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Central Asian States – Alert China Ups the Ante

Of the 15 entities constituting the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) (so called because they had the nominal right of secession) which became independent States following its collapse in 1991, only Russia has been attracting the lion’s share of attention in the media and corridors of power. While the countries of West Asia, South Asia and South East Asia too have been impinging on the consciousness of governments, political analysts and economic players, the issues and events pertaining to the Central Asian States (Kazakastan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) do not normally grab headlines. (Of course, long ago in the 1960s, as an apocryphal story would have it, the Dravida Munnetra Kazakam (DMK) was pevailed upon to drop its demand for Dravidastan with the argument that it had a whole huge territory of Kazakastan available to it!) In short, insofar as awareness of their existence is concerned, they may as well be on the other side of the moon.

So long as the Central Asian States formed part of the Soviet Union, it is doubtful whether even their names, leave alone their demographic, social and economic profiles, were known to the outside world (See Box for thumbnail sketches of their profiles). Naturally, the dealings of the international community were with the Communist rulers in Moscow chiefly dominated by the political heavyweight of Russia, the Republic with the largest territory from where most leading lights of the party and its power brokers hailed. It is only of late that the Central Asian States have come to limelight, and their strategic location, their geopolitical significance, and their ability to make a big difference to the security and economies of the neighbouring countries certainly, but also of the rest of the world have aroused interest and become matters of realpolitik.

Thumbnail Sketches of Central Asian States

Kazakastan: Equal to the whole of Europe in size, with a population of only 1.4 million. High child, maternity mortality rates, with 28 per cent living below subsistence minimum level and 20 per cent unemployed. Suffering from dilapidated infrastructure, high unemployment, soaring inflation, drug addiction and HIV/AIDS. Victim of fallout of Russian nuclear tests and dumping of toxic waste leading to contaminated water and drying up of Aral sea. However, has vast, unexplored, unexploited mineral resources and energy reserves.

Kyrgystan: Multi-ethnic (Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russians, Ukrainians and Germans, with a sprinkling of Chinese Muslims) population of five million of which 62 per cent live below poverty line, 23 per cent in extreme poverty. Economy characterised by low productivity, high inflation, high unemployment, inequitable income distribution.

Tajikistan: Population of six million with Tajiks, Uzbeks and Russians of whom 54 per cent are unemployed and 80 per cent below poverty line. Only seven per cent arable land. Poorest of the five states, yet to recover from the ravages of five-year long civil war. Plagued by food shortages, contagious diseases and lack of clean water. Prone to recurrent natural disasters.

Turkmenistan: Population five million, more than 70 per cent being ethnic Turkmen. 50 per cent below poverty line. Fifth largest gas reserve in the world.

Uzbekistan: Population of 25 million, with border touching all the other four States. Noted for production of “white gold” (cotton) and grain, with undeveloped mineral and petroleum reserves.

Win-win situation

Sparsely populated and still below par in economic development they may be, but the region covered by them is rich in resources — natural, mineral and fossil fuel — awaiting exploitation, sufficient to make up for their depletion elsewhere and reduce the dependence on the current conventional sources of supply. Enabling them to maximise their potential in this respect is a win-win situation. Their own needs being limited in view of their scant population, the surplus will be at the disposal, and that too at an enticingly low cost, of the countries going to their assistance with capital and technology. At the same time, the States too will enormously benefit by the prosperity that will flow out of the collaboration.

Understandably, China, abutting on those States, was the first to cotton on to the possibilities. The years following the demise of the USSR saw Russia painfully struggling to come out of the throes of the “shock treatment” administered by Dr.Jeffrey Sachs and his ilk, with little time to spare for its erstwhile sister-Republics. In any case, President Boris Yeltsin had little or no interest in them and left them to fend for themselves as best they might. China neatly stepped into the vacuum, with the “Shanghai Five” initiative which subsequently morphed into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) comprising China, Kazakastan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, essentially to evolve and promote a partnership attending collectively to basic tasks of nation-building, safeguarding the security and stability of the newly independent States and exploring pathways to economic and military cooperation, besides facilitating intelligence exchanges, training of police and military forces, and coordinating military operations to contain terrorism. Russia too was taken as a member in consideration of its size and economic and military might, but, for aught it contributed, was no more than a sleeping partner.

China had other concerns as well. Its borders with the States were ill-defined, and the predominantly Muslim population of its westernmost province Xinjiang was proving to be a tinderbox, which could be lighted by militant Islamic movements which found a fertile breeding ground in Uzbekistan. So, China wanted a listening post as well as a base for extending its influence. Desperate to keep pace with the vaulting demand for oil and gas, it saw in the Central Asian States a tempting target for its efforts to locate sources for future supplies. Some observers even read into China’s moves an urge for lebensraum for its burgeoning population; the wide open spaces of the Central Asian States were an irresistible lure for a covert policy of immigration of Chinese, swamping the local populations in due course.

China’s bid to woo and win

Whatever that be, there was no doubt about China going all out to woo and win the allegiance of the States. It went about executing its strategy systematically and assiduously. It dusted up the old Panch Sheel — respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-interference in the internal affairs of each other, fostering regional stability, peace and goodwill in bilateral and international relations, and mutually beneficial cooperation — to form the basis of agreements with each one of the States so as to serve as a reassurance of its good intentions.

