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August 24, 2005
America Losing Ground To China In Central Asia?

Kazakhstan's foreign minister expressed his support for American engagement in the Central Asian republics that once formed the southern portion of the USSR and now play key roles in battling Islamofascist terror. However, he sounding a distinct if low-key warning that we may lose ground to China, who appears more willing to play ball with the kleptocrats in the region rather than push for the political reform desired by the Americans:

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. ...

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.

Tokayev explained that Kazakhstan managed to water down the final resolution somewhat, and that its eventual endorsement of the communique did not indicate a retreat from its alliance with the US. However, the efforts of Russia and China to push American influence out of the region should not be ignored, Tokayev warns, as the Americans have taken the place of the British in what appears to be a renewal of the Great Game from a century ago. The Great Game pitted the British primarily against the Russian monarchy for influence and supremacy in Central Asia, mostly to protect the British land communication with its Empire in India and the subcontinent.

The Chinese intend on complicating this Game, and they have used a decidedly market-based strategy to marginalize the Americans. While we insist on free-market and democratic reforms as a condition of our assistance, or at least refuse to deny our support to those groups pushing for these as a condition for our military presence such as in Uzbekistan, the Chinese sound much more willing to play Monty Hall with the dictatorships and autocrats in place. China just bought PetroKazakhstan, for instance, after dropping its politically explosive bid for Unocal earlier this summer. They have invested heavily in the region without regard for the political structures of the various nations, an approach that hard-liners like Uzbekistan will find more to their liking than American demands for free elections and political reform.

Expect more agressive action from China in this regard. They have the cash to spread through the area, and this is their back yard. They want to make it clear that continued prosperity for the 'Stans can come from China's good graces and not hung with American interference in their politics. In the short run, that puts us at a disadvantage -- but when the tyrannies eventually fall, the people of Central Asia will remember who assisted them in standing on their own two feet and who helped their oppressors keep them down. Our strategy still has the most sound long-term value, and we should not back down from democratization.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 24, 2005 6:48 AM

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