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Robert D. Kaplan on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Agenda)

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Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, Stratfor cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Colin Chapman: As the bloodshed in Syria continues, any hope that China might break with Russia in its refusal to back other U.N. Security Council members' efforts to pressure President Bashar Al Assad to end the violence vanished. After the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Beijing, presidents Hu Jintao and Vladimir Putin called for more dialogue. They also opposed any international use of force against Iran. The meeting, attended by the presidents of most of the nations that were formerly Soviet republics, the so-called stands also agreed to a range of cooperative measures and invited Turkey to join their group. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was at the two-day summit as an observer as well as Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai. So what is this organization and what does it really stand for?

Joining me on Agenda this week is Stratfor's Chief Analyst Robert Kaplan. Robert, what is the SCO's real significance?

Robert D. Kaplan: The Shanghai Cooperation Council is actually a very soft anti-western, anti democratic grouping that shows the world that there's this vast tract of Eurasia that rejects western moralism western universalism, that is sick and tired of the moralistic, universalist pronouncements of Washington and other places regarding events. And it's basically the tool of a Moscow-Beijing, a Russian-Chinese alliance. But while they call it a strategic alliance, it's really a tactical one. Because the dirty little truth is that Russia and China can never be strategic partners because of mutual suspicions and a long, bad history along their land borders, which stretch thousands of miles. And that is important to go into some detail on to give you a sense of just how fraught the Russian-Chinese relationship has been over the last few hundred years right up to the present.

Colin: Nevertheless, they use the meeting to voice unity against possible western moves to oust al Assad from Syria.

Robert: Yes, however again there's a truth — a truth that goes unspoken. Russia and China may agree that there should be no humanitarian intervention in Syria, but Russia is much more concerned with its trade with Europe than it is with its trade with China. And China is much more concerned with its economic relationship with the United States than it is with its economic relationship with Russia. So each may attack the West but each actually needs the West more than each needs each other.

Colin: How do you assess the personal relationship between the two presidents — Putin and Hu? Is it better than it was, much the same or is it quite fractious?

Robert: It's much better than it was but it's also very superficial. Remember, less than 7 million people live on the Russian side of the Russian Far East. On the other side of the border in China, in Manchuria, you have a 100 million people. China wants badly the natural gas, oil, timber, diamonds and gold in the Russian Far East. Russia fears Chinese encroachment into this area. Also the whole of western China — Xinjiang province — which is populated heavily by Uighurs Turks, was actually administered in a de facto sense by Russia in the 1930s so that Russia and China have a very fractious, historical relationship over western China. And then there's the two countries battling over Central Asia for the former Soviet Union. Russia seeks to reclaim its Central Asian near abroad — places like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, etc. China in fact is flooding these countries with cash, building pipelines — an oil pipeline across Kazakhstan into western China, a natural gas pipeline across Turkmenistan into western China. The two countries are clearly rivals over the destiny of Central Asia. They don't trust each other along their land borders. Remember that thing called the Sino-Soviet split back in the early 1960s when hundreds of thousands of troops were massed against each other on each side of the of the border of Russia and China. It was this split between Russia and China that gave Nixon the opportunity to have an opening to China in the 1970s. Now, we have a marriage of convenience. Both parties didn't like western intervention in Libya. They don't like the specter of western intervention in Syria. They are uncomfortable with anything that may happen in Iran regarding an American intervention or an Israeli military strike. So they have a lot to agree upon, but all these things they have to agree upon are relatively for the moment superficial. Underlying forces of history and trade today where each side has more equities with the West than with each other militate against a true strategic partnership.

Colin: The rhetoric would seem to be designed to show the world that any rivalry is in fact now in check.

Robert: Yes, absolutely. I think we'll see the Shanghai Cooperation Organization be a kind of…it will be sort of like the United Nations, like the pronouncements of the European Union. You know they'll get news attention; they'll be communiques; but deep down it will not amount to all that much.

Colin: They have a big list of areas on which they say they will cooperate: finance, transport, energy, telecommunications and agriculture. Is this just rhetoric?

Robert: It's a bit more than rhetoric. Obviously, Russia would like to sell more natural gas to China. There is room; there is space for cooperation in these fields close to their border, but even as these two sides cooperate, both are wary of each other. Mongolia for instance, which I didn't mention  — outer Mongolia that is — was essentially a satellite of Moscow through most of the 20th century. Now Beijing, China, is encroaching upon Mongolia by building roads, buying up grasslands and mineral rights, etc., so that China is trying to replace the ex-Soviet Union as the dominant power in Mongolia.

Colin: Just before we go, I was interested they've invited Turkey to join their club.

Robert: Yes that's a bit of a stretch. Because Turkey unlike China and Russia is a real democracy — you know an authentic democracy — unlike Russia and unlike China's authoritarian state. But Turkey of course is somewhat estranged from the West. You know Turkey had failed to gain admittance to the European Union up until now. Turkey has had some real disagreements over the past decade with United States foreign policy starting with the Iraq war. Continuing, Turkey has a much more nuanced relationship with Iran than Washington does. So there are areas where Turkey can move closer to China and to Russia. But again what ties these far-flung countries together is at the end of the day superficial.

Colin: Robert Kaplan there ending this week's Agenda. Thanks for being with us and until the next time, goodbye.

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