From the October 29, 2008 Financial Times
October 29, 2008
by Zeyno Baran
US policy in central Asia is aimed at bolstering the region’s sovereignty and independence and fostering co-operation on security, energy, and internal reform. While acknowledging important American interests, the US government rejects the notion that the region can be confined to any one “special sphere of influence”, as Russia has recently claimed.
On security, Kazakhstan in particular has been an important partner on nuclear non-proliferation issues, after giving up its nuclear arsenal in the early 1990s. After 9/11, Uzbekistan emerged as a critical ally, with its military bases essential to the success of the initial operation in Afghanistan. However, US-Uzbek relations nearly came to a halt following events in Andizhan in 2005 in which hundreds of Uzbeks died when law enforcers crushed an armed uprising blamed on Islamist rebels.
Kyrygzstan houses a US airbase that provides crucial logistical support to coalition forces in Afghanistan, and has had an inconsistent record on reform.
Shared concerns about Islamist extremism, terrorism and separatism as well as the so-called colour revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have brought China and Russia closer to central Asia.
China is increasingly seen as a responsible stakeholder, given its shared concern about terrorism, weapons proliferation and narcotics trafficking in and from Afghanistan and Pakistan. A possible US-China security partnership in Pakistan would also reduce Pakistan’s concern about India, increasing prospects for co-operation against Islamist militants.
For more than a decade, the US has worked to ensure that oil and gas from central Asia would reach global markets via multiple pipelines, avoiding Iran and promoting alternatives to Russian controlled routes. US companies hold big stakes in Kazakhstan’s two largest oil and gas projects, Tengiz and Kashagan, both of which lead to export pipelines in a westerly direction via the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) line to the Russian Black Sea coast, railways to Georgian Black Sea ports and the existing Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline connecting Azerbaijan with Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. CPC needs to be expanded to account for an increase in production but the dispute with Russia over Georgia has prevented progress so far.
Given the strategic importance of natural gas, as well as increased demand for gas among the US’s European allies, gaining access to Turkmenistan’s fields and the direction in which that gas will be transported are increasingly important.
US east-west policy holds that central Asian gas should reach European markets in order to reduce Russia’s strategic hold over the European and Eurasian markets and policies.
At the same time, there is a desire to help rebuild Afghanistan and provide India (via Pakistan) with gas to reduce its reliance on Iranian supplies; so the US has explored Turkmen gas for the Trans-Afghan pipeline. Security conditions have so far prevented any progress.
Furthermore, reducing the monopoly of Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned oil company, could be helped by exporting some of the central Asian gas on which Gazprom depends to China; there is no policy decision as to whether gas going in China’s direction would mean less gas available for the west, and hence a challenge to US (and EU) priorities. However, both China and Russia have moved in a determined way to ensure long-term, large-volume contracts.
So far, the least progress has been achieved in political and internal reform, especially in democracy and human rights issues. Despite its shortcomings, of all the central Asian states, Kazakhstan has undertaken significant reforms, especially in diversifying its economy. Massive energy resources have helped Kazakhstan emerge as the pivotal central Asian country for US partnership – and a clear priority for Russia. Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, visited Astana, the capital, earlier this month to shore up relations following the war in Georgia.
Now Kazakhstan and other central Asian countries are following policies aimed at avoiding being squeezed between Russia and the US. Co-operative and predictable relations with these countries are sufficient for Washington, as the US is not seeking confrontation with Russia. Moreover, US policy in central Asia has for some time been an outcome of other priorities. and less derived from an exclusively regional focus. As attention focus shifted to seeing central Asia with shared religious, cultural and ethnic characteristics; similarities with the Caucasus countries have been deemed less relevant.
Following 9/11, security co-operation initially trumped other American interests. But criticism of Uzbekistan cost the US its military base there and signalled a willingness to sacrifice some security interests for human rights. In the wake of Russia’s incursion into Georgia, dynamics are changing once again, including an unprecedented possibility of American co-operation with China.
Zeyno Baran is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute.
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