Kazakhstan’s delicate foreign policy, predicated upon balancing its relations among China, Russia, and the United States, has come under increased pressure both from its involvement in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the growing tendency within the region to question the long-term strategic role of the U.S. military in Central Asia. The SCO’s request that Washington set a deadline for its military presence in the region has exposed Astana’s foreign policy paradigm to a severe test. Equally, senior and well-placed Kazakhstani analysts have raised objections to the need for a sustained U.S. military presence in the region and praised President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s efforts to avoid basing American forces in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan has developed a close bilateral defense relationship with the U.S. and deepened its commitment to NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP). Its open demonstration of supporting the war on terror has been shown by steadfast adherence to the deployment of elements of its peacekeeping unit (KAZBAT) in Iraq. There are no tangible signs that Astana is considering backtracking on any of these steps; it has no need to do so. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan’s support for the SCO’s call for the U.S. to think in terms of a timetable for getting out of Central Asia has been explained by reference to pressure from China and Russia. General Richard Myers, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has reportedly interpreted the position of the Central Asian members of the SCO in precisely this manner.
However, the Kazakhstani media has presented an alternative interpretation. According to Delovaya nedelya, the driving force behind Astana’s strategic choice in favor of the SCO is rooted in its fear of the potential spread of “color revolutions.” Such fears predispose the Nazarbayev regime to open a more constructive dialogue on the region’s future with Beijing and Moscow. Simultaneously, the same article argues the existence of the link between Britain’s support for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the recent London bombings, pointing to the level of risk to Kazakh security taken in its current deployment of KAZBAT in Iraq. Such articles are not anti-American, as they also offer the other side of Kazakhstan’s dilemma: falling hostage to China and Russia (Delovaya nedelya, July 22).
Bolat Sultanov, director of Kazakhstan’s Institute for Strategic Studies under the Kazakh president, has gone much further in his opposition to any continued American military presence in Central Asia. He objects that it undermines Russian and Chinese security. Convinced that the United States must withdraw its military personnel, he argues that the spirit of the SCO is contravened by the presence of foreign military bases. “I am categorically against the presence of the military bases in Central Asia because any military base is an occupation base. By the way, I cannot understand Central Asian countries’ euphoria about the military bases. Everywhere there are military bases people are demanding that the bases be pulled out. Look at Europe, South Korea, and Japan,” explained Sultanov (Interfax-Kazakhstan, August 10). Sultanov’s position is not entirely new, having previously postulated such ideas, but what is unclear is the role and influence his open and public hostility towards the U.S. military presence will have on domestic public opinion and, perhaps more significantly, within the Nazarbayev regime itself.
Kazakhstan is also observing the difficulties relating to the issues emerging from the U.S. military deployment in Central Asia. Uzbekistan’s decision to terminate its agreement with the U.S. concerning Karshi-Khanabad has had implications for the renegotiation of the bilateral agreement with Kyrgyzstan regarding the Ganci base in Bishkek; already plans are being mooted about elements of the Karshi-Khanabad deployment being relocated to Ganci. These agreements, as important as they are, now seem a little shakier than they once did, especially when compared to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). On August 11, Bishkek ratified the CSTO agreement on the joint use of military infrastructure facilities in member countries. In this context, the deployment of elements of the Russian Air Force at Kant now appears more durable. Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan had already ratified the agreement (Interfax, August 11).
Other multilateral organizations, such as NATO and the OSCE, are also doing much to improve security structures in the region, which benefits Kazakhstan. Its emerging defense relationship with the United States has resulted in clear advances in its process of military reform and the preparedness of its security forces to cope with terrorist activity. Kazakhstan will continue to attach importance to its links with Washington, seeing training and education and other forms of security assistance as a vital part of improving its own anti-terrorist capabilities. But at the strategic level, it is unlikely to seek to favor any one of the great powers at the expense of the others. Astana is now displaying interest in multilateral organizations including the CSTO and SCO, since the latter serves as a forum through which Beijing is involved, as well as enhancing its cooperation with NATO. It may be possible to defuse tension over the U.S. military involvement in Central Asia by promoting more practical multilateral cooperation, among NATO, the CSTO, and SCO. Any approach that gives the impression of the United States dealing on its own with individual countries in the region at the possible expense of China and Russia will be doomed to failure.