The military base issue is creating a painful dilemma for Kazakhstani officials. Astana has friendly relations with both China and the United States, and the government does not appear eager to make a choice between the two.
The Chinese diplomat alleged that US officials were seeking access to an air base near Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan. The base dates back to the Soviet era, and was designed specifically to support possible strategic operations against China.
In the Chinese source's opinion, the US attempt to obtain basing rights in Kazakhstan is a part of the broader strategy to contain the expansion of Chinese influence. The establishment of a US base in Kyrgyzstan is also part of the US containment strategy, the diplomat said.
"We know from Kyrgyz [defense contacts] that the Americans have deployed special equipment for technical spying against China on Kyrgyz territory," the source said.
Kazakhstani defense officials dispute the Chinese claims. A high-ranking defense official said Washington has asked Astana for access to military bases in southern Kazakhstan, but not in Semipalatinsk. The official added that the bases under discussion were at Taraz and in the former Taldykorgan oblast. In Shimkent there is a civilian airport, which also could be used for military purposes.
It is worth mentioning that the former Taldykorgan oblast - which includes Almaty, Kazakhstan's financial hub - borders on China and has a rich military infrastructure.
US officials have been tight-lipped on specifics. However, American diplomats in Kazakhstan, citing the on-going anti-terrorism campaign in the region, have spoken about a general need for US access to local military facilities.
Since 1991, Kazakhstan has pursued a multi-vector foreign policy that seeks strong relations with Russia, the region's traditional power, and with China, which over the past decade has dramatically raised its economic profile in the region. In addition, President Nursultan Nazarbayev's government has fostered strong ties with the United States, especially in the sphere of energy development.
The anti-terrorism campaign has increased the pressure on Astana to abandon its multi-vector policy, and settle on one strategic partner. Local political observers believe that the government is inclined to opt to align itself with the United States, given Kazakhstan's possession of abundant oil reserves and the US ability to develop those natural resources. However, from the start of the anti-terrorism campaign, Nazarbayev has proceeded cautiously, offering words of support for US actions, but hesitating on the implementation of concrete cooperation measures. Indeed, Nazarbayev appears committed to exploring all possible options. In mid-February, for example, the Kazakhstani President visited India to promote bilateral economic ties.
Beijing is exerting considerable pressure on Astana to keep strategic cooperation with Washington to a minimum. China has reason to worry about a loss of political influence in Kazakhstan, which is home to a significant number of Uighurs. China has expressed concern that Uigher separatists, active in western Xinjiang Province, have received support from their ethnic kin in Kazakhstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Uighurs assert that Chinese officials are attempting to crush their ethnic identity, and that they are struggling to preserve their cultural traditions.
Some Russian officials have also expressed concern about warming US-Kazakhstani relations. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov suggested that, given that the anti-terrorism operations in Afghanistan are in the mop-up phase, there was no way the United States could justify the establishment of a base in Kazakhstan. State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev has also been outspoken in his criticism of the possibility of a prolonged US military presence in the country. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin has appeared more flexible on the base issue. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
US officials maintain that Washington does not intend to create permanent military bases in Central Asian countries. A February 8 joint statement, published following a meeting of the US-Russia Working Group on Afghanistan, reiterated the position that the United States had no intention of creating permanent bases in Central Asia.
Ibragim Alibekov is a pseudonym for
a Central Asia-based analyst of regional political affairs.