Last week the leaders of Russia, China and several former Soviet republics met in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Their goal was to promote more international investment and cooperation in the fight against terrorism in Central Asia. This year's summit caused a stir in the Western media because it coincided with wargames conducted by 6,000 troops from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization countries in the Russian Ural Mountain region of Chelyabinsk. While one senior Russian general insisted that the exercises were "not aimed at any third country", many Western media analysts and pundits have concluded that Russia and China are forming a military alliance to counter American influence in resource-rich Central Asia.
UPDATE: Prof. Nicholas Gvosdev has linked to our post here. Click on the extended post to read more and watch video clips from the SCO summit.
Putin (second from left) and other leaders of the SCO countries pose for the camera
Photo by: SCO web site
For his part, the American consultant and geostrategist Thomas P.M. Barnett has written a few thoughts about the recent joint wargames between Russian and Chinese forces on his blog (Barnett also has linked to this post here). Barnett's view is basically that these exercises are no big deal, and the Russian and Chinese militaries are nowhere close to the U.S. in terms of combat readiness or capability. On the other hand, Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of the Washington D.C.-based foreign policy magazine The National Interest argues that the joint exercise "is important". Writing on his blog, The Washington Realist, Gvosdev argues that both Moscow and Beijing were clearly sending America a message: nearly six years after America's response to 9/11, U.S. military bases are no longer necessary or particularly welcome in Central Asia.
Here at Russia Blog, our view of Russian policy towards China is that Russia is simply trying to accomodate itself to the new superpower rising in its back yard. The Kremlin is not creating an anti-American alliance, but it is pursuing arms deals with countries like Venezuela to maintain Russia's defense industries. Many Russian generals have publicly complained about Russia's increasing military inferiority vis a vis China. Until very recently, China was buying more advanced Russian weapon systems than Russia's own armed forces. Furthermore, during joint exercises, Russia always sends its best units staffed by professional soldiers, rather than more representative conscripts who are still wearing Red Army uniforms and using aging Soviet equipment.
After fifteen years of neglect and rampant human rights abuses in the ranks, Russia is trimming the size of its army while reducing the standard length of service for draftees from two years to one year. The goal of these reforms, implemented by former Defense Minister and current Presidential candidate Sergey Ivanov is to reduce fraud (forcing conscripts to work off base for practically nothing), theft and the so-called practice of dedovshina (brutal hazing) in the army.
Even though the State is flush with cash from higher world oil prices, the only major area of the Russian defense budget due for a significant boost is Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent. All of the other much-hyped purchases largely consist of replacing worn-out aircraft and submarines that were built by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s. While Russia's new round of long range bomber flights may provide some entertainment for fighter pilots in Europe and North America, Russian Air and Naval forces today are tiny compared to their Soviet predecessors. The idea that Russia would ever repeat the mistakes of the USSR and try to engage in an arms race with China or the West remains extremely far-fetched, but provides interesting fodder (and politically correct bad guys) for video games.
In the long term, Russia wants to engage China, which represents a market potentially larger than North America and Europe combined, while maintaining sovereignty over Russia's Far East. Just like the United States, Russia is expanding trade with China while also pursuing friendly diplomatic and military relations with the other Asian giant, India. Russia recently curried favor with New Delhi by refusing to deliver jet engines for Chinese-made fighter planes to Pakistan, India's longtime rival. And while some in the U.S. Congress strongly oppose President Bush's proposed U.S.-Indian nuclear power initiative, Russia is moving ahead on selling several civilian reactors to New Delhi.
Ultimately, Washington's goal in Asia should be stability, prosperity, and an end to the separatist conflicts which have created safe havens for international terrorists. These are also the stated goals of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which not only features the Islamic Republic of Iran as an observer, but also America's staunch ally Mongolia. Even when it comes to accessing natural resources, "The New Great Game" in 21st century Central Asia is not a zero sum game. Central Asian countries badly need investment from Europe, Russia, China and America to develop their economies and to counteract the threat of radical Islamic extremism. Whatever our disagreements over missile defenses, America and Russia can agree that a more prosperous Central Asia means more security for the whole world.
In his remarks to the leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization countries, Putin stressed the need for more cooperation in the fight against terrorism in Central Asia
A Russia Today TV video of the Peace Mission 2007 military exercises conducted by Russia and China last week in Russia's Chelyabinsk region. Notice that the Chinese People's Liberation Army uniform looks a lot like the U.S. Army Combat Uniform - probably because they're manufactured in some of the same factories