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Central Asia, battlefield of powers – By Shiraz Paracha

Energy resources of Central Asia, the containment of Russian and Chinese influence in the region, and the monitoring of Iran are the main motives of the United States and the NATO presence in Afghanistan and in parts of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Moscow considers Central Asia as Russia’s backyard and to China, Central Asian energy reserves are the closest and most easily accessible sources of energy that can keep the awesome growth of China’s formidable economy.

Indeed in the early years of the 21st century, Central Asia, of which Afghanistan is a part, has become a battlefield for world’s major powers. The region possesses huge amounts of natural resources and some Central Asian countries have strategic locations.

Russia, the United States, China and the European Union (EU) are the key players in Central Asia. Turkey, India, Iran and Israel are also active in the region. The eastward expansion of the US and NATO and the latter’s presence in Afghanistan have forced Russia and China to forge an informal strategic alliance. The unstated aim of the alliance is to counter the US influence in the region. The creation of the Shanghai Corporation Organization (SCO) in 2001 was one manifestation of that aim.

The United States and the EU are desperate to secure alternative energy resources; however, as the energy supplies are tightening, the race to secure new resources has resulted in different approaches adopted by the US and the EU towards former Soviet republics, especially Russia. Unlike Britain and the United States, European countries such as Germany, France and Italy have opted to do business with Russia despite the US criticism. Russia is the major supplier of natural gas to Europe and it also controls main energy supply lines to Europe. Moscow’s relations with London and Washington, on the other hand, have been uneasy and complex, particularly under the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The latest decision by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to attend NATO’s November summit in Lisbon is a sign of growing cooperation between Russia and the two European giants — Germany and France. President Medvedev made the announcement to attend the summit at the end of his talks with his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the northern French seaside town of Deauville in mid-October. The Russian leader also said that he would consider joining the planned European missile defense shield that was proposed by former US president George W. Bush.

Russia had staunchly opposed the proposed defense shield. The reasons of Russia’s change in mind regarding the defense shield are yet to be explained but by announcing such a gesture during meetings with his European counterparts, the Russian leader has successfully sent a message that now it is not the United States alone which leads or influences Europe. Germany and France are obliged to act independent of the United States due to their dependence on Russian hydrocarbons. President Medvedev’s surprise announcement in France can be interpreted as a response to the US efforts of undermining Sino-Russian relations. Russia is also wary of the US sponsored activities in Central Asia and the CIS.

In Central Asia, Kazakhstan is the most developed and rich state. Kazakhstan is larger than the whole Western Europe. Not only does the country own huge oil and gas reserves, but also possesses 15 percent of world’s uranium that makes Kazakhstan the second largest producer of uranium. Besides, Kazakhstan has the second largest reserves of chromium, lead and zinc. It also has the third largest manganese reserves and the fifth largest copper reserves. Kazakhstan is a large producer of gold, iron and coal, too.

Turkmenistan, the other resource-rich Central Asian state, possesses vast reserves of natural gas and oil. Estimated gas reserves of Turkmenistan exceed 23 trillion cubic meters. Uzbekistan has substantial reserves of gold and gas, while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have strategic importance.

The United States is keen to foothold in the CIS by pursuing a multi-fold policy. One aim of the US policy appears to be finding and magnifying any rifts in the Russian-Chinese relationship. At the same time, the US is courting Central Asian states to undermine Russian influence in the region. Playing on Central Asian fear of China is another card used by the United States. Similarly, oil-rich Azerbaijan, which is culturally close to Iran, is important to the United States as it can be used as a launch pad against Iran.

The US is concerned about the growing cooperation between Russia and China. In the 1960s, China distanced itself from the Soviet Union due to border disputes and differences over ideology. During the 1970s and 80s, China feared the Soviet Union. It even supported the US proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. However, in the last decade of the 20th century, when the Soviet Union collapsed and China emerged as a world economic power, a new chapter of Sino-Russian relations began.

China’s relationship with Russia became deeper when Vladimir Putin took charge of Russia. Under his leadership, Russia recovered from the post Cold War trauma and started to emerge as a significant player in the global politics. Since the mid 1990s, China and Russia have resolved their border disputes and have signed several agreements. Until recently, China has been the largest buyer of Russian military hardware and weapons. Both countries are also cooperating in the energy sector and have signed a deal under which Russia will supply 300,000 barrels of oil per day to China from 2011 to 2030. China is also the main benefactor of the under-construction Russian Eastern Siberia – Pacific Ocean oil pipeline. Indeed China is investing heavily in extracting natural resources in Russia.

Besides, Russia and China have developed strong business and cultural links. The year 2006 was the Year of Russia in China and 2007 was marked as the Year of China in Russia. Both states organized exhibitions and cultural programs. Trade talks and state visits were held as well.

