Washington has not only blocked the impending closure of Sino-Russian hegemony over Central Asia, but also finessed Russian strategic opposition to the American project for deploying a space-based defense. The new U.S. presence in Central Asia has reinforced the emerging post-Cold War reconnection of Central Asia with South and Southwest Asia. In geopolitical terms, Uzbekistan remains the "pivot" of the region. However, within the larger "shatterbelt" that Central Asia represents for the broader Eurasian landmass, the post-Nazarbaev future of Kazakhstan looms large.
In 1996, the "Shanghai Five" regional grouping was created for the purpose of delimiting and demilitarizing the border between China on the one hand and Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan on the other. Uzbekistan was not involved, not only because it has no border with China, but also because Tashkent throughout the 1990s tried to limit its cooperation with Moscow. Having courted and been courted by the U.S. throughout the 1990s, Uzbekistan was designated an American "strategic partner" in 1995. Although security cooperation with U.S. over Islamic fundamentalism dates back to 1999, when the country joined the "GUAM" (Georgia-Ukraine-Azerbaijan-Moldova) grouping, turning it into GUUAM. By the middle of 2000, however, it seemed that Russia was the only big power willing to provide troops to fight the insurgent Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Tashkent found itself once again in the rapprochement phase of its cyclical hesitation-waltz with Moscow.
After significant success in border delimitation and demilitarization, the Shanghai grouping shifted focus to address Islamic militancy. At an August 1999 summit in Bishkek, agreement was reached on practical measures in this direction but they were never implemented. At a meeting of heads of state and government in Shanghai in June 2001, with Uzbekistan participating, the Shanghai grouping institutionalized itself as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with an autonomous secretariat to be based in Shanghai. Comments by Chinese officials as well as Chinese media coverage made it clear that Beijing saw the SCO as a vehicle through which to extend its influence over Central Asia through trade and investment.
The founding meeting of the SCO also declared the intention not only to create an "anti-terrorism center" in Bishkek but also to make it the home of a joint (mainly Sino-Russian) rapid deployment force. Such an antiterrorist center, moreover, was planned to function as a joint coordinating center for the SCO and the CIS. The impression of a Sino-Russian condominium closing over Central Asia was reinforced by the conclusion of the first major bilateral Sino-Russian treaty in a half-century, also signed in early 2001, formally called the "Treaty on Good-Neighborly Relations, Friendship and Cooperation." This treaty notably provides for increased Russian arms sales to China and the training of Chinese officers at Russian military schools.
The Bishkek agreement is important not for its size, nor only for its symbolism, but rather as an index of heightened American attention to the region as a whole. After concluding basing agreements with Tashkent and Dushanbe in October 2001, Washington undertook field trips throughout the region to evaluate the other possibilities for military cooperation in the region. The U.S. has expressed interest to Kazakhstan in exploring joint operation of the former Soviet base at Semei (Semipalatinsk) in the northeast of the country. Both it and Bishkek are well distant from the region's energy resources, which lie mainly along the coast of the Caspian Sea and offshore.
Beijing has strongly objected to Astana over the very idea of military cooperation with Washington. Kazakhstan was the most reticent of all Central Asian countries in late 2001, initially refusing to grant the U.S. overflight rights over its national territory. Kazakhstan has been subjected to immense Chinese diplomatic pressure throughout the 1990s on a variety of strategic issues, ranging from domestic repression of Uighur social organizations to the cession of the watershed of the Black Irtysh River. Beijing is now increasing its public as well as private diplomatic pressure on Astana to renounce any increased military cooperation with Washington.
China now states publicly and unapologetically that it views the U.S. presence as a hindrance to its strategic objectives of dominating the region. Washington has not only blocked the impending closure of Sino-Russian hegemony over Central Asia, but also finessed Russian strategic opposition to the American project for deploying a space-based defense. Such a project holds implications for sustaining the American strategic umbrella over Taiwan, and opposition to it had been a cornerstone of global-level diplomatic cooperation between Russia and China.
At the same time, the political rule of the Chinese Communist Party grows increasingly fragile within the country. The party has lost its roots among the workers and peasants and become an elite club that relies upon increasingly authoritarian rule to preserve its privileges. Whether in aerospace, electrical power equipment, oil and petrochemicals, or mining and manufacturing, state protectionist policies of the last quarter-century have not succeeded in maintaining the country's once-leading industrial profile. It is not democratization and marketization that the Beijing leadership seeks by entering the World Trade Organization, but rather industrial modernization; and even success in this field is far from certain.
The new U.S. presence in Central Asia has reinforced the emerging post-Cold War reconnection of Central Asia with South and Southwest Asia. In geopolitical terms, Uzbekistan remains the "pivot" of the region. However, without something more than military assistance, the region will continue to suffer from insufficient food, shelter and access to medical care, guaranteeing that ethnic and other social conflicts predating the September 11 will not so readily disappear. Within the larger "shatterbelt" that Central Asia represents for the broader Eurasian landmass, the post-Nazarbaev future of Kazakhstan looms large. Kazakhstan is also the country where competing influences of the three major architects of Central Asian geopolitics—Russia, the U.S. and China—are most equal and hence most volatile.
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First published in Central Asia – Caucasus Analyst, vol. 4, no. 4 (27 February 2002): 5–6.