It patched up the existing disputes over borders by making concessions, set up trade missions in every Central Asian country, provided generous funding for start-ups and development activities, especially new oil fields and hydro-electric projects in Kyrgystan and Tajikistan, and strengthened its economic links by establishing networks of new infrastructure. For instance, it has readily come forward to implement a 3000 km pipeline initially connecting Kazakastan with China’s Xinjiang region, and eventually extending right up to the Caspian Sea. It has undertaken to finance and construct a highway costing $ 1.5 billion from China to Central Asia and plough into all the five States investments worth four billion dollars.

Need for India to raise its stakes

With China following a forward policy, can the US afford to be left behind? The Paul H.Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University was quick to set up in 1996 a Central Asia-Caucuses Institute, a precursor to other think tanks focussed on Central Asia that followed. Before September 2001, however, the overtures of the US to the Central Asian States were tentative, conforming to the time-(dis)honoured pattern of offering protective cover, defence deals and arms supplies. The 9/11 Al Qaeda terrorist outrage on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon drove the US to look at the whole world as its staging ground for its war on terrorism and forge strategic alliances and security compacts to that end. Countries of Central Asia became essential pieces on the US checkerboard for two important reasons: The first was, of course, their immense reserves of oil and gas, and natural and mineral wealth.

The second, and the most immediate and sinister, compulsion was the rapid emergence after 9/11 of terrorist groups such as Hizb-ul-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), bent on fomenting violence and insurgency with a view to overthrowing Central Asian governments, taking advantage of their repressive misrule. Hizb ut-Tahrir whose adherents reportedly number 40,000 seeks the establishment of a caliphate in the region, and is banned in all Central Asian states.

Rising tide of militancy

The IMU, using at various times as suited its tactical interests, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan as its bases of operations, has been a close ally of Al Qaeda and Taliban. It has carried out a number of terrorist acts, including the latest in the series in March last year in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan (although a new group, calling itself Islamic Jihad, has also claimed responsibility for the attacks). Some intelligence experts even see a connection between the Uzbek violence and recent international terrorist activity elsewhere, including the Madrid commuter train bombings and the foiled Islamic radical plot in Great Britain, since the modus operandi of IMU militants, especially the use of female suicide bombers, is the trademark of the international jihadi terrorists.

Some of the prominent and rabidly fanatical leaders of these groups are said to be hiding in the tribal belt along Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The IMU is one of the outfits blacklisted by the US, and only recently, it figured in a public advisory issued by the U.S. State Department to Tajikistan, that it remains “active” in the country and still poses “risks” to travelers. These countries have become key allies of the US in the latter’s bid to eradicate terrorism at any cost. In all of them, there is ample evidence to conclude that Islamic radical propaganda, including incitement to jihadi terrorism, is abundantly funded. China, Russia (with the festering Chechenyan sore) and the US (eagerly watched for possible spoils by Japan, the European Union and NATO members) are thus willy-nilly the troika on which now hinges the future stability, security and economic growth of the region.

In all this power play to capture vantage points, India has so far been like the dog in the famous Sherlock Holmes story that did not bark in the night. No doubt, when the National Democratic Alliance Government was in power, the Defence Minister, Mr.George Fernandes, paid a visit to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan ostensibly “to build strategic space in the region and encircle Pakistan”. No doubt, too, India has marked its presence in Tajikistan with an air base, its second (other than the one in Sri Lanka) outside its borders. But mainly, it has preferred to deal with them one-on-one for ad hoc purposes of either buying Soviet era military equipment like Ilyushin-76 transport aircraft (suitable for transporting troops or for mounting an aerial AWCS-like radar that it obtained from Israel, the Phalcon) or selling weapons to local governments. It has also offered facilities for joint training, research and development initiatives with those States.

Decade of Central Asia

But there has been nothing like a long range strategic vision which will enable it to participate in energy and infrastructure projects, and widen the opportunities for increased trade. Regional frameworks like SCO or the Central Asia Cooperation Organization (or the newly formed “Central Asia Plus Japan Dialogue”), have left Indian policy makers cold, making India, as a commentator puts it, “a lousy team player”. Its contribution to the development of the region has been niggardly, of the order of $100 million, whereas Japan has pledged $2.6 billion over a 10-year period. So much so, the Central Asian States have backed Japan’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council, ignoring India’s claim.

The above account of the opportunities that India has missed and is missing also holds pointers to the leeway India has to make to catch up not only with China, Japan and the US, but also Pakistan which has recently jumped into the Central Asian theatre with an eye on the main chance. India does not have too much time to formulate a set of counter-manoevres to prevent Central Asia from becoming a cockpit of India-Pakistan rivalry. India’s security concerns about the region are no less pressing than those of China and the US; if anything they are more so, since the effects of any catastrophic terrorism indulged in by IMU or Islamic jihad finding refuge in the region can be far-reaching and will not leave India unscathed.

More than all, as a regional power with a stake in the well-being of the under-dogs among members of the comity of nations, India has a clear and present responsibility to rescue the Central Asian States from the thraldom of poverty and unemployment plaguing them and to bring them to the level of reasonably developed countries in terms of education, infrastructure, industrial development, and economic growth. It should not be shy of proposing and launching bold measures to ameliorate their lot before regional and international forums. As already pointed out, it is a win-win situation in the sense India too will stand to benefit considerably from the symbiotic and synergistic partnership. Now is the time for framing policies and strategies to fulfil this urgent and important mission. Simultaneously, it should press the United Nations to declare the next decade as the Decade of Central Asia in order to turn the spotlight on the region.

(The writer, Mr B.S.Raghavan,IAS-Retired, is Patron of the Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai,India,

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