The convening of the 17th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO founded 15th January 2001) summit , on the 7th and 8th June 2017, in Astana, Kazakhstan, was an opportunity to highlight the specificity of the only intergovernmental organisation bringing together 5 of the 6 Central Asian States – ex-soviet republics, (with the exception of Turkmenistan) and the only one created and de facto “influenced” by Beijing.
Beyond that, it is now the geo-economic interactions and geopolitical convergences between the SCO and China’s “New Silk Roads” (One Belt, One Road, OBOR) project that have to be taken into account to realise how this new “Great Game” will deeply unsettle international relations.
Before the opening of the big sea routes around the XVIth century, the two greatest powers at the time that were the Roman Empire and the Chinese Empire were connected by a host of tracks that established a trade between both extremities of East and West via Central Asia. And so was born the Silk Road, captured by the venetian merchant Marco Polo; a voyage highlighted in “il Milione”.
Poorly developed, sparsely populated, barely or poorly developed infrastructure, fraught with ethnic tensions, instrumentalized by various religious movments, this region is in many aspects, according to the phrase by Pierre Chuvin and Pierre Gentelle, “barren surrounded by abundance” (“Asie centrale : l’indépendance, le pétrole et l’islam”, Le Monde, Marabout, 1998, page 150).
“Abundance” now represented by the three main world powers that are the United States, Russia and China. Indeed it is at the British Royal Geographical Society in 1904 that Sir Halford John Mackinder, one of the founding fathers of modern geopolitics, defined the region as the “Heartland”.
In an area that has long since known the “Great Game” of diplomats of the British and Russian Empires, a new geopolitical confrontation is taking place since 2001, opposing the economic, cultural and strategic interests of the only three States capable of structuring a region around them.
Some predict the return of a “Great Game”. An expression coined by Rudyard Kipling. A game by which in the XIXth century, the interests of the Russians who were advancing in Central Asia, and those of the British, who controlled the Indian Empire, came to oppose each other and directly clash on the Afghanistan border.
Thereafter, the “Great Game” took on another ideological and universal meaning. The bolsheviks supporting the decolonisation process in Asia in order to undermine the Wests position by an oblique maneuver thus cutting off European and American economies from sources of raw materials.
With the dissolution of the USSR, the Republics of Central Asia suddenly found themselves in a transition on all fronts. This was a direct consequence of the end of the Soviet Empire – that guaranteed a certain form of balance.
We are noticing a new keen interest for regional integration in Central Asia. This should be lauded because it speaks of a search for independent strategic identity.
So, the re-emergence of an old organization like the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that was presided for the first time by a Central Asian country in 2011 (Kazakhstan) would tend to confirm the highlighted perspective of the creation of a Eurasian economic, diplomatic and strategic space. At the same time, China launched in November 2013, its new Silk Roads project – land and sea (« One Belt, One Road » and now « Belt and Road Initiative » connecting China to more than 66 Asian, African and European countries) and Russia, with the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union (Astana Treaty, 29th May 2014) also aims to be a major player.
There is from this perspective an updating of organizations with transregional scope, that can be emphasized by the kazakhs will to link the CSTO to EurAsEC and the CSTO with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (in the same frame of mind as that inherited from the Helsinki Conference in 1975).
This new geopolitical reality of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is considerable assets: 2 758 000 000 inhabitants, that represent 38% of natural gas supplies, 20% oil, 40% coal and 50% of the planets available uranium!
Of course it is also a place of multicultural dialogue constrained by a fragmented social setting.
But this “young” regional organization also highlights some of the intrinsic weaknesses of this area. Indeed, issues are at stake internally, like that of leadership between China and Russia, with India as a third party.
Furhermore, there is a logic of “mutual defiance” between the members of the SCO that is slowly setting in, as evidenced by the divergent reasonings of several members on issues such as the conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the iranian nuclear question, or the prickly question of the distribution of water and mineral wealth. As with the quarrel between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan about the Rogun Dam and the Talco polluting aluminium plant.
Brief reminder of the internal and external dynamics of the SCO and its members
1/ Democratic disputes
Since 2003, some democratic disputes ( cf The Tulip Revolution of Kyrgyzstan in march 2005 ) have achieved rapid evolution marked by the gradual elimination of powers favourable to Moscow, replaced by powers much more favourable to the Americans. On the other hand after the demonstrations ( Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan in may 2005), the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan looked for assurance of support from the Russians.
Americas influence, more and more disputed is now viewed as destabilising.
