Central Asia remains a wild and forbidding place. It is a sprawling, sparsely populated area. Its position at the crossroads of trade between East and West has made it the focus of attention and competition for centuries. The discovery of significant oil and gas reserves has made Central Asia even more of a prize. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the region has taken on a new significance: It is feared to be a breeding ground of terrorism.
A century ago, Britain and Russia competed for influence in the region. Today, the primary rivalry is between China and Russia, both of which consider Central Asia to be part of their respective sphere of influence. Their concerns are understandable: In addition to the resources — which grow more valuable daily as oil prices climb — they worry about Islamic militants using Central Asia as a safe haven for incursions into their own countries. China keeps a wary eye on extremists in its western provinces; Russia fears the creep of violence northward from the Caucasus.
Moscow and Beijing recognized that open competition between them over Central Asia risked the frustration of their mutual objectives. So in 2001, Russia and China, along with Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The organization was designed to help coordinate activities, particularly in security, among the six governments. That task has become even more challenging since the SCO was formed.
The ruling governments of Central Asia are authoritarian, and appear more intent on shoring up their power and lining their own pockets than dealing with the pressing social problems their countries face. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have already experienced violence. Kyrgyzstan’s President Askar Akayev was forced from power in March, and Mr. Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who has controlled the country since that “revolution,” won overwhelmingly in Sunday’s presidential election. Uzbek President Islam Karimov did not hesitate to unleash his security forces on protesters in May, killing hundreds.
The mixture of corrupt, violent governments and poor populations has been a recipe for unrest. Worse, it has fueled the appeal of Islamic groups in these mostly Muslim countries. This tense situation is rendered even more volatile by the proximity of Afghanistan. The fight against the Taliban makes Central Asia even more important strategically — and more explosive.
The growing unrest has unnerved all the SCO governments. Their concerns are compounded by the presence of U.S. military facilities in the region: After 9/11, U.S.-led military forces were deployed to air bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to support antiterrorist military operations in Afghanistan. France has an air-force presence in Tajikistan.
Chinese and Russians worry that the United States might be making inroads in “their backyard.” They also worry that the continuing war in Afghanistan might destabilize the region. While the Central Asian governments have agreed to the U.S. presence, and profit from it, they are worried that Washington is behind the rising tide of protests and demands for political reform — accusations that Washington denies. Thus, at last week’s annual summit meeting of the SCO heads of state, the leaders noted that large-scale military operations in Afghanistan have ended and called for a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces and their allies from Central Asia. The U.S. has said that it has bilateral agreements with the governments concerned and will remove its bases when asked to do so or when those agreements expire. Given the political sensitivities surrounding that presence, staying beyond its welcome is not in Washington’s interest.
To head off fears of a vacuum emerging after the U.S. withdrawal, the SCO governments endorsed greater security cooperation. They also extended observer status to India, Pakistan and Iran. Given Pakistan’s reported influence among Islamic insurgents at home and in Afghanistan, its involvement in the SCO is essential. Moreover, the inclusion of Iran extends the reach of the organization — and potentially its influence — to the Persian Gulf. The prospect of Central Asian governments — and China and Russia — making common cause with governments of the Persian Gulf could have implications for international energy markets. They are also all likely to be skeptical toward, if not resistant to, the U.S.-led push for democracy.
That logic is likely to feed paranoia about the “real” purpose of the SCO. This must be avoided at all costs. One of the SCO’s goals may be to keep U.S. influence in Central Asia at bay, but the organization has a perfectly legitimate rationale. It would do well to embrace more transparency to dampen such concerns, but Central Asia needs more institutions to promote security and stability, not less.
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