The United States is China’s biggest trade partner but the US considers China as a threat. A strong and rich Russia is deemed as a potential danger for the US interests; therefore, any strategic alliance between Russia and China is seen as an obstacle by Washington to the US global hegemony.

For the last 10 years, US experts such as former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and some US think tanks have been promoting theories that claim that the Chinese-Russian relationship is fraught and imbalanced. The focus of this propaganda is that Russia has become a junior partner in the Sino-Russian relationship and that China is using Russia to pursue a Chinese agenda. US commentators claim that Chinese and Russian interests diverge and therefore both countries cannot build a long-term alliance. American experts say that China is working against Russian interests in Central Asia and the Chinese are taking over control of Central Asian natural resources and businesses.

But the reality is different from what the claims. China and Russia, together, have engaged Central Asian states in constructive and positive partnerships. Kazakhstan has allowed construction of a 10,000 kilometer-long oil pipeline to pass through its territory. The pipeline, which has been completed this year, supplies oil from Turkmenistan to China via Kazakhstan.

The United States is also playing on Central Asian fears. Central Asian states are ethnically diverse and in the post Soviet era ethnic tensions exist in parts of Central Asia. Russia accuses the US and the West for fanning religious and ethnic tensions in former Soviet republics. Russia sees Western hand in conflicts in Chechnya, Dagestan and South Caucasus.

In Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan suffered from the latest round of ethnic conflict which involved Uzbek and Kyrgyz people. Interestingly, since 2005, the United States and Russia are testing their muscles in Kyrgyzstan. The country hosts American and Russian military bases. Kyrgyzstan also borders the western Chinese province of Xinjiang.

Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group, is spread in western China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Earlier this year, tensions between the Uighurs and ethnic Chinese in western China led to violence. The Western media and US based rights groups overplayed and overreacted to the ethnic violence to squeeze China. Incidents in western China also caused fears in bordering Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

After years of the Soviet ban on religion, many people in the independent states of Central Asia use religion as their main identity. Almost all Central Asian states are afraid of militant movements and have been pursuing strict policies regarding religion. Religious preaching is discouraged in Central Asia; however, some Central Asian states are soft on Christian missionaries.

Kazakhstan, for example, is the only Central Asian state that has opened its doors to Western businesses and organizations, including missionaries, by relaxing work and visa regulations for North American and European citizens. Kazakhstan is a very large country with a small population of only 16 million. That population comprises of 130 ethnic groups. Nearly 60 percent of Kazakhstanis are Muslims and the remaining follow other faiths. Such demographic composition makes Kazakhstan vulnerable to ethnic or religious unrest; however, the Kazakh government has been very wisely promoting religious and ethnic tolerance.

Some circles in Central Asia see Christian missionaries as a counterweight to militants groups. But for US-based Christian groups this is an opportunity to influence Central Asian public through religion. Thousands of missionaries from the United States have arrived in Central Asia where they present Christianity as a religion of peace. Hundreds of Kazakhs, for instance, have converted to the Christian faith. Christian missionaries target schools and universities to change minds of the Central Asian youth. Drama, theatrical performances and music are common tools of missionaries to attract young Central Asians.

Volunteers of the US Peace Corps are also very active in Central Asia. They teach English language or work with NGOs in rural areas of the region. Some of them have joined local universities as students. US-funded organizations such as Freedom House, Eurasia Foundation of Central Asia, Soros Foundation as well as USAID all have extensive networks in some countries of the region.

It is difficult for US organizations to work in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan but they operate in Kazakhstan with ease, nevertheless, Kazakhstan is walking on a tight rope. The country is the Chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for 2010. The OSCE summit will be held in the Kazakh capital of Astana on December 1-2. Western human and media watchdogs have been criticizing Kazakhstan to keep the country under pressure. Kazakhstan shares long borders with Russia and China and it has good relations with both, particularly with Russia. Keeping a balance in relations with its Western and Eastern partners is a serious challenge for Kazakhstan.

In reality, new and inexperienced Central Asian states are dealing with powers that are cunning and conniving. These powers pursue complex diplomatic operations to push their interests. United States, for example, under the mask of friendship wants to foothold in Central Asia to secure alternative sources of energy and to compete, contain and even encircle Russia and China through NATO.

Source: Press TV

About the author

Shiraz Paracha

Mr. Paracha has worked as a journalist, with newspapers, television, radio and online companies in Britain, Central Asia and Pakistan. Between 1995 and1996, hosted and presented very popular television programs (Awami Forum and Awami Jirga) in Pakistan. His former employers include the BBC and Press TV among other notable names. Mr. Paracha is also a journalism professor and has taught journalism and communication courses at international universities outside Pakistan.

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