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China, Russia in race for Central Asia

Posted By F. Michael Maloof On 09/30/2012 @ 10:32 pm In Front Page,Politics,U.S.,World | No Comments

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WASHINGTON – Both China and Russia now see Central Asia as their own competitive backyard as the United States’ influence there has largely diminished as it and other countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization prepare to pull troops from Afghanistan, said a report in Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin.

Russia already has included Kazakhstan – the most influential Central Asian country – in its Eurasian Union and now is preparing to establish military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where the U.S. also has a base to support its efforts in Afghanistan.

However, the U.S. lease on Manas Air Base outside Kyrgyzstan’s capital of Bishkek is up next year, and there is still a question whether the U.S. will make an effort to extend the agreement to operate there, since U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Separately, Kyrgyzstan has renewed for the next 15 years the lease to the Russians for an air base in Kant, some 20 kilometers, or 12 miles east of Bishkek.

Russia also is inviting Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to get involved in hydropower projects in Kyrgyzstan, which is a key country for Moscow to establish its foothold in the region. Efforts in that direction have picked up since Russian President Vladimir Putin was re-elected.

When he was president for two previous terms, Putin sought to lessen U.S. influence in the region, but that effort subsided while Dmitri Medvedev was the president. With his re-election, Putin is accelerating the effort, especially in view of the impending U.S. departure.

Russia wants to extend its influence into the Central Asian region as a buffer against Islamists who undoubtedly will expand efforts in the region once the U.S. and NATO troops depart.

Putin also sees the Central Asian countries as an opportunity to gain economic and energy partners, given Russia’s close political, social and security relations, as well as the Russian president’s designs for his Eurasian Union.

At the same time, China is increasing its economic presence and influence in the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

For China, the emphasis is economic, using the Central Asian region as a way to obtain resources not only in resource-rich Afghanistan but also throughout Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Chinese Vice Premier Hui Liangyu has referred to Central Asia as being important for Beijing’s energy strategy, according to Zabikhulla S. Saipov of the Washington think-tank Jamestown Foundation.

“While other global and regional powers contemplated and sketched out on paper their desired projects to slice up the Central Asian hydrocarbon pie,” Saipov said, “China quietly has found common language with the regional leaders and has been connecting the countries with oil and gas pipelines as well as air and land routes.”

China recently opened the Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline and the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan-China natural gas pipeline.

According to Saipov, China’s western province of Xinjiang borders on eight countries and is located in the heart of Eurasia. This vast province, which also has seen the rise of Islamic problems with the resident Uighurs, is to be China’s main logistics and information center for providing services to Central Asia.

China already is working on a rail system to connect China with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and will expand work on the lonely Bishkek-Naryn-Torgart and Osh Irkeshtam-Sartash highways.

The concern among the Central Asian countries in forming any common market or free-trade arrangement with China is that they don’t want to become Chinese economic protectorates. Yet, their trade arrangements are on the rise.

Putin, however, ultimately wants to include the Central Asian countries in his grand Eurasian Union concept, even though China’s economic influence is greater than Russia’s with the Central Asian nations.

As U.S. presence in Central Asia continues to diminish with its impending departure from Afghanistan in 2014, Russia and China are expected to increase their respective influences through bilateral and multilateral cooperation. This also includes security in which both countries have joined together to include the Central Asian countries.

While China’s emphasis will be on energy and trade, Russia’s interest will be to pursue military cooperation with the Central Asian countries, with the idea of containing Western influence in the region rather than having them enter into any strategic partnership with the U.S.

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