The 'Great Game' Heats Up in Central Asia
Russia and China delivered a one-two punch to Washington's ambitions in Central Asia on the eve of the G8 summit with a joint statement on "international order" followed by a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (S.C.O.) that was hostile to U.S. interests. While this combination was not enough to knock the U.S. out of the region, it was the most forceful challenge to U.S. interests in Central Asia since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Seeking to prevent any further damage to Washington's position in the "Great Game," last week U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld traveled to the region to shore up support for maintaining its bilateral agreements with the key players. This was followed by Uzbekistan announcing a deadline for U.S. withdrawal from a military base in its territory. These moves indicate that even though fighting in Afghanistan has yet to cool down, the traditional power politics of Central Asia are heating up.
China and Russia Coordinate Their Central Asian Policies
Before the S.C.O. meeting, Russia's and China's leaders met at the Kremlin on July 1 to discuss their goals in Central Asia and the upcoming G8 summit. The meeting signaled a shift toward greater cooperation between the two states, completely solved their long-standing border disputes from the legal perspective, and laid the foundation for greater integration of their state-controlled oil companies and banking sectors. One reason that the atmosphere in the Kremlin was so unusually amiable was the perception that a shared threat loomed larger than their differences in policy goals; that threat was Washington's role in Central Asia.
The "Joint Statement of the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation Regarding the International Order of the 21st Century," signed by Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 2, addresses U.S. hegemony in several less-than-oblique passages. The text emphasizes "non-interference in internal affairs," "mutual respect" for other nations' "sovereignty," and stresses the role of "multipolarity" in dealing with conflicts.
In a passage aimed at Washington's perceived encroachment in Central Asia, the document states, "The peoples of all countries should be allowed to decide the affairs of their own countries, and world affairs should be decided through dialogue and consultation on a multilateral and collective basis. The international community should thoroughly renounce the mentality of confrontation and alignment, should not pursue the right to monopolize or dominate world affairs, and should not divide countries into a leading camp and a subordinate camp." This last statement could also easily be read as a preemptive dismissal of the G8 on the eve of the Scotland meeting. Though Russia is now a member and China an observer of the grouping, they feel that the organization is dominated by the West's agenda.
This dismissal of Western-style multilateralism is further expanded in a passing broadside aimed at the World Bank and the I.M.F. and their emphasis on reform in exchange for aid or loans: "The international community should establish an economic and trade regime that is comprehensive and widely accepted and that operates through the means of holding negotiations on an equal footing, discarding the practice of applying pressure and sanctions to coerce unilateral economic concessions, and bringing into play the roles of global and regional multilateral organizations and mechanisms."
Beijing and Moscow resent the West demanding economic reforms before further integrating China and Russia into the existing globalization power structures. They wish to present an alternative marketplace for developing countries to sell their goods -- one that does not tie economic access to reform or transparency. China has been able to successfully use the widely expected expansion of its domestic market to sell this alternative source of revenue to countries irked by the I.M.F. or World Bank, from South America to Africa. Now it hopes to further cement such a relationship with the states of Central Asia.
In the joint statement, China and Russia sent a clear message to the other members of the S.C.O. -- Washington poses a threat to Central Asia's sovereignty; China and Russia can offer a similar economic and security package, only it will be designed to preserve the current status quo not to encourage market economies or democratic reforms. Fearing future waves of "color" revolutions in the region, these states were eager to receive this message.
A Bigger and Stronger S.C.O.
On July 5, the members of the S.C.O. -- China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- met in Astana, Kazakhstan to discuss the changing political situation in Central Asia. While previous meetings focused nearly exclusively on the "three evil forces" -- terrorism, separatism and extremism -- and were dominated by China's desire to control the Uighur population in its Xinjiang region and protect its access to energy resources, this meeting demonstrated that the organization, which represents nearly 50 percent of the world's population when including members with observer status, desires to be a serious force in international affairs. This can be seen in the granting of observer status to India (at Russia's request), Pakistan (at China's insistence) and Iran (to the delight of all members).
The environment of the S.C.O. meeting was most influenced by the reaction to Uzbekistan's violent suppression of the May rebellion in Andijan. Western criticism of Uzbek President Islam Karimov's tactics brought to the surface the fears that the clan-based governments of Central Asia might fall in a wave of "color" revolutions, similar to that of Ukraine's "orange" revolution. Russia and China provided blanket support for Karimov after the suppression, while Washington could only offer nuanced criticism, fearing that intense criticism of Karimov would result in the loss of access to the Karshi-Khanabad air base, or K2, used to support U.S. operations in Afghanistan; nevertheless, the loss of this base now appears a likely scenario.
