Great Powers vie for sway in Central Asia

Here’s an Oxford Analytica brief from early February on basing in Central Asia.

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As NATO and the United States prepare to withdraw the bulk of their military forces from Afghanistan in 2014, both regional powers and local actors in Central Asia are preparing for the aftermath. NATO countries have already negotiated short-term access to new and existing military bases in the region to facilitate the step-by-step withdrawal of their troops. At the same time, the United States and Russia are working out deals with local players to maintain their military presence in an effort to preserve regional security, as well as guarantee their long-term influence in Central Asia.

Impact

  • The Russian military presence in Kyrgyzstan is becoming more entrenched due to the recent changes in the legal status of its facilities.
  • US influence in Central Asia will decline after NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, as the region is not a US foreign policy priority.
  • Given its de facto economic dominance in Central Asia, China is cautious about stepping up its military involvement in regional affairs.

What next

The Western focus on Afghanistan will decline after the NATO operation is completed. The United States will seek to maintain a presence at the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan, but the number of personnel there will depend primarily on the supply needs of the US troops remaining in Afghanistan after 2014. Russia, on the other hand, will aim to solidify its position as the dominant regional security provider. Finally, China will continue to strengthen military ties with Central Asian states, though it will stop short of the potentially incendiary step of sending its forces to the region.

Analysis

Over the past few months, discussions of post-2014 military bases in Central Asia have resurfaced. Although Moscow and Washington remain the key contenders in their efforts to ensure continued military access to the region, several other countries involved in NATO operations in Afghanistan have sought to secure access to the bases as they are beginning to plan troop withdrawals. For example:

  • Germany wants to maintain its lease on the base in Termez, Uzbekistan; and
  • France recently signed an agreement with Kazakhstan to develop a military transit hub in Shymkent.

Both countries are almost certainly going to pull out of these bases once the withdrawal of their troops is complete. Russia and the United States, on the other hand, will likely stay for the longer term.

US-Russian Manas rivalry

The Manas transit centre in Kyrgyzstan served as the key link in the US effort to bring equipment and troops to Afghanistan. It is poised to play a similar role during the US withdrawal from the region. At the same time, there is a great deal of competition for access to Manas after 2014.

United States

Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev sees the base as a regional airport. The United States appears to support Atambayev’s plan and has already submitted a proposal to transform the facility into a civilian aviation hub. This may prove beneficial in future negotiations with Kyrgyzstan should Washington decide to retain some local military presence. The mid-January visit to Bishkek by the US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake was widely perceived as the first step toward bilateral discussions on the future of the Manas Transit Centre.

Russia

Moscow is also keen to provide assistance for Manas redevelopment as it seeks to ensure base access while, at the same time, hoping to prevent the United States from remaining in the country. A delegation of Russian state officials visited Bishkek in December 2012 for discussions about the possibility of establishing a joint Kyrgyzstani-Russian logistics centre at Manas.

Russia: Access to Kyrgyzstan facilities

In December 2012, Russia succeeded in convincing Kyrgyzstan’s government to allow it to consolidate into a unified military base its existing local facilities. These consist of:

  • a weapon test range in Karakol;
  • a signals centre in Kara-Balt;
  • a radio-seismic laboratory in Mayly-Suu; and
  • an airbase in Kant.

Until now, these facilities were governed by several agreements that made them more vulnerable to political pressure from the Kyrgyzstani side. To reduce the risk, Moscow had been looking to change their status for the last two years. The new agreement will last for at least 15 years.

The deal appears to have ended speculation that Russia was planning to build a second military base in southern Kyrgyzstan near Osh. Although Moscow was keen to build a base in that region for several years, the importance of this initiative diminished after the United States announced in the summer of 2010 that it will not proceed with its plans to establish a counter-terrorism training centre in the area.

Russia: Long-term presence in Tajikistan

In October 2012, Russia finalised with Tajikistan an arrangement to extend its lease on local military facilities for 30 years. Tajikistan agreed to forego significant rent payments in exchange for:

  • 200 million dollars toward the modernisation of its armed forces;
  • additional economic assistance, including Moscow’s help with the construction of hydroelectric power stations; and
  • fewer restrictions for Tajik migrant labourers in Russia.

Fuel supplies hurdles

Several obstacles have been delaying the ratification of the agreement in Tajikistan’s parliament. They include duty-free Russian fuel shipments. Moscow insisted on a clause that would prevent Dushanbe from re-exporting the fuel and, after initial reluctance, Tajikistan relented in late January 2013.

Migration issues

The two sides remain at odds over restrictions imposed on Tajik guest workers. The current migration agreement stipulates that Tajikistan nationals are allowed to stay in Russia for 15 days without registration and are eligible for a work permit of up to three years. Dushanbe is seeking to improve the terms of the agreement while, on its part, Moscow is requesting that Tajikistan control the flow of migrants by sending them through dedicated organisations. Migration law is a critical issue for Tajikistan; remittances from its migrant workers in Russia comprise almost half of the country’s GDP.

Despite delays in negotiations, both sides appear committed to completing the deal, which is likely to be ratified in Tajikistan’s parliament in the next 1-2 months.

China: Military reluctance

Although China has strengthened its military ties with Central Asian states through frequent multi-national exercises and occasional arms sales, it has not attempted to establish a permanent military presence in the region. The strategy is part of an effort to assuage the fears shared by Central Asian leaders of excessive Chinese dominance. It also addresses Russia’s concerns of being displaced by China as the security guarantor, having already been sidelined in the economic realm.

One thought on “Great Powers vie for sway in Central Asia

  1. Dr. Gorenburg, if I may ask, how would you predict this theater – in military and economic sense – would develop in about 15 / 20 years, taken the russian, indian, chinees and United States fator into account?

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