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Combating American hegemony

By |Willy Wo-lap Lam
Senior China Analyst

(CNN) -- "Today's date will be celebrated in history," said President Jiang Zemin at the inauguration of the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) last Friday.

Beijing has made impressive strides in relations with Russia and Central Asia. And Jiang, the originator of "Great Power Diplomacy," has gone beyond predecessor Deng Xiaoping's cautious dictum about world affairs: "Adopt a low profile and never take the lead."

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    The extraordinary move of assembling China, Russia, Kazahkstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan in a close-knit grouping will be followed by Jiang's summit with counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow next month.

    The Beijing leadership is convinced it has made much headway in combating "American hegemony" and building a multi-polar world order.

    While it is too early to say whether these claims are justified, there is little question Beijing's frenetic diplomatic maneuvers the past couple of months have broken new ground.

    Firstly, Beijing has for the first time joined a regional bloc. This is despite former premier Zhou Enlai's commitment way back in the 1950s that the nation would always remain non-aligned.

    Compared with the Shanghai Five, the SCO's precursor that was formed in 1996, the new entity envisages exchanges and cooperation that are tighter and more extensive than a number of regional grouping of nations.

    This was despite Jiang's assertion last week that the SCO was opposed to the formation of alliances, and that it was not "aimed at other countries."

    Jiang, Putin and other leaders also took pains to play down defense ties among the six, saying there was no question of a military alliance.

    The SCO communique pointedly omitted the military dimension when it cited areas of interaction, which include politics, trade, technology, culture, education, culture and the environment.

    However, the defense ministers of the six nations were in Shanghai last week, and military cooperation, including joint exercises and research and development of weaponry, was very much on the agenda.

    The joint exploitation in Central Asia of oil and gas, which are essential to Chinese ability to achieve civilian and military targets, will also be a major catalyst for synergy among the SCO states.

    NATO counterweight

    Last week, the SCO heads of states dwelled mostly on "internal" concerns, particularly fighting the "three evil forces" of terrorism, separatism and extremism.

    There seems little doubt, however, that Jiang and Putin regard the SCO, which covers more than one-quarter of mankind, as a counterweight to NATO and an important pillar of a multi-polar world structure.

    The SCO was a particular triumph for China because as Shanghai-based commentator Zhu Jiajian pointed out, it was the first international organization that bears the name of a Chinese city.

    Jiang and Putin
    Jiang (l) and Putin, forging ties  

    And this has special significance for Jiang, who heads the Shanghai Faction, the largest clique within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

    Jiang would also set another precedent for China next month when he signs the Sino-Russian Treaty of Good-Neighborly Friendship and Cooperation with Putin.

    It will be the first formal friendship treaty that Beijing has concluded with a foreign country after the Cultural Revolution.

    The Jiang-Putin summit will likely be more fruitful than that between Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush last weekend. Analysts are looking particularly for breakthroughs in military cooperation.

    It is understood Beijing is seeking Russian hardware as well as technology in its long-standing bid to combat the threat of American aircraft carriers, the most likely weapon that Washington would deploy to the Taiwan Strait.

    Pooling resources

    There have also been reports of Beijing and Moscow pooling resources to develop equipment, including a radar that can track American "stealth" jetfighters.

    In any case, a sizeable corps of senior Russian engineers already works in China's munitions establishment. Several of these experts have reportedly helped Beijing look at data collected from the U.S. spy plane that is still stranded on Hainan Island.

    However, whether Beijing can achieve the goal of countering "neo-hegemonism" either jointly with Russia or within the confines of the SCO, depends on a number of factors.

    Despite achieving a quasi-alliance relationship, Beijing and Moscow harbor mutual suspicions -- and potential rivalry could erupt in the course of SCO-related interactions.

    Putin, Jiang and other members
    Fearing domination by China and Russia?  

    Going by most indicators, including what Jiang terms "comprehensive national strength," Beijing has overtaken Moscow -- and Beijing seems keen to set much of the SCO's agenda.

    Fearing domination

    There are also possible rivalries and conflicts between China and Russia on the one hand, and the four smaller countries on the other.

    Both Beijing and Moscow have played up alleged efforts by Washington and NATO to subvert and undermine Central Asian regimes.

    Diplomatic analysts have pointed out that owing to historical and other factors, the four republics would also have ample reasons to fear domination by China or Russia.

    They say since Western countries and corporations are offering better terms for their oil and gas, a sizeable number of political and economic groups in the four lesser SCO partners actually favor cozier ties with the U.S. and EU.

    The question of SCO cohesiveness looms larger given the likelihood that one or more countries, including Mongolia, Pakistan and India, may join the body in the coming year or so.

    Paradoxically, while the SCO’s hidden agenda is to halt U.S. predominance, much of its success depends on future developments in Sino-American as well as Russia-American relations.

    It is a truism among students of the triangular ties among China, Russia and the U.S. that in areas including the economy, Beijing and Moscow need Washington more than they need each other.

    For example, China’s trade surplus with the U.S., which is more than US$80 billion, is ten times its entire trade with Russia.

    In internal meetings, top CCP cadres such as Jiang and Premier Zhu have continued to put Sino-U.S. ties at the top of their foreign-policy agenda.

    For example, both Jiang and Zhu have vowed to follow Deng’s “low profile” diplomacy. They have reiterated that given China’s dependence on the U.S. market as well as investment, it will be futile for Beijing to knock horns with Washington.

    From one perspective, playing the SCO card is a clever way of projecting Chinese power and serving a warning on Washington without a head-on collision with the superpower.

    Given the complexity of the triangular relationship among Beijing, Moscow and Washington, however, striking the right balance may require skills and strengths that may go beyond the Jiang leadership and the country's capacities.

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