On July 9 the Shanghai Cooperation Organization council of foreign ministers met in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to finalize the agenda for the forthcoming SCO summit in August. Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ednan Karabayev commented afterward that the summit will focus on developing the work of the SCO-Afghanistan contact group, strengthening economic interaction among member states, forming deeper ties with countries currently holding observer status, furthering multilateral cooperation with ASEAN and EAEC, and signing a treaty on “long-term good-neighborliness, friendship, and cooperation” that will be hailed as a milestone.
The SCO foreign ministers believe the organization is uniquely qualified and capable of providing security for the “weak points” in the region. “The SCO is disposed to constructive interaction with all interested multilateral unions and states on the basis of principles of equality and public norms of international law. [He stressed] The importance of activities to form mechanisms of cooperation with international partners, particularly those from the regional anti-terrorist structure,” according to the official communiqué from the SCO foreign ministers (Itar-Tass, July 9).
Beijing is serious about using the SCO to establish its own security credentials within Central Asia. Beijing has confirmed that it will send units to participate in the SCO anti-terrorist exercise “Peace-Mission 2007” on August 9-17. All six SCO members — China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan — will participate in exercises designed to test their anti-terrorist capabilities and convince Central Asian leaders of the security dividend to be gained from closer interaction with the SCO or, more exactly, from the Moscow-Beijing axis of power in the region. Approximately 1,600 soldiers from China’s army and air force — including airborne and logistic units — will be deployed in Chelyabinsk in Russia’s Ural Mountains region and in Urumqi, capital of northwest China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
“In the past, China mainly sent naval forces to bilateral and multilateral military exercises. This is the first time China has sent airborne units to drills abroad. More units will take part in joint military drills in the future,” said Ou Yangwei, a professor at China’s National Defense University, highlighting the importance of the show of military force.
China is gradually broadening its military and security involvement in promoting security in Central Asia. “The drill mainly aims to showcase the improved security coordination among SCO members, the reinforced anti-terror capability of SCO members, the improved Sino-Russian relationship, and the modernizing of members’ armed forces,” noted Peng Guangqian, a researcher with the China’s Academy of Military Sciences (Xinhua, July 12).
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev met Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Bishkek on July 9 and personally pledged to enhance cooperation and promote bilateral ties. Bakiyev described China as Kyrgyzstan’s “sincere friend” and an “important partner,” while affirming his belief that ties with China represent Kyrgyzstan’s top diplomatic priority (Xinhua, July 9).
On July 10 Bakiyev told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that he placed a “high value” on relations with Moscow. Likewise, Lavrov stressed the degree of unanimity on regional issues, praising the level of bilateral ties with Bishkek. “We discussed a fundamental aspect of relations, and I fully agree with the assessment of our partnership relations that are dynamically developing in the economic, military-technical, technical, and humanitarian spheres. And these relations are not only bilateral, but are also multilateral within the framework of the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States], the Eurasian Economic Community, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization,” the Russian foreign minister noted (Kabar, July 10).
A significant element of Sino-Russian diplomacy in Central Asia has been to minimize the reliance of regional governments on assistance from the United States and to undermine the U.S. military presence in the region. Kyrgyz deputy speaker Kubanychbek Isabekov confirmed that Russia and China would exert strong diplomatic pressure on the Kyrgyz leadership over the U.S.-led military presence at Manas air base at the SCO summit in Bishkek in August.
However, Isabekov believes that Kyrgyzstan continues to need the Manas air base since the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan affect security concerns in Central Asia. “Both Russia and China will certainly exert pressure on the Kyrgyz leadership during the SCO summit, but Kyrgyzstan, as a sovereign state, has the right to determine its foreign and domestic policies on its own,” Isabekov said (Akipress, July 10). Isabekov supports the coalition’s continued presence in Bishkek, but this is increasingly coming under pressure from regional powers. Indeed, the temptation to follow Moscow’s security line could be influenced by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to withdraw from the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty; Kyrgyz officials are seeing their friends standing up to what Moscow calls Washington’s pursuit of unilateral foreign policy.
Another factor, which exposes this key aspect of Washington’s relationship with Bishkek, is that no matter how hard its own diplomats work toward strengthening ties; it is only as strong as Kyrgyz diplomacy allows. This point was raised again through Isabekov, making a rare attack on Kyrgyz diplomats abroad.
Isabekov criticized the performance of Zamira Sydykova, the Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States. He said the Kyrgyz embassy in the United States was failing to carry out appropriate work, complaining also about an incident in which only one member of staff arriving at an airport to meet an eight-member official delegation. “Asked where the ambassador Zamira Sydykova is, the staff said that she was preparing for a holiday in connection with her son or daughter finishing a school, and she would be there the following day,” the deputy speaker said. Isabekov’s almost vitriolic criticism of Kyrgyz diplomats including the ambassadors to Austria and the Czech Republic is certainly unusual, but must surely remind Western governments that regional diplomats are inherently inexperienced; a point not lost in Moscow and Beijing (Akipress, July 10).
Moscow and Beijing will harness their own relations with Bishkek as well as using the SCO summit to exploit their own agendas in the region. Bishkek, however, will face difficult choices.