- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2008

BEIJING | As tensions escalate between the United States and Russia over the conflict in the Caucasus, China is a likely beneficiary.

While striving to remain neutral, Beijing could find opportunities to build greater diplomatic muscle, especially through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), analysts say.

At a recent summit of the SCO, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had hoped to secure the support of fellow member countries - China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - for the Russian invasion of Georgia and decision to recognize the independence of the disputed enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Instead, the cautious joint statement released after the conclusion of the meeting in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe reflected China’s position: refraining from granting Russia explicit backing but stopping well short of condemnation.

“[We] express grave concern in connection with the recent tensions around the South Ossetian issue and urge the sides to solve existing problems peacefully, through dialogue, and to make efforts facilitating reconciliation and talks,” the statement read.

However, it did express support for “Russia’s active role in contributing to peace and cooperation in the region” after the cease-fire deal that ended clashes between Russia and Georgia.

Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies in Beijing´s Tsinghua University, said damage to Sino-Russian relations has already been done.

“China has adopted a very neutral stance out of great concern for its relationship with the U.S., other members of the SCO and Europe. They also understand the fear of the other countries neighboring Russia.

“But the SCO statement has undermined the strategic partnership between Russia and China. Russia will suspect China´s sincerity. It needs China´s support badly, but China has remained neutral,” Mr. Yan said.

Other political scientists argue that Russia could not have expected China to fully endorse its actions, given China´s unyielding stance on issues of territorial integrity.

The Chinese government is loath to support any form of separatism, which could be seen to undermine its policies on Tibet, Taiwan or Xinjiang.

While Mr. Yan insists that the conflict in Georgia has only brought China trouble, Dimitri Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the war signals the second time that China has benefited from global strife in the past seven years.

“China has been saved for the second time this decade. The first time was in 2001 when al Qaeda saved it from having to face up to the U.S. This time it has been saved by [Georgian President] Mikhail Saakashvili.

“The relationship between the U.S. and Russia has soured and sunk to even lower depths. It takes the focus off China, and China appreciates this. The situation buys China time to strengthen itself, so by the time China and U.S. come to quarrel again, China will be stronger, and the U.S. will find things more difficult,” he said.

The widening split between Russia and Western powers could also work to China´s advantage when it comes to its future dealings with Russia, he theorized.

“When Russia encounters more difficulties with the West, it will come to China. As a result, China will be in a better position to set its own terms, such as the price of gas and the structure of the SCO,” Mr. Trenin said.

Some experts have speculated that China could be pushed closer to the West if Russia pursues aggression in Central Asia. But Mr. Yan ruled out this possibility, citing entrenched differences in political ideologies.

Pragmatism comfortably overrides ideology in China´s relationship with Russia, and both sides stand to bear significant losses from any splintering of their ties, not least regarding border security.

Although relations lack any “special warmth,” Mr. Trenin said, “They both value the fact that they don´t have to look at the other party as a likely adversary.”

China and Russia will also be wary of undermining the rising power of the SCO, an alliance described as an “axis of convenience” by Bobo Lo, director of the Russia and China programs at the London-based Center for European Reform.

The two powers have used the SCO to settle border disputes, strengthen energy cooperation and establish a challenger to the U.S.-led NATO.

China is reliant on other member countries, such as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, for oil and gas supplies, and the SCO provides Russia with the means to exert an element of control over China´s expansion into the region.

J. Peter Pham, a professor at James Madison University and a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, said the interests motivating the SCO member states “are more permanent and likely to outlast the Georgian crisis of the moment.”

“I suspect that the SCO members, while ambiguous about Russia´s actions in Georgia, will find a way to compose any differences between them, which are nonetheless smaller than their differences with countries outside their bloc.

“While President Dmitry Medvedev may have overreached in expecting the Dushanbe summit to endorse his actions, he was correct in assuming that they were unlikely to condemn him. At least for the foreseeable future, the regimes which are members of the bloc have too many shared interests to jeopardize their nascent alliance for the sake of any outsider, much less one like Georgia, which is so clearly aligned with the West,” he wrote in an e-mail.

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