United States Goes on Geopolitical Counter-Offensive in Central Asia
The foreign tours undertaken by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are part of a US geopolitical counter-offensive in Central Asia that aims to check the growth of Russian and Chinese influence in the region.
Following the September 11 terrorist tragedy, Washington's strategic presence in Central Asia expanded rapidly, punctuated by the establishment of air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In recent months, the United States has suffered a rapid geopolitical reversal of fortune. The highest profile setback involved Uzbekistan's decision to evict US military personnel from the base at Karshi-Khanabad in the aftermath of the Andijan events in May. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Another alarming development, from Washington's point of view, concerned the first-ever joint military exercises conducted by Russia and China.
The prospect of a Russian-Chinese strategic alliance is a cause of unease inside Bush administration, especially at the Pentagon and in Vice President Dick Cheney's office. According to a source close to the White House, Cheney personally ordered a number of steps to signal extreme displeasure with the military exercises to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Cheney's team also pushed for an immediate policy review to formulate a response that could enable to United States to regain the strategic initiative in the region.
Public diplomacy appears to be a key part of the US counter-offensive. In Mid October, Rice visited Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, striving to strike a balance between the strong US desire to maintain strong security ties with the countries and Washington's desire to promote the democratization of the region. Rumsfeld followed up on Rice's effort with an Asian tour of his own, including his first stop in China since becoming the Pentagon chief. He was also slated to visit South Korea, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. In Beijing on October 19, Rumsfeld urged the Chinese to be more transparent about its military spending and strategic aims.
American political analysts believe the Russian-Chinese military maneuvers in August dubbed Peace Mission 2005 were a logical outcome of the Sino-Russian Treaty of Good Neighborly Friendship and Cooperation, signed in 2001. Moscow and Beijing have long viewed the US strategic predominance in the post-Cold War world as a threat to their power. The steadily improving Sino-Russian partnership is limiting, and may significantly diminish, the US strategic presence in Eurasia, which spans the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea, some analysts in Washington say.
Beyond public diplomacy, Washington is developing several short- and medium-term initiatives to discourage Moscow and Beijing from entering into a closer alliance. Specifically, Washington is looking at strengthening military, security and economic cooperation with India and Japan, including cooperation on joint business projects in the Russian Far East and Central Asia.
In addition, US officials are interested in obtaining observer status for Washington in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is emerging as the preeminent multilateral organization in the region, and which includes both Russia and China. American officials may be working on one of the current SCO members, such as Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan, to propose the United States be granted observer status. Kyrgyz and Kazakhstani leaders have indicated that they are amenable to US participation in the SCO as observers. US leaders remain concerned, however, that Moscow and Beijing might try to veto any such proposal.
Washington intends to remain engaged with Russia on a several key strategic issues, including radical Islam and narcotics trafficking. Accordingly, some US policy experts are urging the development and strengthening of joint working groups to improve the gathering and analysis of intelligence. Expanded cooperation could occur under the auspices of the US-Russia Anti-Terrorism Working Group, co-chaired by R. Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and Sergei Kislyak, Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia.
US officials will also be looking for ways to play on existing Russian concerns about the Moscow-Beijing relationship. Policy makers in Moscow are apprehensive regarding China's economic penetration into the Russian Far East and Siberia. Some American policy makers want the State Department, through the use of public diplomacy, to try to heighten Russia's sensitivities about China's intentions in Northeast Asia.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and Editor and co-author of Eurasia in Balance (Ashgate, 2005).
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.