Staunton, May 12 – The Russian government reacted angrily to the possibility that the US would seek to establish bases in Central Asia now that Washington is pulling its forces out of Afghanistan. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have rejected the idea, but Kyrgyzstan says it is willing to discuss it (ng.ru/cis/2021-05-11/1_8144_kyrgyzstan.html).
But two Moscow foreign policy experts, Andrey Kazantsev of the Higher School of Economics and Andrey Grozin of the Institute for CIS Countries, say reports about possible American bases have obscured two things that in fact are of greater concern to Russia (ia-centr.ru/experts/evgeniya-kim/bazy-ne-budet-kak-rossiya-otnositsya-k-vneshnim-voennym-partneram-stran-tsentralnoy-azii/).
On the one hand, all the countries of Central Asia are already cooperating with the US and NATO to varying degrees even though they don’t have Western bases on their territories. And on the other, China is now expanding its security presence in the region to protect its already large economic investments.
Cooperation between the Central Asian countries and the West, Kazantsev says, reflects their interest in cooperation in fighting international terrorism and their commitments to “multi-vector” foreign policies. Many in these countries believe that Russia’s conflict with the West should not get in the way of their cooperation with both.
In what may be a mistaken calculation, they assume that problems between Russia and the West are problems restricted to those two sides and do not affect them. Whether that is now sustainable, however, is increasingly an open question, the Moscow expert suggests.
The changing role of China in Central Asia is of greater concern. Until recently, Moscow took responsibility for the region’s security, and Beijing focused on economic development. But over the past five years, China has expanded its security presence because it believes it must protect its investments.
Moscow has not reacted to this as some might have expected, Kazantsev says, because its focus is on the West rather than on Central Asia and because China and the countries of the Central Asian region are joined together by treaty obligations which Russia assumes will limit any independent action by Beijing.
“In theory,” he continues, “Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are allies, but at the same time, they differ on various issues of foreign policy.” None of the Central Asian states recognize the Moscow-backed breakaway republics of Abkhazia or South Ossetia, and none of them accept Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.
Grozin for his part says that Chinese security involvement in Central Asia does not yet approach that of Russia either as a supplier of weaponry or of security more generally. But it is already obvious that Beijing plans to expand its presence and in ways that will bring it into potential conflict with Moscow.
Chinese expansion there has been obscured because, in his words, “the military-political penetration of the Chinese Peoples Republic in the region has occurred not through the creation of blocs, not through military diplomacy, and not through military training activities” but rather in less prominent ways involving infrastructure and support.
But there is every reason to believe that what China has been doing the last several years will only increase and lead to greater projection of Chinese power into a region Russia has long viewed as its own backyard.