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Interview: The SCO, Security, And A New 'Great Game'

The leaders of Shanghai Cooperation Organization states Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, China, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan in Beijing at the SCO's 2012 summit.
The leaders of Shanghai Cooperation Organization states Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, China, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan in Beijing at the SCO's 2012 summit.
The end of NATO's mission in Afghanistan has profound implications on the geopolitics of Central Asia. Related security concerns are expected to be raised at this week's Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Bishkek that gathers the leaders of Russia, China, and the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

James Reardon-Anderson, a professor of Chinese studies and senior associate dean at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C., spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz about the SCO summit and Central Asia's changing geopolitical significance.

RFE/RL: As NATO plans its withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the United States also is preparing to dismantle the transport routes it has negotiated through Russia and Central Asia in order to supply NATO troops in Afghanistan. How is this going to affect the geopolitical significance of Central Asia in terms of Washington's relations with Moscow?

James Reardon-Anderson: The end of the American military initiative in Afghanistan and the closing down of that overland supply route through Russia and [Central Asia] to Afghanistan will have all kinds of ramifications. Most notably, it will remove one of the major interests that the United States has in Russia.

One of the reasons that [the United States] is now dealing gingerly with the Russians is that [the United States] really needs that supply line. The absence of [the need for] that supply line is going to have a major effect on all of the major players in that part of the world.

RFE/RL: Does that mean the United States will no longer be a player in what some experts call the "new Great Game" in Central Asia?

Reardon-Anderson: There may be a new Great Game in Central Asia, but it is going to have a lot less importance to the United States than the new Great Game in the western Pacific and East Asian waters. [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama has indicated that the United States will [have a] so-called "pivot" in East Asia.

The big game for [the United States] is going to be the security of the naval supply line from the Persian Gulf across the Indian Ocean and up through the South China Sea. That is really where the focus of action is going to be. I would not expect the United States to try to sustain a major presence or have a major influence in Central Asia.

Russian, Chinese Focus

RFE/RL: Russia has had disputes with Turkmenistan and other former Soviet republics in Central Asia about the price and supply of oil and natural gas. Do you expect Russia to try to reorient its foreign policies on Central Asia as a result of NATO's departure from the region?

Reardon-Anderson: Clearly, the Russians have a greater interest in Central Asia than does the United States. That is primarily an area that will be a focus of attention from both the Russians and the Chinese. However, that is dwarfed by Russian interests to the west and the south -- in particular, Belarus and Ukraine and the Caucasus. That's much closer to Russian interests.

There is a much greater profit from natural-gas supply lines through Ukraine to Western Europe. There is a much greater interest in security access to warm-water ports through Sevastopol into the Black Sea. Those are much bigger issues for the Russians than Central Asia. So I don't see this as a major tilt of Russian interests and national commitment in Central Asia. I don't think that is true.

RFE/RL: That suggests China has an opportunity at this week's Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Bishkek to try to arrange regional security deals with its Central Asian neighbors. What security concerns do you think China would like to address at the SCO summit in Bishkek?

Reardon-Anderson: The Chinese have claimed that Uyghur militants [in western China] have been trained in Pakistan -- the same military training bases in Pakistan that trained members of the Taliban in Afghanistan and other such Islamic extremist groups. So the Chinese are quite concerned about the possible training of Uyghur militants in Pakistan. And, of course, as the situation disintegrates in Afghanistan, that is likely to be another area of vulnerability.

[For Beijing], the virtue of the "Stans" -- the five Central Asian republics -- is that they have relatively strong authoritarian governments with whom the Chinese can deal [as they] hope to contain cross-border shipments of arms or the movement of the [Uyghur] population. The disintegration of authority in Afghanistan -- the continuing situation, particularly along the Afghan border and Pakistan -- make it much more difficult to control the Uyghurs in that area.

News Quiz: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization

News Quiz: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization

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