As readers of the local dailies will have noticed, the Turkish media publishes from time to time news stories about the political implications behind the Chinese-Russian strategic partnership, or the assertive global role the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is assumed to be playing in international politics.
Optimistic - as well as exaggerated - assumptions on both subjects, such as those in the local media, however, are extremely misleading. If it were not for the United States and its military and political penetration into the vast Eurasian region which both Moscow and Beijing believe is their backyard, neither the much-speculated Russian-Chinese relationship nor the SCO would have materialized to that extent. The current state of affairs between the two countries is nothing more than a culmination of their realpolitik. Their strategic partnership is conjectural and appears to be rather shallow.
Slogans not supported by facts
In every official visit since the collapse of the Soviet Union (SU), both Russian and Chinese leaders have used highly assertive phrases: In 1992 just after the Russian Federation replaced the notorious SU, they described themselves as “friendly countries.” In 1994, they mentioned the importance of a “constructive partnership.” In 1996, they announced the development of a new “formula of constructive cooperation developing into a strategic partnership oriented toward the 21st century.” Last but not least, in 2001 they signed a good neighborly treaty of friendship that would help them “be friendly to each other from generation to generation and will never make enemies of each other.” Yet, all these ornamented declarations sound more like empty slogans and seem to be just ceremonial in nature.
The restraints Russian-Chinese relations face are rather historical and psychological. Mistrust and disdain toward each other have taken root in various strata of society in both countries. In Russia, it is part of rising chauvinism in response to such issues as growing Chinese migration and a historical reflection of sense of superiority. In China, it is the painful legacy of a past revolving around border disagreements in “difficult times” of the country. Both sides’ leaders stress confidence in their partner on nearly every occasion, but it will pretty obviously take years for trust to grow.
This being said, the honeymoon between the two countries is the outcome of present regional realities they somehow have to reconcile with. For Russia, the rise of China as a global power not only directly impacts on its regional interests but also on the nature of the country itself. For China,, whose energy needs are growing year by year, energy-rich Russia is pretty understandably indispensable. In the back of their minds, nevertheless, there is no doubt that both Russian and Chinese authorities see each other as potential adversaries.
To challenge my assumptions, one may put forward the current level of economic relations. Yey they do not look that promising either. During an official visit in the spring, China’s President Hu Jintao was reported to have described the bilateral economic partnership as “having interdependence and great potential.” In the view of the Chinese president, the current trade volume of $33 billion would reach $60 to $80 billion by 2010. This trade volume, however, mainly relies on business by “shuttle-traders” and arms deals. Tellingly, Russian investment in China is estimated to be merely $600 million.
Another summit, same declarations
The SCO was created 11 years ago allegedly to address regional problems such as terrorism, border security, drug trafficking, religious extremism and separatism. While Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are full members, Mongolia, Iran, India and Pakistan have signed on as observers. However, there is no doubt today that over time, it was specifically designed by both Russia and China to serve as a counterweight to the rising U.S. influence in Eurasia. In fact, both countries are aware neither the quantity nor the quality of U.S. troops in the region is sufficient to pose an actual threat to them. It is rather the growing political and military penetration of the U.S. into the prevailing establishment and structures of the member countries that are critical to both capitals. Thus, like the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership, it is also the outcome of an action-reaction type of relationship with the U.S.
In such a milieu, the joint military exercises, the latest of which was held subsequent to the last week’s summit in Bishkek in the Russian town of Chelyabinks, with the participation of Russian and Chinese troops backed by detachments from Central Asian states, have obviously nothing to do with an anti-terrorist struggle within the framework of the SCO. Rather, they seem to be aimed at restraining the U.S.’ military and political penetration into their backyard. Thus, they might be considered as a military demonstration, a warning of some kind related against significant regional expansion by the U.S.
Can then the SCO really become Eurasia’s NATO, as claimed by some of its members? From its establishment onwards, it has mainly been Moscow which has wanted it to become an effective political-military organization. During the latest summit in Bishkek, for instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin called once again on SCO partners to introduce legislation enabling further anti-terrorism exercises and the training of security staff for member states. Yet, expectations in this regard do not seem to be realistic. It is first and foremost the lack of consensus among member states regarding its future or mission that poses a handicap. More importantly, smaller member countries of the SCO, though they never say it publicly, do not trust neither Moscow nor Beijing. To both capitals luck, regional leaders’ concerns about their own political future have coincided with the strategic priorities of these two countries. Following the Andijan clashes, Islam Kerimov for instance, yesterday’s ally and protégé of Washington, decided to change sides and allied himself with Russia and China. Soon, Kyrghyzstan and Kazakhstan merely followed suit. In the time to come, it seems that the SCO as well as the way the great powers will reckon with each other in Central Asia will increasingly depend on the sly maneuvering of such local leaders.
Where does the Turkish Army stand ?
This being said, do you think that members of the Turkish Army do not know these facts? Can they really be so short-sighted or ideologically blind? I humbly do not think so. On the contrary, they seem to be fully aware about what is going on in this vast region. Besides, I am pretty sure that the Turkish army is the only institution whose commitment to the West as well as Western values will under no circumstances be changed. Last but not least, to compare the SCO with NATO is the same as mixing apples and oranges and it is the Turkish officers who know this the best.