and insulate it against "people's power revolutions" the West orchestrated in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. The Islamist-led armed revolt in Uzbekistan's Andizhan on May 13-14, which claimed hundreds of lives, showed the dangers of attempts to stage "velvet revolutions" in Central Asia.

Speaking at the SCO summit, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov asserted that behind the Andizhan violence stood forces that sought to "change the situation in the region in their favour". Uzbekistan has already introduced limitations on flights of U.S. aircraft from its airbase at Khanabad forcing the U.S. military to redeploy some planes and hardware to an airfield in Afghanistan.

"The problem of religious and political extremism poses a serious threat", while its roots "lie outside the [SCO] organisation", Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev said at the summit. The SCO leaders signed a "concept on cooperation in fighting terrorism, separatism and extremism", which provides for joint anti-terrorist activities, joint manoeuvres, training of personnel and cooperation in the "development and use of modern technical equipment for fighting new challenges and threats".

THE tone for the SCO summit was set in Moscow where President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao met on July 1 to sign a "Declaration on the World Order in the 21st Century", a patently anti-U.S. political manifesto. The declaration announced the countries' resolve to establish "a new security architecture" that would promote "a just and rational world order based on the respect of the right of all countries to equal security".

In a thinly veiled attack on the U.S., they called for abandoning the "mentality of confrontation and bloc-building, efforts to impose monopoly and domination in international relations, attempts to divide countries into the leaders and the led".

Russia and China denounced attempts to "ignore objective processes of social development of sovereign states and impose on them alien models of social and political systems" - a clear reference to U.S.-sponsored "velvet revolutions" in the former Soviet Union. "All countries of the world must strictly abide by the principles of mutual respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs of each other, equality and mutual benefit (and) peaceful coexistence," the declaration said.

The SCO summit, which took a historic decision to expand the regional grouping by inducting India, Iran and Pakistan as observers, showed the contours of a "new security architecture" for Asia promoted by Russia and China. With the admission of new members, the SCO dramatically expanded its zone of responsibility and created a new security landscape in a vast strategically important region through which the U.S. drew its "axis of evil" covering Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The expansion and increased assertiveness of the SCO can be seen as a response to Washington's mythical "axis of evil" and the export of "global democratic revolution". Ahead of the summit, Russian officials hinted that the U.S. had indicated a desire to join SCO as observer. But the U.S. was rebuffed even as its arch-enemy Iran was invited.

The SCO is yet to devise procedures for promoting observers to full members, but even with the admission of observers it has for the first time brought together in one regional security group four of the biggest players in the region - Russia, China, India and Iran - paving the way to the formation of various power configurations among them.

One possibility is the establishment of a Russia-China-Iran triangle. The three countries have strong bilateral ties and share many foreign policy positions. Russia and China support Iran in its standoff with the U.S. over Teheran's nuclear energy programme. Russia is constructing a nuclear power reactor in Iran and has offered to build several more. China and Iran support Russia's war against the Chechen separatists, while Russia and Iran support Beijing's one-China policy. The three nations are also linked by strong energy interests. In 2004, China concluded major deals with Iran for the supply of oil and gas. Russia is involved in large-scale oil swap deals with Iran and is expected to win contracts for the development of the South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf.

Until now the establishment of the Russia-China-Iran axis was hampered by the reluctance of Moscow and Beijing to provoke Washington, which accuses Iran of spreading terrorism. However, such trilateral cooperation will be greatly facilitated under the umbrella of the SCO, especially after it adopted an anti-U.S. agenda. The underlying motive for the Russia-China-Iran axis is the same - to counter U.S. unilateralism and reduce U.S. influence in West and Central Asia.

The admission of India into the SCO will give a new dimension to the Delhi-Moscow-Beijing triangle. The Astana summit came a month after India, Russia and China upgraded their strategic dialogue by institutionalising stand-alone meetings at the level of Foreign Ministers. A joint communique issued at the first such meeting in Vladivostok on June 2 declared the triangle's resolve to move from consultations to action and "to cooperate in trilateral format in combating new threats and challenges". "The triangle and the Shanghai group are mutually complementary and intertwining processes which together will one day evolve into a major factor of stability in Eurasia," a senior Russian diplomat told Frontline.

There is also a possibility that the triangle may evolve into a quadrangle, by including Iran. Teheran has long been nurturing the idea of this configuration. According to the Itar-Tass news agency, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Alexeyev in Teheran in April that "the development of cooperation between Iran, Russia, India and China against the backdrop of a planned U.N. reform will contribute to the strengthening of security and stability both in the region and elsewhere in the world".

The Iranian proposal received no response from New Delhi, Moscow or Beijing. Neither was it discussed by the trio in Vladivostok, said a senior Russian diplomat who attended the meeting. This is understandable, as the triangle is still in the process of consolidation and is groping for its own identity and the limits of its cooperation. Moreover, India, Russia and China were not excited about the prospect of ruffling U.S. feathers.

The quadrangle involving Iran need not necessarily or primarily be anti-U.S. It has solid economic foundation to build upon. While Russia and Iran are leading energy producers, India and China are major energy consumers. Indian Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, for one, is a strong champion of cooperative engagement between India and China in seeking access to the energy markets of Russia, Iran and Central Asia. He has put forward a plan to extend the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline to China. Aiyar made a similar proposal with regard to the planned Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan gas pipeline. Russia may be involved in both projects as a contractor and a supplier of gas. This would create a trans-Asian energy grid linking not only Russia, Iran, India and China, but the Central Asian countries, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Development of transport corridors between Asia and Europe is another compelling motive for cooperation both within the SCO and in the India-Iran-Russia-China quadrangle. India is already linked with Iran and Russia by the North-South sea-and-land transport route, which is expected to handle 20 million tonnes on completion. There are plans to build a transport corridor from Russia through Central Asia to China. A 20-million-tonne oil pipeline is already under construction from Kazakhstan to China and the feasibility of a parallel gas pipeline is being studied.

In the long run, relations between the SCO, as well as its triangular and quadrangular versions, and the U.S. will depend on the latter. The old and new members of the SCO all aspire for good relations with the world's "Number 1" power. But U.S. policies may leave others no choice but to form alliances in order to defend their interests and sovereignty. This is the message of the Russian-Chinese declaration and the Astana summit.

If the U.S. attempts to disrupt the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, continues to push Iran against the wall, seeks to undermine Russia's positions in the former Soviet Union, and works to encircle China, then any alternative security frameworks will be anti-U.S. by definition. In that case the emergence of a bipolar security structure in Eurasia engaged in mutual containment cannot be ruled out. There will be the SCO and the Russia-led defence pact of ex-Soviet states, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (the two are likely to interact). On the other side will be the NATO Partnership for Peace programme for East Europe and the former Soviet Union and the U.S.-sponsored GUAM pact of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova.

The signs are that things are moving towards a confrontation. Recent reports indicate that the U.S. is trying to build a new security alliance alternative to SCO. The new alliance is being conceived under the U.S. Caspian Guard programme for the protection of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. The plan calls for the deployment of U.S. troops along the pipeline's route in the Caspian region and the setting up of a defence alliance on this basis comprising Azerbaijan, Georgia, some Central Asian republics and Turkey, but locking out Russia and China.

If reports are true, the anti-U.S. thrust of the Moscow and Astana declarations is understandable.

More stories from this issue


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment