Central Asia Emerges As Strategic Battleground
Frederick Kempe, The Wall Street Journal:
Central Asia, site of the 19th-century "Great Game" for supremacy between the British Empire and czarist Russia, is emerging with its oil and gas riches as the first strategic battleground of the "Multipolar Era" among the U.S., China and Moscow.
The Cold War ended in 1990, and the dominance of the U.S. since then is fast eroding. Now a globally rising China, an oil-intoxicated Russia and the U.S. are locking horns in a struggle for resources and influence in Central Asia, a region that regained its global strategic importance after its five states gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Dick Cheney got plenty of press for his recent Russia-bashing speech in independent Lithuania, a former Soviet state. Yet of greater note was the vice president's less-ballyhooed next stop in Central Asia's Kazakhstan, where he signaled a U.S. policy shift beyond rhetoric to actions aimed at countering what he called Russian President Vladimir Putin's use of oil and gas as "tools of intimidation or blackmail, either by supply manipulation or attempts to monopolize transportation." READ MORE
Former oilman Mr. Cheney befriended Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev and solidified his support for energy cooperation, including agreement in principle for a new pipeline across the Caspian Sea that would cut out the Kremlin. That in turn would help break Moscow's near-stranglehold on gas exports out of landlocked Central Asia to Europe. The trip followed a White House visit from Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev, who is participating in energy projects of like motivation in the neighboring Caucasus.
Ultimately, the "New Great Game" for an Iraq-distracted U.S. is less about winning and more about avoiding being marginalized by an ambitious China and resurgent Russia. "We're losing now but it doesn't have to stay that way," says Zeyno Baran of the Hudson Institute, who keeps score on her frequent travels to the region and meetings with its leaders. "Cheney's trip was a bold move. The U.S. is now there at the highest levels and has decided not to let China and Russia monopolize the game."
The White House's embrace of Mr. Nazarbayev and Mr. Aliyev also marks its return in the region to realpolitik from the democratic missionary work which had estranged some Central Asian leaders. Mr. Nazarbayev suppresses opponents and employs resource wealth to enrich his family. But at the same time he has transformed his country from a dumping ground for Soviet political prisoners and nuclear waste to an economy with 10% average annual growth for the past five years, and where far-reaching reforms have brought real development. He has balanced Russia's influence by pursuing energy deals with China and the West.
Mr. Putin speaks of U.S. hypocrisy in criticizing Russia as anti-democratic while backing such authoritarians. But Bush administration officials, who still give lip service to the notion that the region's long-term stability can only come from democratic change, have decided the stakes have grown too high to be slave to principle. Russia and China for months have been winning ground from the U.S. by reassuring Central Asia's leaders that they can help them resist the contagion of Western-backed democratic revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.
What's up for grabs is access to vast energy resources at a time of tight supply and the use of military bases within easy reach of Iran and poised between China and Russia. Growing Islamic extremist undercurrents complicate matters. Backing reigning autocrats for short-term gain could replicate the Mideast's political-instability problems, but U.S. officials believe abandoning the region is a far worse option—and would leave only parties who lack interest in human rights and democratic change.
One of the rising dangers to U.S. fortunes is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO, created by Beijing in 2001 to counter growing U.S. influence. It excludes Washington but includes Russia, four of the region's states—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan—and has given observer status to Tehran.
It was at an SCO summit last July that China and Russia convinced Uzbek leader Islam Karimov to ask the U.S. military to leave one of its best-positioned bases anywhere, established after 9/11 and in preparation for the war in Afghanistan.
Mr. Karimov was already in a foul mood toward the U.S. when he arrived at the meeting, as the Bush administration was supporting calls for an international investigation of his brutal crackdown on protesters in the city of Andijan, Uzbekistan, the previous May. His security forces had gunned down dozens of pro-democracy protesters whom Mr. Karimov said were armed Islamist radicals.
The loss of the U.S. base, leaving it just one other base in the region, in Kyrgyzstan, demonstrated the growing headwinds buffeting U.S. sway in a more complex world.
Russia's advantage in the three-way competition is Mr. Putin's fierce focus, knowing Central Asia is key to his aspirations to be an energy superpower. Moscow energy giant Gazprom won't be able to fulfill European contracts beyond 2009 without Central Asian resources. The Russians also are proficient at the region's chief policy tools of threats and bribes.
China is playing the long game in its alliance of convenience with Moscow to gain resources and counter what it considers creeping U.S. military encirclement. Beijing believes it will be more attractive over the long run to Central Asian elites, who are impressed with its mixture of glittering economic success and autocratic rule. "China gives Central Asian leaders red-carpet treatment and after what they see they come back asking, 'Who cares about democracy?' " says Ms. Baran.
The U.S. weapons in this asymmetrical battle include the enduring lure of close relations with the West, access to European and U.S. markets and to their technology and finance. Central Asian leaders also want a Western counterbalance, suspect of Chinese motivations and too familiar with the perils of imperial Russia. That has made NATO partnership agreements attractive. "We can't out-leverage them, we can't out-nasty them, so we have to win hearts and minds and trust," says a senior U.S. official.
A Kazakh proverb goes this way: If the Chinese hordes come, the Russians will seem like your own father. That provides an opening for Uncle Sam, but only if he answers the multipolar world's challenge of more plentiful, formidable and focused rivals.
Write to Frederick Kempe at Thinkingglobal@wsj.com with your thoughts.