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Shrinking U.S. Clout in Central Asia

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
April 28, 2006

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The United States may soon be evicted from its second Central Asian military base in less than a year, another boost for Russian and Chinese interests in the region. The Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan was leased by the U.S. military back in 2002—explained in this CFR Background Q&A—to support its anti-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan. But four years later, the geopolitics of the region have shifted. Uzbekistan, in response to U.S. criticism over a government crackdown, booted U.S. forces off its Karshi-Khanabad base late last year. Then, on April 19, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev—who came to power after last year's so-called "Tulip revolution"—threatened to eject U.S. forces if the United States fails to pony up $200 million in rent payments for Manas by June 1. That represents a hundred-fold rate hike that would amount to half of Kyrgyzstan's overall budget (CNS News).

Bakiyev's announcement comes amid a downturn in U.S.-Kyrgyz relations. U.S. Ambassador Marie Jovanovich recently accused the Kyrgyz government of stifling freedom of the press, threatening election committees, and rattling foreign investors. And former Indian diplomat M. K. Bhadrakumar writes in the Asia Times that U.S. officials have also instigated a rift between Bakiyev and Prime Minister Felix Kulov in an effort to destabilize Bakiyev's government.

The Kyrgyz machinations raise a larger issue: What kind of long-term presence should the United States have in the region? As Russia and China jockey for strategic influence in the region, the United States has seen its clout shrink, says regional expert Martha Brill Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment. All three countries consider the region vital to their economic and geopolitical interests: the area is a transit route for oil and gas pipelines, but has also become a haven for terrorists and drug smugglers.

Russia and Kyrgyzstan have strengthened their economic and military ties; bilateral trade is expected to double next year to $1 billion, while Russia intends to expand its military presence at Kant, an airbase it leases not far from Manas. Some experts say the Kremlin was behind Bakiyev's demand for higher rent payments from Washington (he announced the rent hike right before his recent trip to Moscow). Vladimir Socor of the Jamestown Foundation says Russia may be using the issue "as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the United States." Meanwhile, China is also seeking greater influence in the region. Beijing's motivations are driven primarily by its demand for alternative energy routes and its desire for greater stability to its west, writes Subodh Atal in the National Interest.

Russia and China have also acted through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (RFE/RL) to try to squeeze U.S. forces out of Central Asia. Washington is reportedly looking at other countries—including Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan—to host its troops and aircraft. Experts disagree over what the long-term U.S. role should be in Central Asia. S. Frederick Starr of SAIS says Washington should play a more active political and military role in the region. "If it chooses disinterest or passivity, the cost will be enormous," Starr wrote in Foreign Affairs. Yet this RAND report says the U.S. military's role in the region is "small but important" and should remain limited.

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