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    Central Asia
     Dec 23, 2006
Page 1 of 3

The Great Game on a razor's edge
By M K Bhadrakumar

The accidental killing of Alexander Ivanov, a Kyrgyz fuel-truck driver, by Corporal Zachary Hatfield, a US serviceman, at the Manas Air Base on the outskirts of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek in December is threatening to snowball into a first-rate crisis for the United States' regional policy in Central Asia.

Manas is the lone US military base in all of Central Asia - close to the Chinese border of Xinjiang. Curiously, this was also how the year 2006 began, as Washington was grappling with the call 

made by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) for a timeline for the withdrawal of the US military presence in Central Asia.

In a nationally televised address, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev called for reviewing the Manas base agreement with the US. The Kyrgyz Parliament passed a resolution that given the "negative perception of the American image among our country's population", Bakiyev should examine the continuance of the base. The Foreign Ministry made a demarche with the US that Hatfield shouldn't leave until the Kyrgyz due process of law took its course.

This is rhetoric out of Latin America. Yet Bakiyev had only come to power on the crest of the US-backed "Tulip Revolution" of March 2005. But US-funded Kyrgyz "civil society" groups are nowadays arrayed against him on account of his increasingly pronounced foreign-policy leanings toward Russia and China.

They turned rowdyish in November, and humiliated him, forcing on him a new constitution curtailing his presidential powers. That is to say, Washington must now seek Bakiyev's help while backstage it could be funding and instigating political activists bent on overthrowing him. Bakiyev's overthrow may help the US firm up its grip on Manas, but today his helping hand is useful for preserving US interests. Nothing could be more surreal. Nothing would so vividly epitomize the complexities of the geopolitics of Central Asia.

Great Game slows down
The Great Game in Central Asia itself may appear to have considerably slowed down in 2006. But nothing could be more deceptive an impression. True, we've witnessed nothing like the cataclysmic events of the previous year - "Tulip Revolution" or the Andizhan uprising in Uzbekistan. Yet great-power rivalries most certainly continued - passions that were largely driven underground, where they simmered without taking a confrontational character.

Partly this was because the bickering over geopolitical influence became somewhat manifestly lopsided, with Russia and China not only retaining their gains of yesteryear but also consolidating them, and the US painstakingly attempting to recoup its lost influence in the region.

The single biggest "success story" of US diplomacy in the Great Game during the past year has been that Washington prevailed on Russia and China to give consideration to its reasoning that granting full membership to the Islamic Republic of Iran in the SCO might not be consistent with their own long-term interests. This was no mean achievement, considering that both Russia and China have such high stakes in their bilateral relations with Tehran. But Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad attended the summit as a special invitee. The SCO evidently keeps open the "threat" of Iranian membership.

Equally, the fact that, unlike its previous year's summit, the SCO meeting in June 2006 did not assume an overt anti-American overtone must remain a matter of relief for Washington. In many ways, the SCO demeanor has come to be the litmus test of the United States' geopolitical standing in Central Asia at any given time. Contrary to earlier US estimations, the SCO is increasingly acquiring a swagger that is suggestive of its potential to become the main powerhouse of the Eurasian region - arguably, a leading Eurasian economic and military bloc. The SCO comprises China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

During the five-year period since its birth in 2001, the SCO, which has as members a number of underdeveloped countries including some desperately poor ones with nothing ostensibly to bind them together except their common geography, has not only held together but has grown in size and influence.

Initially drawing on the Chinese tri-fecta of "terrorism, separatism and extremism", the SCO speaks today about the establishment of a free-trade area and about common energy projects such as exploration of hyrdrocarbon reserves, joint use of hydroelectric power and water resources. But from the US perspective, the SCO agenda continues to be laden with a heavy cloud of suspicion regarding the United States' geostrategic intentions in the Central Asian region.

This impression gets further confirmed by the SCO's decision to hold large-scale joint military exercises scheduled for the coming summer in central Russia with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the military alliance that is Moscow's answer to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's enlargement into the post-Soviet space. The CSTO includes Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

That the military exercises will take place against the backdrop of the chill that has descended on Russia-US relations in the past year or two, and in the light of the likely deployment of the first interceptors of the US missile defense systems in Central Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, is no doubt significant.

It is irrelevant whether the SCO can be called a latter-day Warsaw Pact or a "NATO of the East". What is important is that on a practical plane, when it transpired that the US aircraft deployed at Manas Air Base might be undertaking reconnaissance missions into sensitive military regions in central Russia and China's Xinjiang, Moscow and Beijing put their foot down and acted in concert within the framework of the SCO, insisting that the stated purpose of the US military presence in Central Asia must be fulfilled in letter and spirit, namely that it restricted itself exclusively to undertaking resupply missions for the "war on terror" in Afghanistan.

The then-Kyrgyz president, Askar Akayev, was caught in the middle and overthrown from power in the process as a furious Washington let loose the "Tulip Revolution" on him for his perceived intransigence in turning down the US request for the stationing of AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft in Manas. But the SCO quietly and firmly held its ground. Thereby it made an important point - that it had gained traction as a security organization. Not only that, the SCO proceeded to follow up at its summit in June 2005 with the call for the vacation of the US military presence in the region.

Indeed, going one step further, the SCO emphatically rallied behind the leadership of Uzbekistan in its move to ask for the vacation of the US air base at Karshi-Khanabad. On both counts - restrictions placed on the use of Manas and the eviction from Karshi-Khanabad - Washington meekly had to give in. In the process, Bishkek even renegotiated the bilateral agreement on Manas a few months ago by getting Washington to increase the annual rent of the base from US$2.7 million to between $150 million and $200 million.

The year 2006 has thus made it clear that the US is unlikely to become a single dominant power in Central Asia. Simply put, Russia and China have together put up the SCO dikes delimiting the US influence in the region, which will be difficult for Washington to breach for the foreseeable future. During the year, by and large Washington has vainly exhausted its energies in attempts to create misunderstandings between Russia and China and in pitting one SCO member state against another.

The heart of the matter is that apart from the bleeding wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, which remain a major distraction for US diplomacy worldwide, US policy in Central Asia is seriously

Continued 1 2 3

The rising pole of the East
Dec 16 2006

China plays its own energy game
Dec 19 2006

The 'not an anti-American' bloc
Dec 8 2006

Russia and China create their own orbit
Nov 11 2006

Kyrgyzstan caught in US-Russia squeeze
Nov 7 2006


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