Washington's criticism was enough to spread fear throughout the ruling clans of Central Asia that the U.S. is engaged in covert operations to undermine or overthrow the current ruling regimes. This fear does not even escape Kyrgyzstan's subsequently elected government -- which swept into power in a similar manner as Ukraine's government -- because its support still rests on a shaky foundation of clan alliances.
In this environment, the S.C.O. sought to limit Washington's presence in the region -- Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan shifted their support to China and Russia in order to protect their sovereignty from U.S. meddling. The joint declaration issued at the end of the summit took aim at Washington by rejecting attempts at "monopolizing or dominating international affairs" and insisting on "non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states." The members further urged the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan to declare a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Uzbek and Kyrgyz bases in the region that were established to support the Afghan operations. The Central Asian states see it in their interests to fill the power vacuum that the withdrawals would create with that of China and Russia, which they believe would better ensure the longevity of their regimes.
Top U.S. General Richard B. Myers summed up Washington's interpretation of the shift in blunt terms: "It looks to me like two very large countries were trying to bully some smaller countries." Ten days later, Rumsfeld landed in Kyrgyzstan to ensure that the world's only superpower wasn't elbowed out of the region.
Washington Pushes Back
The U.S. secretary of defense's visit to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan was aimed at shoring up support for the continuation of the U.S. military presence in each country, which was successful at least for the mid-term. Kyrgyzstan hosts a U.S. military base at the Manas air base, and Tajikistan offers the U.S. military and N.A.T.O. fly-over rights and hosts a small contingent of French soldiers involved in Afghan operations. French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie was in Dushanbe on July 21 to firm up that arrangement. Notably, Rumsfeld did not visit Uzbekistan, the other S.C.O. member-state that hosts a U.S. military base. Whether his absence was the result of an Uzbek request or a calculation of Washington's, it demonstrated how the U.S. plans to address the shifting power relations in the region.
Washington has approached Central Asia on bilateral terms, never treating the S.C.O. members as a bloc. In terms of leverage in the relations, this shifts the fulcrum to Washington's advantage. China and Russia encourage the S.C.O. states to act multilaterally in an effort to limit Washington's reach. Rumsfeld's trip demonstrated Washington's ability to act bilaterally with Kyrgyzstan, which has a newly elected government and has yet to fully congeal its foreign policy, and Tajikistan, which has traditionally been the S.C.O. member that follows a balanced approach with its foreign suitors.
Recently, the relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have shown the strengths of Washington's bilateral approach. When over 500 Uzbeks crossed over into Kyrgyzstan following the crushing of protesters in Andijan, Kyrgyzstan initially reacted instep with the Uzbek government. Eighty-seven Uzbek refugees were sent back, prompting outrage from the U.N. and Washington. This led to negotiations between the U.N. and officials in Kyrgyzstan, which, by Washington's design, left out any avenue for input from Uzbekistan. On July 29, a plane with 440 Uzbek refugees left Kyrgyzstan for Romania. This demonstrated Washington's ability to directly influence the geopolitics of Central Asia only a few weeks after the united front presented by the S.C.O. called for a U.S. withdrawal.
However, in dealing with Karimov's government in Uzbekistan, Washington's bilateral approach is no longer effective, in part because of its success in Kyrgyzstan. The Uzbek suspicion of Washington's involvement in the Kyrgyzstan revolution and uprising in Andijan has caused Karimov to throw his government's support behind China's and Russia's vision for the region. As such, the same day that the plane carried refugees out of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan asked Washington to leave the K2 air base within 180 days. The immediate reaction from Washington was to hold back on sending a high-level representative to renegotiate the arrangement while waiting for things to "cool down."
This seems to suggest that the U.S. is leaning toward the future goal of regime change in Uzbekistan and is willing to sacrifice the air base if necessary. This does not mean that Washington will cut off all relations with Uzbekistan, but if it becomes apparent that future negotiations will not lead to an extension of the air base use agreement, Washington can be expected to pursue further bilateral agreements with the other governments in Central Asia to isolate Karimov's government.
Beijing, Moscow and Washington are once again using Central Asia, the setting for the "Great Game" between Tsarist Russia and Victorian England over 150 years ago, as their game board in a region rarely neglected by the world's great powers. In the contemporary version of the game, Washington approaches each state bilaterally, offering incentives to support the operations in Afghanistan while undermining the consensus put forth at the recent S.C.O. meeting.
China and Russia are acting in tandem to shore up support for S.C.O. policies by offering blanket support for the current regimes and implicitly calling attention to U.S.-led efforts to undermine their governments. The states hosting the game board will continue to swing their support from China and Russia to the U.S., and back again, so long as they keep their hold on power. The past month has seen a flurry of activity in the Great Game, and it can be expected that things will not cool down anytime soon.