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“The Great Game”, a term used to describe the strategic rivalry and jostling for regional supremacy between nations, was thought to have gone into subsequent decline as a direct result of trends in globalization and regional cooperation (Lawton 2009, p 39 – 41).
In the case of Kyrgyzstan it is apparent that the intersection of interests of regional and global superpowers has in effect landed the country in the middle of a new “Great Game” where each party involved has their own stake in ensuring a modicum of control and influence over this tiny and normally insignificant part of Central Asia.
Despite the country being embroiled in an internal ethnic conflict from 2009 – 2010 (with some flare ups continuing even till the present day) countries such as Russia, China and the U.S. have expressed significant amounts of interest in the country due to its strategic position (Hanks 2011, p 177 – 182).
From the perspective of Russia, Kyrgyzstan could act as an effective buffer between it and its continued encirclement by states that are members of NATO.
While China on the other hand does want to expand its influence in the region especially with states that it shares borders with, its primary interest in Kyrgyzstan lies in the fact that the country is one of the largest consumers of products from the Xinjiang province and as such it has a certain degree of interest in maintaining its cooperative economic relationship with Kyrgyzstan.
The U.S. on the other hand views Kyrgyzstan as an important strategic location in Central Asia as a “shipping out” point where it can effectively muster resources to be sent to its various military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, etc (Matthews 2010, p 12).
Each nation has its own vested interest in the country yet such an intersection of interests is placed against the backdrop of a potentially explosive situation wherein the continued ethnic conflict within Kyrgyzstan presents numerous points of cooperation that all the parties involved seem to ignore. It is a well known fact that Kyrgyzstan within the past few years has been mired in ethnic conflict between its two native populations.
Unfortunately this conflict interrupted into outright violence in 2009 to 2010 with several radical Muslim fundamentalists adding fuel to the fire (Crabtree 2010, p 3).
In fact studies such as those by Yu (2010, p 10-12) indicate that while the situation in Kyrgyzstan will “somewhat” settle down by 2011 and 2012 it is still likely that the growing tensions within the region may erupt resulting in a spillover effect into other countries (i.e. Russia and China) as a direct result of the possible development of terrorist groups within the country (Yu 2010, p 10-12) (Wang 2003, p 568-584).
The best way to prevent such an action from occurring is of course to work with Kyrgyzstan via a cooperative agreement in order to establish counterterrorism measures and activities however joint agreements in this regard have been largely absent (Foreign Relations 2010, p 41-47).
It is in this regard that this paper will examine the points of contention in the case of Kyrgyzstan between the countries involved. As such what will be explored is the case of mutual distrust, lack of cooperation and through the use of the realist perspective this paper will attempt to examine that basis for such behaviors in light of the actions of the states in question.
It is expected that through this paper some light will be shed on the intersection of interests of these countries in Kyrgyzstan and what can be done to resolve this issue. It is in the opinion of this paper that despite the intersection of interests within Kyrgyzstan the parties involved will not be able to enter into a cooperative agreement due to the perspective of absolute versus relative gains concerns.
Analyzing the Points of Conflict
To better understand the points of conflict in this particular case realism will be utilized in order to examine the actions of the states involved and determine why they pursued a particular action the way they did.
First and foremost, for realists cooperation between states is difficult due to the possibility of cheating and the concept of relative gains between different classes of states while from a liberalist perspective cheating does also occur however instead of relative gains what occur are collective actions problems (Hall 2011, p 42-52) (Cozette 2004, p 428-453).
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The reason this is mentioned is due to the fact that while Russia, China and the U.S. have vested interests in Kyrgyzstan it is far different from what each other believes it to be (Foreign Relations 2011, p 69-75).
For example, in the case of Russia it believes that the U.S. presence within Kyrgyzstan is simply a means in which to encircle it within a cadre of NATO member states.
For China it believes that the U.S. is utilizing the conflict within Kyrgyzstan in order to send agents across the border in order to further destabilize relations between China and the Xinjiang region due to the express views of the U.S. regarding what it perceives as a persecution of minorities within the Xinjiang province by the Chinese government.
On the other hand the U.S. merely views Kyrgyzstan as a strategic launching point for its operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East and as such has been adamant in keeping its influence in the region in order to keep this vital supply line open (U.S.-KYRGYZ relations 2008, p 6).
