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POLITICS: Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Split on Georgia

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Sep 1 2008 (IPS) - Moscow’s decision to recognise the two separatist regions of Georgia as independent states has exposed the divergence of geopolitical interests within the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

While the Kremlin has sought to build a counterweight to Western alliances by lobbying its diplomatic partners in the SCO, the Georgia conflict has revealed conflicting loyalties among Russia, China and the West.

Faced with the first serious military conflict since its establishment in 2001, the SCO has failed to take a clear-cut stance, hiding its ambiguity behind statements of concern over the tensions in the region and praise for Russia’s role.

Led by China, the group’s other four members – the Central Asian ex-Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – refrained from condemning Georgia for igniting the conflict. They stopped short of endorsing the birth of the two independent republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, now formally recognised by Moscow.

Beijing has billed its response to the crisis as one corresponding with the country’s long-standing policy of refusing to lend support for any separatist movement. But Chinese analysts here say two other reasons underpinned Beijing’s decision to withhold its unequivocal support to Russia; its desire to avoid any anti-western flourishes, and its fear that Georgia conflict may come to play as a prelude to another long-term stand off between Russia and the west.

"Are we headed for another Cold War?" said Liang Qiang, researcher on Russia and Central Asia with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "We don’t know yet but it is the first time since the demise of the former Soviet Union that Russia has decided to deploy its military forces so extensively. However brief, the conflict between Russia and Georgia shows that NATO’s intended expansion eastward is not something that Russia is prepared to watch idly."

Fang Yan, a commentator writing in the ‘Beijing News’ speculated that Russia and Georgia’s conflict is merely a "semi-final" in a geopolitical game where Russia’s real opponent is the United States. "We can’t help it but wonder: who is the next South Ossetia?" Fang asked.

Beijing may have shied away from criticising Russia over its support for breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia but its anxiety over such precedents is palpable. With restless ethnic minorities in Tibet and the Muslim province of Xinjiang, China is battling separatist claims of its own and had expressed repeatedly its "concern" about the developments between Russia and Georgia.

"We are fully aware of the complicated history and reality of the issues of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and given our consistent position on such issues, we hope the relevant countries properly resolve the issues through dialogue and consultation," foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters in Beijing.

Russia observers in China argue that Moscow has not been caught unawares of Georgia’s intentions and that the Kremlin had displayed readiness to cope with the consequences of its declaration over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The underlying argument is that Russia does not necessarily need China’s help in sorting out the current crisis.

"Russia is well aware that it holds its oil resources as a bargaining chip to negotiate its position," says Qiang Xiaoyun, Russia watcher at Shanghai International Relations Institute. "By contrast, the West has limited options to punish Moscow. From Russia’s actions so far – its ban on poultry imports from the U.S., its freeze on cooperation with NATO and change of heart on WTO membership, one can see that Moscow has been more than ready for the conflict."

China cannot afford to be seen as supporting alliances that can damage its diplomatic standing as a responsible global player. Compared to Russia, China is more dependent on the outside world for oil, natural resources and investment. Over the last thirty years Chinese leaders have laboured continuously to ensure that nothing spoils the country’s peaceful development so that it can achieve its dream of national renaissance.

Moreover, China has just scored high marks for its preparation and hosting of the 29th Olympic Games in Beijing – seen from here as a culmination of its efforts to rejoin the international community and be recognised as a major player.

"It would be difficult to imagine that China would have done anything to spoil that impression and undermine its feat by thrusting itself in the middle of Russia’s quarrel with the west," said a commentary in the ‘China Business Journal.’

Lastly, but not less importantly, the Georgia conflict seems to have inadvertently forwarded China’s energy interests in the region. Experts believe that prolonged instability and tension in Georgia may lead to the Central Asian republics abandoning plans to sell their energy resources to Russia and turning instead to China.

Both Russia and the West have been courting the Central Asian republics for their oil and gas riches. But China has moved much faster than its competitors. Beijing has already sealed a deal to buy up to 40 billion cubic metres of gas annually from Turkmenistan and is currently building a pipeline to carry it across Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan into western China.

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