The South Asia Channel

Russia, China, and stabilizing South Asia

As the U.S. begins to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Russia and China have both declared a desire to increase their military presence throughout Central and South Asia. This new regional alignment, however, should not be viewed as a threat to U.S. strategic national interests but seen rather as concurrent with strategic and regional interests of the United States: regional peace, stability and the prevention of future terrorist safe havens in ungoverned territories. As China and Russia begin to flex their military muscles, the U.S. military should harness their expanded regional influence to promote proactively a new period of responsible multilateral support for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This past December it became clearer that Russia had begun to re-assert its regional presence when the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) granted Russia the veto power over any member state's future decision to host a foreign military. CSTO members, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, have become increasingly valuable U.S. partners in the Northern Distribution Network after Pakistan shut down U.S. military supply routes running from the south into Afghanistan when NATO troops killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November in the border area of Salala. Though it appears the route may soon open again, the United States must still adopt a new strategy that works more closely with Russia and the CSTO to maintain the Northern Distribution Network long into the future, which currently accounts for about 60 percent of all cargo transiting Central Asia en route to Afghanistan.

Certainly, the U.S. risks being unable to control many aspects of the Northern Distribution Network as it withdraws from the region, and this may in turn adversely affect Afghanistan's future success. However, if the United States remains concerned about leaving the region to a historically obdurate regional rival like Russia, it should also bear in mind that Russia has a vital strategic interest in the future stability of the region. Russia has approximately 15 million Muslims living within its borders, with an estimated 2 million Muslims in Moscow. Russia is fearful of what occurs on its periphery and wants to minimize the spread of Muslim extremism that may originate from an unstable Afghanistan or Pakistan. In addition, Russia does not want regional instability that threatens its oil and gas investments. In particular, Russia wants to ensure that it continues to influence the planning and implementation of the potentially lucrative natural gas pipeline that may one day traverse Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

In a recent meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discussed Russia's commitment to preserving peace and stability throughout the AfPak region, and rejected the use of violence by al-Qaeda and its affiliates that aim to undermine the current Afghan government. Furthermore, he pledged to bolster bilateral ties and work cooperatively with Pakistan to achieve stability in Afghanistan. A newly-elected President Vladimir Putin also recently wrote in a campaign brief that "Russia will help Afghanistan develop its economy and strengthen its military to fight terrorism and drug production." It is not lost on the U.S. government that Russia is proposing to succeed where the U.S. has struggled. However, if Russia does succeed in helping establish a secure Afghanistan and Pakistan that can prevent the spread of bases for terrorism then it is a victory for everyone.

Aside from Pakistan, and in line with promoting security throughout the region, Russia announced recently that it will provide $16 million to Kyrgyzstan to assist with border security in the south. Russia also agreed recently to pay $15 million in back rent for its four military facilities across the country, including an air base, a torpedo test center on Lake Issyk-Kul, and a communications center in the south. Further, Russia signed a security pact with Tajikistan last fall to extend its basing lease for 49 years, in addition to a bilateral agreement that will enable Russia to become more integrated into Tajikistan's border security forces that oversee an 830-mile border with Afghanistan. Providing similar types of U.S. aid and security support will also help ensure that the valuable Northern Distribution Network remains open and secure for supply lines into Afghanistan. If the northern trade routes are shut down it would adversely affect aid arriving to Afghanistan and therefore jeopardize the stability of Afghanistan and the region. It would also be in opposition to Russia's regional interests.

Rather than citing these examples in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as a demonstration of how the U.S. will soon lose out in the region to a resurgent Russia, policymakers can view them as an indication of how Russian interests align with the U.S. to help maintain regional security. More importantly, if Russia wants to take a more active future role in Central Asia, the U.S. should address this shift and work directly with Russia and other CSTO members to ensure that the Northern Distribution Network remains operational in the distant future.  

Certainly, the U.S. should not be naïve to think that Russia will not at times oppose U.S. regional interests and that there will not be significant areas of conflict. In 2009, Russia tried to convince then President of Kyrgyzstan Kurmanbek Bakiyev to terminate the U.S. contract for its base in Manas. In this case, the U.S. fended off the threat of expulsion successfully through promises of increased U.S. military and economic aid. Continuing to maintain significant amounts of aid to the Central Asia Republics will therefore provide additional incentives to ensure the U.S. is less vulnerable to Russian whims, while at the same time remaining present and active for the benefit of regional security and the maintenance of the Northern Distribution Network. 

Another powerful regional player, China, also has a vested interest in the stability of the AfPak region, and has already begun to play a more active security role. It was reported this past January, for example, that China intends to establish one or more bases in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Subsequently, at the end of February, Beijing played host to the first China-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral dialogue to discuss regional cooperation and stability.

Due to China's shared borders and vibrant trade with both Afghanistan and Pakistan -- not to mention China's estimated 8 million Turkic-speaking Muslim Uyghurs living in western Xinjiang Province -- it has a direct interest in ensuring that both Afghanistan and Pakistan remain stable long into the future. Bilateral trade between China and Pakistan, for example, increased 28 percent in the past year to approximately $8.7 billion. China also signed an oil agreement with Afghanistan in December that could be worth $7 billion over the next two decades. Additionally, China is concerned about the rise of its Uyghur separatist movement that maintains safe havens in both countries, in addition to the spread of radical Islam. The United States should push China to become more actively engaged in Pakistan's security affairs as China has a direct interest in moderating radicalism in Pakistan and keeping it stable.

Indicative of Pakistan's strategic value to China, since 2002 China has financed the construction and development of Pakistan's Gwadar deep water port project. China has contributed more than $1.6 billion toward the port's development as a major shipping and soon-to-be naval hub, which is located just 250 miles from the opening of the Persian Gulf.  A Pakistan Supreme Court decision in 2011 enabled China to take full control of Gwadar from a Singapore management company further establishing China's firm position in the Pakistani port city.

The creation of a new Chinese military network in Pakistan between Gwadar and the FATA would enable China to oversee the transit and protection of Chinese goods and investments that travel from both the coast and interior through the Karakorum corridor to China's Xinjiang Province. China already has an estimated 4,000 troops in Gilgit Baltistan, part of the larger and disputed Kashmir, and just recently it was reported after a January 2012 trip by Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani to China that Pakistan is considering leasing Gilgit Baltistan to China for the next 50 years. Such a move would indeed escalate tensions with India to the south, but from a Pakistani perspective, China would be positioned better than it already is to assist with any future Pakistani national security concerns. And from a Chinese perspective, it would improve their ability to monitor any illicit Uyghur activities aimed at inciting further rebellion in western China.

With interest comes responsibility, and in the wake of the recent reports predicting the establishment of a more robust Chinese military network across Pakistan, it is time that China begins to supplement its increased involvement in Pakistan by helping to maintain peace and stability throughout the entire AfPak region. Certainly after fighting two long wars, the United States can no longer be the sole world power responsible for the region, and both China and Russia have been U.S. security free-riders for too long. They have benefited financially while NATO continues to lose soldiers and accrue a massive war debt. After 11 years of war, it is time the United States work more proactively with Russia, China, Pakistan and the Central Asian Republics to create solutions for the future stability and collective security of the region. Indeed, we may not have a choice, and the United States should embrace the transformation of a new era in Eurasia's heartland.

Dr. Geoffrey F. Gresh is Assistant Professor of International Security Studies at National Defense University in Washington, D.C.  The views expressed here are strictly his own.

VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images

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