While the easiest solution to this problem would be to simply enact some form of regional cooperative agreement all the parties involved have been hesitant if not unwilling to enter into a proper arrangement despite the fact that the conflict of interest in this particular case is one that is merely perceived and not wholly substantiated based on solid evidence (i.e. the assumptions of Russia and China regarding the presence of the U.S. within Kyrgyzstan may be entirely wrong).
Taking the liberal view into consideration, collective action problems for interstate cooperation can be surmised into 2 distinct problem sets, namely:
Achieving cooperation between states is relatively costly to organize, monitor and enforce (Kaplan 2012, p 80-89).
There is the possibility of “free riding” wherein certain states benefit from the cooperation but do not pay the costs of achieving cooperation (Kaplan 2012, p 80-89).
From the realist perspective even if states found themselves in a situation where cooperative action would be mutually beneficial the fact still remains that these states are still concerned over the concept of relative gains that would result from cooperative action (Cozette 2008, p 667-679).
Based on this, realists state that cooperation is a lot more difficult to achieve than otherwise believed due to the behavior of states where they would give up the potential gains accrued through cooperation if such cooperative action resulted in greater gains for other parties in the cooperative agreement (Lebow 2011, p 1219-1228).
Taking this into consideration this explains why the Russia and China continue to have a contentious relationship with the U.S. in the case of Kyrgyzstan since from their perspective while cooperation would benefit all parties concerned the U.S. would benefit more than them and as such they would much rather pursue a strategy of contention in order to reduce the gains attained by a state that they would not like to gain any more advantage than it already has (Nuri 2006, p 305-321).
This particular view is further bolstered by the fact that U.S. has had a history of adverse relationships with Russia and China (i.e. the Cold War and the efforts of the U.S. to undermine the spread of communism during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Regan etc.). Another way of looking at the contention between the countries involved is from the perspective of terrorism.
While the U.S., China and Russia all have had experience with terrorism and all three parties agree that the ethnic conflict within Kyrgyzstan is a perfect breeding ground for the development of terrorism yet despite this Russia, the U.S. and China still believe in independent rather than cooperative action in dealing with Kyrgyzstan.
The reason behind this is quite simple; one of the main issues of contention between the U.S. and China on the issue of cooperation is the fact that from the perspective of China and Russia (as mentioned earlier) the U.S. will gain more from any cooperative agreement.
This is based on the fact that while China and Russia have experienced acts of terrorism in the past they have been limited to originating within their own borders while in the case of the U.S. the threat of terrorism originates from dissidents in other states (Interfax 2011, p 1).
Furthermore, complying with the agenda of the U.S. would require China to violate its own policies against interference in the affairs of other states which the U.S. has been doing for the past several decades while in the case of Russia this would take the form of willingly cooperating with a state that may turn Kyrgyzstan into another part of NATO which would be against Russia’s best interests.
Thus from the perspective of absolute versus relative gains it is unlikely that China or Russia would enter into a sustained cooperative agreement in counterterrorism with the U.S. due to the fact that the U.S. would gain more from such a method of collaboration
What must be understood is that there is mutual distrust between the parties involved which is fueled by assumptions that the other the other will use the issue of counterterrorism to pursue their own agendas (Hamati-Ataya 2010, p 1079-1101).
From the perspective of the U.S., China is using the “war against terror” as an excuse to oppress the Uighur people within the Xingiang region while from the perspective of China; the U.S. is using counterterrorism as an excuse to exert its influence on other countries.
This particular viewpoint is shared by Russia which views the actions of the U.S. as being a prelude towards continued NATO expansion within its near abroad area and as such necessitates countermeasures in the form of establishing a greater degree of influence and aide to the Kyrgyzstan government (Interfax 2010, p 1) (People and history 2005, p 2).
Contentions over Oil, Gas and Natural Resources
One of the more ludicrous points of contention between the U.S., Russia and China is that that presence of U.S. military interests within Kyrgyzstan is part due to the presence of oil, gas and natural resources which Russia and China supposedly “think” that the U.S. is out to exploit.
This particular point of contention between the parties involved is not only ludicrous but also hypocritical since it is Russia and China that want to utilize the resources within the country for their own endeavors. What must be understood is that Kyrgyzstan at the present is considered the 2nd poorest country within Central Asia and has a rudimentary infrastructure base.
This means that the national government doesn’t have the monetary resources needed to exploit the rich natural resources that are within the country. This leaves the door open towards foreign investment in this regard with countries such as Russia and China viewing Kyrgyzstan as a potential source of oil, gas and various other natural resources which they can utilize for their own industrial centers.
