- The Washington Times - Friday, August 19, 2005

An alliance of six Central Asian nations has emerged as a serious contender in the geopolitics of the region, posing a direct challenge to President Bush’s push for democratic reform among the area’s authoritarian states.

Dominated by China and Russia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) also is seen by regional specialists as a vehicle for reviving the Great Game struggle for supremacy that dominated politics in the regions in the 19th century and during the Cold War.

“The SCO has always been conceived of as a way for countering American influence in the region,” said Stephen Blank, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Army War College.

The SCO powers “have gotten a lot more apprehensive about [U.S.] bases and about the Bush democratization policy,” he said.

The Sino-Russian drive to mold the SCO into an effective regional force comes as the one-time Cold War rivals are also intensifying bilateral ties, capped by an unprecedented joint military exercise that began Thursday.

At its most recent summit last month in Astana, Kazakhstan, the SCO — which includes Russia, China, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan — made its most assertive statement to date, demanding a timetable for American troops to pull out of strategic military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan that were set up to support the 2001-2002 war in Afghanistan.

“Considering the active phase of the military antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan has finished, [SCO] member-states … consider it essential that the relevant participants in the antiterrorist coalition set deadlines on the temporary use” of air bases in Uzbekistan, the declaration said.

The bases were logistical hubs for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and are still essential supply posts for the region.

The SCO also is expanding its reach in other ways.

India, Pakistan and — most worrying for the United States — Iran also were invited as observers to the Astana summit. Pakistan attended at China’s request, while Russia extended the invitation to India. Iranian officials came by mutual agreement.

“I would guess that this is a demonstration of diplomatic support by China in the first place and Russia in the second,” said Robert Cutler, research fellow at the Institute for European and Russian Studies at Carleton University in Canada. “And since the SCO is concerned with promoting economic cooperation, China would see an opportunity for cooperation with Iran.”

But “China and Russia did not invite Iran to intimidate the United States,” he added.

There are growing signs that Russia and China are using the organization to re-establish their influence in the region, reviving the Great Game in which Russia, the United States and regional powers vied for influence in Eurasia.

The statement of the SCO summit was the most palpable signal of the organization’s changing role in the region.

Mr. Cutler said China was the “motivating force” behind the push to enhance the SCO’s clout. The alliance got its start in the late 1990s as a way to ease regional tensions and resolve border disputes.

When Uzbekistan joined the “Shanghai Five” in 2001, the alliance already was turning its attention to joint anti-terrorist and political cooperation in the post-September 11 world.

“It was a Chinese diplomatic initiative that gave it the traction to turn into something broader than simple border demarcations,” Mr. Cutler said. “As time has gone on, Russia has also seen it in its interest” to use the SCO for exercising its influence in Central Asia.

The U.S. presence, massively increased with the Afghan war and its aftermath, “scrambled things up,” he added.

On July 2, just prior to the Astana summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao issued a joint statement on the “international order of the 21st century,” a declaration widely seen as a veiled warning about unchecked American power in Central Asia and beyond.

“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 statement said in part.

“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,” it said.

According to the Internet-based Power and Interest News Report (www.pinr.com), the two presidents signed the statement out of a “perception that a shared threat loomed larger than their [own] differences in policy goals; that threat was Washington’s role in Central Asia.”

Russia and China this week began an unprecedented joint military exercise conducted in part close to the Korean Peninsula. “Peace Mission 2005,” involves Russian fighter planes and paratroopers, China’s nuclear submarine fleet and approximately 10,000 troops in total.

U.S. officials say they do not see the exercises as hostile to American interests, but Pentagon officials add they will be watching the exercises very closely.

Since the end of the SCO summit last month, Uzbekistan, the newest member of the bloc, has essentially evicted U.S. forces from its Karshi-Khanabad base, a base that played a pivotal role in the U.S.-led Afghan campaign. More recently, the base had been used as a supply transit point for humanitarian aid into northern Afghanistan.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s decision to end the U.S. base accord is seen as the culmination of deteriorating relations with Washington following the U.S.-backed democratic revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine that overthrew pro-Moscow governments.

According to analysts, Mr. Karimov suspected an American hand in the 2003 ouster of President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia and fears the Bush administration is encouraging similar democratic revolutions elsewhere around the Russian periphery.

“It’s a reasonable assertion that Karimov would see these changes in the region as implements of U.S. policy,” Mr. Cutler said. “These uprisings were probably encouraged and equipped by the U.S. government or related [private groups].”

Prior to the political upheavals in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan had been pursuing pro-U.S. policies to boost economic and political cooperation.

However, both Mr. Karimov and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev have shifted course, feeling threatened by U.S. calls for democratic reforms in the region.

The SCO, regional analysts say, provides both leaders with diplomatic cover and the backing of Russia and China, neither of whom has embraced the U.S. drive for reform.

Still, despite setbacks in Uzbekistan, the United States maintains a strong foothold in the region, enhanced by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s recent visit to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Kyrgyzstan, the site of the second largest U.S. base in Central Asia, told Mr. Rumsfeld last month that U.S. forces were welcome to stay as long as Washington deemed necessary. New President Kurmanbek Bakiyev appeared eager to balance good ties with Washington with his country’s overtures to Russia and China through the SCO.

In a number of Central Asian countries, it is the democratic opposition which is the strongest supporter of continued U.S. ties and the most skeptical of the SCO’s agenda.

Opposition leaders from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, another Central Asian authoritarian state under pressure to reform, have stressed the need for a force to “counterbalance” Russian and Chinese influence in the region.

“To us, American troops in the region are a guarantee of security,” said Asim Mollazade, founder of the Democratic Reforms Party of Azerbaijan, during a recent Washington visit. “The United States gave us support in our fight for independence against the Soviets and now they are supporting us in our democratic aspirations.”

Alikhan Baimenov, a democratic opposition leader in Kazakhstan, was more even more emphatic.

“A U.S. withdrawal from Central Asia will give Russia a chance to move in,” he said. “They have their own interests.”

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