The Eurasian Geo-Political Earthquake
While the American press and political class is occupied by the possible outing of a CIA analyst, grandstanding on oil prices, and the liberal lightweught Supreme Court nominee, America's role as encumbered but unstopable superpower may end. Through
diplomacy and with the help wasted American political capital, China may become our strategic equal far earlier than anyone anticipated in the West.
The heretofore irrelevant Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), got a major boast at its Moscow meeting yesterday and today. Composed of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the UN recognized SCO, will review joint military exercises and, more ominously, may create a "contact group" for Afghanistan. According to a Christian Science Monitor article, the communist and post-communist bloc of dictators may soon invite Pakistan, India, and/or Iran.
Supposedly created in 2001 to facilitate economic development and stop the spread of Islamism, the groups was largely viewed as an attempt to limit western influence in authoritarian regimes. In so far as the cooperation allowed for the suppression Islamists and rebellious Muslim ethnic minorities, the global effect of the SCO was limited.
China, Russia, and the Central Asian Turkic Republics have historical hatreds of each other, but are now drawn together by a desire to limit the influence of the US. China and Russia have a long history of border disputes, which led to a number of military clashes in the last 120 years. From the 1970's onwards the USSR and China vied for control of the communist world. After the fall of the USSR, Russia's hold on Siberia is becoming tenuous. The declining Russian population in Siberia now contends with hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants, especially along the Amur River.
The other historical region in contention between China and Russia has been the Eurasian Steppe. After the end of the Mongol Empire, central Asia has been divided along Indian, Persian, Russian, and Chinese spheres of influence. In the 19th Century, Britain took over India's role of economic, but Russia conquered the entire region except for the Chinese tributaries of Tibet and East Turkestan. While there were some attempts towards a Pan-Turkic alliance led by Turkey, the spread of Islamism and Turkey's economic malaise ended that dream. The "ex"-communist dictators of the the Turkic republics kept close ties to Russia. The only real defector was Azerbaijan. Seeing a rise in Islamism, and bristling at American attempts to spread democracy, the Central Asian Turkic republics are increasing ties with Russia and China, while maintaining internal independence.
Over the last 15 years, as its economy has grown, the Chinese military has gone through a rapid program of modernization. Using civilian and military contracts, China has purchased advanced weapons systems and parts from Russia, Europe, Israel and the US. More importantly, the Chinese arms industry has gained technical expertise through reverse engineering, espionage, and co-production agreements. The Chinese air force (PLA-AF) now fields the Russian SU-30MKK, which is analogous to and nearly as sophisticated as the F-15E. Moreover, China is now producing the J-11, a Chinese built variant of the SU-27. Fortunately, the PLA-AF is having difficulties with the indigenous FC-1/JF-17, a F-16 knock off, and the more advanced J-10, a strike fighter believed to be derived from the F-16 and the Israeli Lavi. Having seen America's military dominance based on use of precision guided munitions and C4I (command, control, communications, computing, and Intelligence) China has also built up these capabilities. In fact, while the implementation may be crude and the computing analysis behind it limited, China is now fielding two Airborne Early Warning control and Intelligence platforms using advanced electronically steered phased array systems.
The KJ-2000 and Y-8 rival analogous Japanese and Western platforms. The growth of the PLA Navy is equally astounding. A generation ago, it fielded obsolete copies of Soviet equipment. Today its surface fleet includes an Aegis-like destroyer, the Type 51C.
Because of its growing economic and military power and American indecisiveness, China has become diplomatically adventurous. Ignoring American historical control, China has forged deals, and possibly an alliance with, Panama, Cuba, and Venezuela. Despite deals with Venezuela and China's local dirty coal, skyrocketing energy demand has led it to closer ties with Russia and with Middle Eastern and African nations. While American's feel the pressure of higher oil prices today, the strategic implications will hurt in the future. China's military and oil deals with Ba'athist Iraq are under-reported in America, but available to anyone investigating the oil-for-food fiasco. However, China's willingness to help Islamist regimes with oil trade, energy exploration, and military sales is potentially devastating to the US. China has been the patron of Sudan, and is the 500 pound gorilla no one mentions in the genocide in Darfur and West Sudan. Having shown willingness to fund Jihad in Sudan, China has joined Russia in developing petrochemical resources in and diplomatically defending Iran.
