Before the terrorist acts in New York City, the U.S. looked to be largely absent diplomatically and militarily, while limiting its economic presence to Caspian energy development in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Yet the formation of a U.S.-sponsored ‘global anti-terrorist coalition’ has not undercut the basis for the Sino-Russian rapprochement signaled by the institutionalization of the SCO and the signing of the first bilateral Sino-Russian treaty in fifty years.
Uzbekistan is a weathervane of Central Asian geopolitics. In 1995, as part of its recurrent diplomatic competition with Kazakhstan, the country won designation as a ‘strategic partner’ of the United States. After Kazakhstan was granted the same honor a few years later, Uzbekistan replied by joining the GUAM (Georgia-Ukraine-Azerbaijan-Moldova) entente, turning it into GUUAM. In line with this turn towards the U.S., Uzbekistan left the CIS Collective Security Treaty in May 1999. However, after the February 1999 Tashkent bombings were followed that summer by incursions from the Taliban-backed Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Karimov publicly declared his recognition of "Russia’s interests in Uzbekistan" during a December 1999 visit by President Vladimir Putin to Tashkent.
Anti-Russian propaganda in the country’s mass media was subsequently toned down. It seemed at the time that Russia was the only great power that would send troops to Central Asia to fight the militants. Despite U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s April 2000 visit to Tashkent, during a whirlwind tour of Central Asian capitals, when Putin followed her a month later, Karimov declared that there was no discrepancy whatsoever between Uzbekistan’s strategic view of Central Asia and Russia’s. This was significantly further than his already strong statement of December 1999.
The background to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is also indicative of this evolution.. If Uzbekistan did not participate in the group when it was set up in 1996 among China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, that was because the ‘Shanghai-5’ as they were then called focused at the time on delimiting and demilitarizing the China-CIS border, and Uzbekistan has no border with China. Incidentally, the Shanghai-5’s early successes on confidence-building measures render ironic China’s unceremonious seizure by military force this year of over 150 square miles of Kazakhstani territory, giving it control of the watershed of the Black Irtysh River.
In the late 1990s, the Shanghai-5 shifted focus to address Islamic militancy. Its August 1999 Bishkek summit reached an agreement on fighting terrorism. Part of that agreement involved setting up an anti-terrorist center in Bishkek itself, eventually hosting a joint Sino-Russian rapid deployment force. This center, which the CIS decided would serve to coordinate its own activities in the field as well, has not yet been established. Although Karimov did not attend the August 1999 summit of the Shanghai-5, he let his interest in cooperation be known in early 2000.
In June this year, with Uzbekistan in attendance as a new member, the Shanghai grouping institutionalized itself as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). At the time, for Uzbekistan to join SCO looked like part of the ongoing consolidation of regional international systems, in the context of the emergence of a networked global international system following the end of the post-Cold War transition. It seemed that Central Asia would be divided between competing Russian and Chinese spheres of influence, the latter seeking to expand westward from Xinjiang but also threatening Russia interests through illegal immigration to Siberia as well as Central Asia.
Yet Russia seemed unconcerned enough by such a prospect to sign with China, in July, the first Treaty on Good-Neighborly Relations, Friendship, and Cooperation between the two countries in half a century. The treaty includes provisions for up to 2,000 Chinese officers to be trained annually in Russian military schools and Russian arms sales to China (which reached the level of over $2 billion by the end of the 1990s) to rise still higher, including high-technology imports for indigenous weapons development. Two of China’s intentions in founding the SCO were to increase pressure the Central Asian countries to act against Uighur militants, and to oppose U.S. global political and economic interests. Indeed, on September 11 a Chinese delegation was in Kabul signing a long-term economic and technical cooperation agreement with the Taliban regime. The SCO’s creation and the bilateral Sino-Russian treaty demonstrate some areas of emerging agreement between Russia and China on basic issues of international politics.
The Chinese media even appropriated the catchphrase ‘new world order’ to describe the SCO’s push for the ‘multipolarization’ of world politics based on ‘democratic, fair, and rational’ principles, in opposition to ‘American hegemonism’ and ‘U.S. power politics.’ Although it is an open secret that Putin’s strategic cooperation with the United States confronts opposition from the Red Army general staff, nevertheless his worldview is still in flux. However, his refusal to budge on the ABM Treaty is as much due to a refusal to abandon the bases of his strategic rapprochement with China, as it is to his own generals.
The years from 1991 to 2001 do not represent a ‘post-Cold War system’ but a transitional period a new international structure. The three main ‘architects’ of a post-Cold War system in Eurasia in general, and Central Asia in particular, will be the United States, Russia, and China. Before the terrorist acts in New York City, the U.S. looked to be largely absent diplomatically and militarily, while limiting its economic presence to Caspian energy development in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Yet the formation of a U.S.-sponsored ‘global anti-terrorist coalition’ has not undercut the basis for the Sino-Russian rapprochement signaled by the institutionalization of the SCO and the signing of the bilateral treaty. These favor the interests of the Russian and Chinese military-industrial elites and their representatives in the national political executives. As such they are oriented against the interests of the peoples of Central Asia. It is up to the United States, if it intends to maintain a long-term presence in the region as seems likely, to offer—and to organize the international community to offer—specific, well-considered assistance in realms that go well beyond purely military issues. These include promoting domestic reforms in the region that provide opportunities for genuine economic incentives and constructive political participation, as well as the basic needs of adequate food, shelter, and access to medical care. The best geopolitical stability comes from within.
Copyright © Robert M. Cutler unless otherwise noted.
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First published in Central Asia – Caucasus Analyst, vol. 3, no. 24 (21 November 2001): 7–8.