Thus, the 4th of July 2005, the countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) asked the Americans for a timeline for the withdrawal of their troops throughout Central Asia. This year, it was the Talibans that publicly asked the SCO for help in securing the effective departure of American troops.
2/ Russias stake in the region
Despite a certain retreat, he Russians still exert a strong influence in Central Asia. Furthermore, some ex-republics like Tajikistan or Kazakhstan continue to maintain strong bonds with their former allies.
In order to escape from Russian influence, Central Asia attempted a rapprochement with the Middle East (namely with Turkey and Iran, Pakistan and the Gulf countries). But faced with the dangers of unchecked radical Islam, at the end of the 1990’s, the republics turned to the United States and the European Union.
Nevertheless the structure of their economy makes it difficult to escape the sphere of Russias influence that continues to play the role of major regional power in Central Asia. ( economic soft power, strengthening of military and strategic links through the CSTO)
3/ Americas stake in the region
The Americans established a global strategy in the region, aiming to pass as a benevolent force as well as protecting their assets. They want to take down islamist influences and dictorships all the while leaving themselves with the possibility of controlling oil fields.
4/ Chinas stake in the region
China is looking for minimal neutrality from its central-asian neighbours. According to law, in theory this neutrality is already established since the multilateral agreement of April 1997 whereby the riverside States made a commitment to not provide any support to the Uyghur activists in exchange for Chinese investments in post-socialist restructuration policies.
Although this commitment was fulfilled by the signatories, the independence movments took advantage of the permeability of the Central Asian borders and the uneven control of outlying regions by central powers to establish retreat bases outside of Xinjiang, such as in Afghanistan.
Further integration of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a response to growing european interests in the region.
The SCOs strategy remains nonetheless based on realist diplomacy that relies on not only land strategy, pledged on what we could call a “diplomacy of mass” for which the demographics becomes a powerful asset, but also for which naval strategy plays an ever increasing role.
It is interesting to see that in Russia, the issue of Russias place in the SCO becomes part of the debate that opposes the partisans of an orientalism turned towards Central Asia and the Far East, and those that advocate for a rapprochment with Europe and the western sphere.
Indeed there is potentially a latent confrontation between China and Russia regarding Siberia that has 11 millions inhabitants in an area in the range of 7 million km². And yet, China has already amassed around 150 million people on its border with Russia! We can only wonder if, strengthened by its economic and industrial growth in the double digits, as well as its open policy for new markets, China could make new territorial claims or rather remember what it considered to be unequal agreements, having been stripped of part Siberia in the 18th century?
This issue creates tensions between Russia and Chinas relations. There is the fear that China will see a muslim and turkophone “turkistan” form that would encroach on its territory and of which we see a resurgence of the ever more sensitive claims today in Central Asia.
This is the challenge of a geographical ensemble whose temptation is to unite around a language, culture or religion. Which is why China is afraid that regions like Xinjiang will fall into a logic of defiance where the central power is concerned, as the russians experienced at their expense in Caucasia.
What are therefore, the implications for Europe and prospects for France?
We have to be aware that Moscow, Beijing and Dehli have to cooperate for demographic reasons as well as economic.
However, issues such as water, energy, access to rare metals and the opening of a competitive market in Central Asia could create stumbling blocks between these countries.
China is still too often perceived as a threat where it could play a partnership role and finally become a lasting ally and a valued partner for Europeans.
Since François Mitterrands visit to Uzbekistan in 1993, and despite François Fillons big tour in Central Asia in 2008, or that of Laurent Fabius in 2014, Frances presence in Central Asia suffers from not sufficiently taking into account the multilateral rationales and struggles to consider the prospects and coherence of the area.
What’s important when discussing Central Asia is first and foremost the interconnection of its actors. The regional economies are in a quest to diversify and they will inevitably have to turn to western partnerships and look into internationalising geo-economic cooperation.
When conceiving Central Asia as the object of exogenous actors, we forget that these powers become emerging powers themselves, States with assets coming from underground and that gain more and more political importance in the region
A complementarity emerges but also a real competition between the powers of the South(s): Russia, China, Turkey, India, Kazakhstan, Iran…
Let us also recall the geopolitical considerations of Mackinder who thought of this area as the Heartland.
With the East trying to position itself on the international stage it will inevitably look to the West and we will have to accept this side of things that others refuse to see coming.
Emmanuel DUPUY, President of the Institute for European Prospective & Security (IEPS)