America’s coming withdrawal from Afghanistan will leave a large power vacuum in Central Asia—one that both Russia and China are keen to fill. China has the overwhelming economic clout, while Russia has the longstanding political and cultural ties to its former empire. Yet neither side wants a great-game-style confrontation over spheres of influence, because Moscow and Beijing also plan to boost energy cooperation.
How, then, to consolidate and expand Russian influence in its backyard without offending China? Russia’s secret weapon is Viktor Ivanov, a former KGB colleague of Vladimir Putin’s in Leningrad who remains a close friend of the Russian prime minister. Ivanov’s official job is head of Russia’s anti-drug agency. Unofficially, he’s Putin’s envoy to open a back channel of security cooperation with China.
Late last month Ivanov toured Beijing and Urumqi, capital of the majority-Muslim province of Xinjiang (once Chinese Turkestan) with a delegation of security officials to talk about regionwide antinarcotics cooperation. But “the real reason I came to China is to activate the outmoded and rusty Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” Ivanov told NEWSWEEK. The SCO, founded in 2001, brings together China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in a loose security confederation that Russia has been working hard to build into a NATO-style alliance. A revamped SCO would be able to have “a significant voice in the international arena, in the G8 and G20,” says Ivanov.
The Chinese seem only too happy to agree. “The sooner the SCO becomes the alternative to NATO forces in the region, the better,” says Wang Lijiu, the senior Russia researcher at the Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. “NATO had almost 10 years to show some positive results … Now the SCO should step in.”
The two Asian giants seem to have rather different expectations from the SCO, though. For China, the alliance is a useful vehicle for damping America’s “overbearing strategy of encirclement and suffocation,” as China’s Academy of Military Science puts it. For Russia, the organization is a way of hanging on to its political influence in Central Asia. The SCO is also the basis of an alternative Asian power bloc—complete with its own emergency development bank, which has handed more than $10 billion in emergency funding to members’ banking systems, as well as a joint rapid-reaction force. And Moscow hopes that the SCO will be a platform for influencing Chinese strategic thinking and shaping the regional security agenda. “We hope to put Russia’s ideas in China’s mind,” says Yuri Krupnov, director of the Institute of Regional Development and Demography in Moscow.
Moscow’s game is to identify as many threats common to Russia and China as it can—and join forces to fight them, very consciously setting a pattern for wider future security cooperation. In Central Asia, they’re starting with joint action on drug control. Next, Ivanov suggests, “Russia and China, by using the drug issue, should put their efforts together to stabilize the situation in Pakistan.” Together, Ivanov believes, Russia and China can work to prevent “U.S. missiles being stationed there.”
That’s big talk, revealing more about the scale of Russia’s ambitions than its real influence. But it’s clear that Russia wants to stay at the main table of Asia’s decision makers, even as its economic clout is eclipsed by China’s. Russia’s economy may be a quarter that of China’s ($1.2 trillion versus $5 trillion), but Moscow is smart enough to realize that the richest pickings are to be found by making friends with the big beasts.