Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Kazakhstan’s foreign minister yesterday pledged his country’s support for U.S. military operations in Central Asia and said his country worked to water down neighboring countries’ efforts to evict American troops from the region.

Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev added that the U.S. military presence since the 2001 Afghanistan war and China’s emergence as a regional and global power were helping revive the 19th-century “Great Game” struggle for influence in the region.

“Yes, to some extent, the ‘Great Game’ is coming back to our region,” Mr. Tokayev told editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

“All of the major countries are expressing their own interest to be present [in Central Asia], which is only natural because this region turned out to be important geopolitically and from a strategic point of view,” he said.

Kazakhstan, a U.S. ally and the only Central Asian nation to contribute troops to the postwar mission in Iraq, startled the Bush administration last month when it endorsed a communique from the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) widely interpreted as demanding a deadline for shutting down U.S. bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, set up to support the Afghan war.

The increasingly influential SCO includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but is dominated by its two largest members — Russia and China. Both Moscow and Beijing have been unnerved by the prospect of permanent U.S. military outposts in their strategic backyard.

India, Pakistan and Iran also attended the latest SCO meeting as observers.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said after the SCO vote, “Sounds to me like two very large countries were trying to bully some smaller countries.”

Uzbekistan, already feuding with Washington over a bloody crackdown on dissidents, announced three weeks later that U.S. forces had six months to leave the Karshi-Khanabad air base, used to support the Afghan campaign.

But Mr. Tokayev said he worked hard behind the scenes at the SCO summit, held in the Kazakh capital of Astana, to avoid an anti-American tone in the final resolution.

The text, he noted, does not mention the United States by name, refers only to unnamed “above-ground infrastructure,” and ties any withdrawal of outside forces from the region to the conclusion of active military operations in Afghanistan.

“Yes, probably others at the summit wanted a stronger statement, but we succeeded in making [the resolution] acceptable to the international community,” he said.

“Our credo is to maintain an equilibrium of good relations with all the major powers in our region.”

The United States is by far Kazakhstan’s largest foreign investor and Astana has given U.S. forces overflight rights and emergency landing privileges to support the global war on terror. Russian pipelines help carry Kazakhstan’s immense oil reserves to market and the two countries are already linked in a free-trade agreement.

But Mr. Tokayev said it is China’s emergence as an economic superpower that is driving events across Central Asia.

“Its economy is booming, its government is very efficient, its population is in a nationalistic mood, and its military budget is now the second biggest in the world. We have no alternative to having a good, predictable relationship with this country,” he said.

Even as he was speaking, a major Chinese oil firm yesterday announced it had won a $4.2 billion bidding war with an Indian rival for PetroKazakhstan Inc., a Canadian company that is one of Kazakhstan’s biggest oil producers.

The deal comes just weeks after a similar Chinese bid to purchase U.S.-based Unocal was dropped for political reasons.

Mr. Tokayev said the Chinese are proving strong competitors across Central Asia, in part because they do not demand the market reforms and political changes pushed by the United States. “They’re interested in doing business,” he said.

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