Although apt to make public denials, China seems eager to expand its strategic influence in Central Asia.
Officially, Chinese diplomats disavow a desire to establish alliances, military blocs and foreign bases. Nevertheless, earlier this year Chinese sources indicated that Beijing contacted Kyrgyz officials to explore the possibility of establishing a military base in Kyrgyzstan. As soon as the contacts were reported, however, Chinese officials strongly denied them and the matter was dropped.
Beijing's interest did not seem to abate, though. After the Uzbek government in late July ordered US forces to leave the Karshi-Khanabad base, China made quiet, yet definite inquiries about gaining access to the base, according to Russian military analyst Vladimir Mukhin. This request galvanized Russian military policy in Central Asia, and Moscow quickly sought to ensure that it would potentially have sole access to Uzbekistan's military facilities. Russia and Uzbekistan concluded a mutual security pact on November 14 that seemingly allows for the establishment of a Russian base on Uzbek territory in the future. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The rise of China's policy interest in Central Asia, especially concerning security issues, is not especially surprising. Since 2001, Beijing has been a leading force in the development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), under which China stands ready to go to the aid of another member state in case of attack either conventional or terrorist in nature. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. For the last decade, if not more, the Chinese military as a whole -- including those tasked with potential missions in the western province of Xinjiang, home to the country's restive Uighur minority -- have undergone steady modernization. In addition, Chinese military units have participated in an array of joint exercises in recent years with troops from other SCO states, including the first-ever joint maneuvers held with Russian forces this past summer. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Beijing has also increased its financial support for local militaries and has placed greater emphasis on defense-related diplomacy.
It is quite clear that China fears American military presence in Central Asia. Chinese diplomats also say the presence of US forces constitute not just a potential threat, but is also a factor in regional instability. At the same time public statements by high-ranking Russian officials dating back at least to 2004 underscore Moscow's steadfast opposition to a Chinese military presence in Central Asia. If anything, Russia may oppose a growing strategic role for China more than it does the possibility of an extended American presence in the region.
Since Mukhin first disclosed that China sought an Uzbek base, nobody has stood up to either acknowledge the validity of the report, or to deny it. At the same time, the base request evidently was not repeated.
Within the context of all that has occurred in Central Asia over the past year, there are several questions touching on China's strategic concerns and objectives for which there do not seem to be definitive answers. Such questions include: What kind of forces would Beijing deploy at a Central Asian base in the event that it ever established one in the region? Does China regard Russia as a threat, potential or actual, in Central Asia? And how has the United States reacted to the reports of Beijing's desire for a regional base?
Beijing's search for a base has occurred against a backdrop of growing regional militarization and an intensification of great power rivalry in Central Asia. Thus, China's requests of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, even if made sotto voce, have served to heighten the geopolitical jockeying in the region. It also suggests a growing willingness entertain the use of the military instrument to address regional issues. This cannot be considered a good sign.
In seeking bases in Central Asia, China is announcing its intention to be seen as a great power, and not necessarily subtly. At least for the moment, that announcement can only contribute further to the already palpable unease and sense of insecurity that grips Central Asia from within and without.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.