From All Sides

by Nathan Hamm on 4/3/2004

A reader kindly sent me a story in the NYT about China’s push west into Central Asian affairs. China is so quiet and subtle a player in Central Asia that many don’t even realize the immense power and influence it is building. As the article points out, Central Asian states view China as a model of governance worth emulating. On the other side of the coin, China could care less how Central Asian leaders deal with dissent.

It’s also interesting to know that China is worried about the bombings in Uzbekistan because Han abuses of the Uighurs in East Turkestan has generated a fair amount of discontent. Some Uighurs are turning to radical Islam just as some Uzbeks are. To make matters worse for China, it has little control over its western borders:

According to China’s own official sources, it has imperfect control – some say no control – of the borders of Xinjiang with Central Asia, specifically Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and it cannot prevent border infiltration into Xinjiang, where many Uighurs are dissatisfied with China’s governance and seek genuine autonomy. Whatever policies China adopts, however, it is likely to face continuing and long-term unrest, including possible violence in Xinjiang and related violence elsewhere, according to Western military and strategic analysts .

China also feels its next war will be in Central Asia,

Likewise, several Chinese military and political analysts have asserted, even before September 11, that the next likely theater of a major local war that will threaten, if not involve, China will take place in Central Asia. Certainly China feels itself threatened by terrorists operating out of Central Asia and by elements in Xinjiang. Even if many of these statements are self-serving, this perception is quite real and should not be taken lightly. Similarly, another Chinese observer, Gao Shixian, states that “China deems the area to be of the utmost strategic interest and a source to fill China’s energy needs”.

Kind of makes Chinese involvement inevitable.

Then there’s those guys to the north who are extremely eager to maintain their influence in the near abroad. Turns out that that attacks over the past week may provide Russia a diplomatic opening to extend its influence in Uzbekistan, the one Central Asian state that seems insistent on giving Russia a cold shoulder. US pressure for democratization, which has consisted entirely of talk, is beginning to bother President Karimov,

While Uzbekistan is likely to gladly accept US aid, there are indications that Karimov is growing disenchanted with the democratization rhetoric, even though US admonitions have thus far never been accompanied by specific action to compel Uzbek reforms. Even before the March 28-31 attacks, Karimov was expressing a desire for a rapprochement with Russia, which has tended to be far more forgiving on human rights/democratization issues than has the United States. The pro-government web site published a commentary March 4 that said Russia’s presence in Uzbekistan was “not adequate.”

“It is time to work out a strategic line which will ensure the full and systematic implementation of Russian interests in Uzbekistan,” the commentary said.

The commentary went on to quote former Uzbek ambassador to Russia, Shoqosim Shoislomov, who suggested that Uzbek authorities had miscalculated in developing Tashkent’s post-September 11 foreign policy. He also indicated that Uzbek officials were re-examining the value of a close relationship with the United States.

“We thought the world market would welcome us with open arms. But, as it has emerged, the market is only ready to supply goods to our country,” Shoislomov said. “We all have to be realistic, and seek trade partners in those countries which have been living side by side for decades.” [Note to Shoislomov: You have to have something worth buying–Ed.]

The Russian government appears keenly interested in seizing whatever diplomatic opening that may exist to restore its influence in Uzbekistan. Russian officials, along with state-run media, have voiced virtually unqualified support for Karimov’s government, fully accepting the official Uzbek version that the violence was carried out by “terrorists” with international connections.

The story goes on to note obstacles to closer relations, but it all boils down to a question of attitude. Karimov has a very unrealistic view of his power and gets extremely bent out of shape if any leader publicly criticizes him. If Uzbekistan moves towards Russia, it won’t last. As long as Karimov is alive, I’d wager that the country’s relations would oscillate between major partners unless China comes along wanting to hop in bed.

As for the United States, our money seems not to make up for our habit of liking democracy and human rights and reminding others that they should too. Not that we do nearly as much as we could, but the words seem to bother people like Karimov.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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