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Russia and China Focus on Central Asia

Last month, newly-elected Russian President Dmitri Medvedev chose Kazakhstan and China for his first trip abroad. Moscow, Astana and Beijing, as well as three other Central Asian capitals, are part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. How does this six-nation group figure in Russia-China relations?

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a relatively new regional entity. It was formed in 1996 and was first known as the "Shanghai Five," bringing together Russia, China and three Central Asian states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Those three countries share borders with Russia or China -- or both.

Initially, the "Shanghai Five" dealt essentially with border issues among member nations. Jing-dong Yuan at California's Monterey Institute of International Studies says the group changed its focus after Uzbekistan joined five years later.

"In 2001, they decided to formalize this arrangement, turning it into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, with the immediate goals of dealing with the so-called 'three evils' -- that is international terrorism, religious extremism and ethnic separatism because all Central Asian republics, Russia and China face those kinds of transnational problems," says Yuan.

Chinese Influence and Russian Aspirations

Many analysts say it is intriguing to have a regional organization that includes both Russia and China. Bobo Lo, with the London-based Center for European Reform, says Beijing is the driving force behind the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO. And he says being part of that group allows China to expand its influence in Central Asia.

"The SCO really is China's baby. The SCO allows China to do in Central Asia what it probably wouldn't be able to do at the bilateral level because if China is just dealing with Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, then the smaller state is going to be spooked [i.e., afraid]. But if it's in a sort of a nice pan-regional context, then China can paint itself as a good regional citizen, as a good international citizen and the Central Asians will feel less threatened by them," says Lo. "So the Chinese see the SCO as a way of sanitizing their entry into the region."

At the same time, many analysts say Russia still sees itself as the dominant power in the region. Robert Legvold from Columbia University says that for the time being, Beijing and Moscow are deferential to each other.

"In the most important respect, China is deferential to Russia by not really challenging Russia's historically primary role in the area. But because of the dynamism and strength and size of the economy, inevitably the shadow of the Chinese economy in Central Asia is growing and being felt by the Russians," says Legvold. "And there is an uneasiness in Russia about the sheer magnitude of growing Chinese economic influence in the area."

The American Factor

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev (r) and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, during a welcome ceremony in Beijing last month
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev (r) and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, during a welcome ceremony in Beijing last month
Analysts say one area where China and Russia agree is on the need to limit the influence of the United States in Central Asia. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Washington has been involved in the region, helping new governments there, even though many of them are authoritarian.

"The Chinese and the Russians both signed off on that war against the Taliban. But it was a short-term acceptance. And they've made it plain that they don't want the United States and these Western powers to remain in the region in the long run," says Legvold. "The Chinese probably have as much, if not more, resistance to this -- to the Western presence in the area than the Russians -- because the Chinese have been explicit that the U.S. presence in that area looks a bit like the Western front of a China containment policy. Whereas the Russians simply have their nose out of joint [i.e., are annoyed] at the idea that the U.S. or the West would intrude into what has historically been part of their empire."

The United States leased bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. In 2005, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization made headlines when in July -- prodded by Russia and China -- it issued a demand for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Central Asia. Uzbekistan complied and American forces left that country by the end of that year. Most analysts say the Uzbek government's action was prompted after the United States strongly criticized Uzbekistan for its crackdown on a popular uprising in May 2005. The United States still has a base in Kyrgyzstan, but experts say the lease price has increased 10-fold.

Bobo Lo from the Center for European Reform says that while Beijing and Moscow agree on the need to limit the U.S. presence in Central Asia, they disagree on one key element. "They have very different visions of what a post-American world order and particularly regional order in Central Asia would look like. Russia really wants, in a way, to return to the old status quo. Now it knows it cannot be the old Soviet Union again, so it's not going to try that. But it still sees itself as the leading power in the region. It has a sort of a sense of historical, strategic entitlement," says Lo. "The Chinese, however, think they have just as much right to be in the region. So they are actively, really actively, pushing their political, security and, above all, economic interests in the region. And Russia and China, in many respects, are direct competitors."

Most analysts say it will be fascinating to see in the years ahead the extent of Moscow and Beijing's competition in Central Asia. Equally interesting, they add, will be whether the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will increase in stature on the international stage. They say that it certainly has come a long way from its initial days of dealing solely with border issues.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.