The thought that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will grow to include either or both Iran and Pakistan is a nightmare for the US and the West. Iran's history of terrorism, bombastic claims, and religious zeal to unify the Muslim world is well established. The possibility that Iran will soon have nuclear weapons and that it may not follow the logic of "Mutually Assured Destruction" is a terrifying prospect. Currently, with the US busy with Iraq, the EU unwilling to act, and the rest of the world impeded by high oil prices, the issue has been kicked around in the UN. Given the diplomatic protection by China and Russia, Iran has a free hand. While the US either alone or with other countries could destroy most of Iran's nuclear infrastructure and conventional military, the resulting terrorism and oil shock has left Israel, the only country openly talking about a military option. If Iran alone is included in the SCO, the mullahs will be free to unify Shia Muslims, destabilize the region, and conduct terrorism as needed.
Pakistan, already an observer to the SCO and partner in a long standing alliance with China, remains at a cross roads. Pakistan is nominally an ally in the "War on Terror". However, the reality is far more complex. An artificial country built on the Muslim-Hindu partition and war of 1947 has long been a hotbed of Islamic extremism. The ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency, has essentially run Jihadi terrorist cells in a campaign against Indian control of Kashmir. In the 1980's, the CIA allowed the increasing Islamist dominated ISI to control US aid to the Afghani resistance and foreign Mujehadeen. After the Soviet retreat, American involvement in Afghanistan waned, leaving it a poppy-funded battleground, contested between warlords and Shi'ite and Sunni Islamists. It was the ISI which created and helped install the Taliban. Since the American invasion of Afghanistan the remnants of the Taliban and allied Al Qaeda groups are hiding along the Pashtun tribes which straddle the border and perhaps in other areas of Pakistan. There have been many attempts on the life of President Musharraf, who has been our main source of support in Pakistan since his rise to power in a coup in 1999. Should one of these attempts succeed, or if Musharraf goes to far and is overthrown, it is entirely possible that Pakistan will become Islamist. Like Iran, a nuclear Islamist Pakistan would seek to control the entire Middle East.
Although India and Pakistan remain locked in a cycle of conflicts and rapprochements over territorial claims, and China still occupies Indian territory; India has a number of reasons to join the SCO, to which it is already an observer. Foremost is the fear that India will be an outsider, between a hostile Pakistan and China, and cut off from its defense suppliers in Russia. With a post-inflationary growth rate of 7%, India also needs hydrocarbon energy resources. The prospect of a pipeline through Pakistan to Iran or Turkmenistan is tempting to all parties. While India's economic growth is largely dependant on trade with the US, the Congress Party, which resumed its rule over India. During the Cold War, India was an undeclared ally of the USSR, and remains friendly with Russia. After signing more economic deals to work with Russia on developing natural resources and information technology, India made its pitch to join the SCO today. If India is admitted the dream of the US and Japan to use India as a bulwark against China is dead. China will come to dominate Asia through diplomacy, backed up by its growing economic and military power.
While Russia, which produces heavy oil that is only profitable above $20/barrel, may reap economic benefit from increased instability in the Middle East, China is a major importer of oil. Moreover both Russia and China have large restless Muslim populations. Their shared strategic interest in the Middle East is stability and trade. This stability is threatened by the American neoconservative agenda of exporting democracy, as well as by the prospect of Iranian or Pakistani conflict or dominance. On the one hand Islamism threatens the Turkic Republics. On the other hand, cooperation with Iran and Pakistan will allow for export of the oil and natural gas found in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Hence it is in the interest of the current members to either admit or dangle the prospect of admittance to both Iran and Pakistan. A likely result for the US will be that we are pushed out of the Middle East. Many friendly or at least non-hostile regimes would then likely fall to Islamists. These Islamists would only be held in check by the SCO. This may not be Bin Laden's plan, but it will be a huge defeat for the US and the West.
Given the past hostilities and smoldering tensions between members of and observers to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a set of multilateral defense treaties is unlikely. It is far more likely that the SCO will be a forum for diplomatic and trade initiatives. In either case the strategic competitor to this group is the US. The geo-political aftershocks of acceptance to the SCO of India, Iran, and/or Pakistan will reverberate for decades.