The continued presence of the U.S. within Kyrgyzstan creates the potential for U.S. led interests and not those of China and Russia to be pushed through.
In fact studies such as those by Van Lohuizen (2010, p 160-169) state that Russia and China definitely view the U.S. as a possible threat to their own use of Kyrgyzstan’s resource and as such adds more problems towards any possibility of collaborative action (Van Lohuizen 2010, p 160-169).
On the other hand it must be noted that U.S. interests within the region outside of it being a strategic military launching point is largely unknown and as such there actually may be a grain of truth in what Russia and China are implying regarding the possibility of resource concessions being given to the U.S. in favor of “getting a cut” so to speak of the profits gained from the extraction of Kyrgyzstan’s natural resources.
Possibility of Waning U.S. Interest in Kyrgyzstan
As mentioned earlier, the primary interest of the U.S. in Kyrgyzstan is its strategic location within Central Asia which acts as an important supply point for the U.S. led intervention in Afghanistan yet this past year which has coincided with the withdrawal of U.S. troops in various conflict zones as well as a significant reduction in the budgetary allotments for the U.S.
Armed Forces has in effect called into question the ability of the U.S. to sustain interest in Kyrgyzstan in terms of continuing to maintain its military presence within the region.
What must be understood is that the current financial recession and subsequent increase in the amount of debt held by the U.S. government has resulted in the necessity for drastic budget cuts. This has impacted not only the military but the state department as well which oversees several aspects of U.S. led initiatives in other countries.
Articles such as those by Interfax (2012, p 1) indicate that with the decline in U.S. budgetary allotments for military expenditure this will have an effect on the ability of the country to continue to exert its military influence in other regions and as such it can be presumed that a similar situation will occur in Kyrgyzstan (Interfax 2012, p 1).
One interesting way of looking at this situation is from the perspective of Ibbotson (2010, p 26) who explains that should the U.S. withdraw from Eastern Europe and Central Asia that NATO would be able to take over in its place due to its position as a regional security organization (Ibbotson 2010, p 26).
This particular view does have a certain degree of merit since the internal instability within Kyrgyzstan brought about through ethnic conflict could possibly merit joint intervention should the current Kyrgyzstan government ask for it.
The flaw in the argument presented by Ibbotson (2010, p 26) lies in its complete neglect over the possible influences of Russia and China once the U.S. withdraws from the region. For one thing, Russia currently has two bases within Kyrgyzstan with regional analysis studies such as those by the article “Russia Wants U.S.
Base In Kyrgyzstan Closed” (2010, p 83) indicating that Russia plans to use Kyrgyzstan as buffer zone between it and what it perceives as the threat of being surrounded by NATO (Russia Wants U.S. Base In Kyrgyzstan Closed 2010, p 83).
Not only that, the relationship between China and Kyrgyzstan within the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) should not be discounted especially when taking into consideration China’s interest in maintaining proper trade relations with Kyrgyzstan due the country being one of the primary customers of the Xinjiang province which borders Kyrgyzstan (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation 2011, p 39-44).
Taking such factors into consideration it cannot be immediately presumed that Kyrgyzstan will either join NATO or ask NATO for direct intervention since it has already been receiving considerable aide from Russia and China and as such it is more likely that Kyrgyzstan will turn to them for assistance once the U.S. closes down its Manas Airbase.
In light of this potential change between the dynamic between the 3 superpowers with vested interests in Kyrgyzstan, it must be questioned as to what the potential ramifications could be of the withdrawal of the U.S. from its air force base within the country.
As mentioned earlier the interests of Russia and China lie parallel to each other in terms of their acknowledgement that the ethic conflict within Kyrgyzstan has the possibility of spreading and crossing over into the borders of Russia and China which could result in adverse ramifications within their own countries (MacHaffie 2010, p 368-380).
During China’s Cultural Revolution many Uighurs (natives of the Xinjiang region which borders Kyrgyzstan and practice Islam) fled to the Soviet Union since their mosques were destroyed, their native languages were banned from being taught within schools and their Imams (leaders within the Islamic religion) were jailed.
When the Soviet Union collapsed many of these Uighurs returned back to Xinjiang becoming a source of inspiration for separatism and resisting Han (dominant Chinese population) cultural assimilation.
Compounded by the spread of radical Islam within the young Uighur population resulted in vigorous anti-Han and anti-government sentiment within the local populace which culminated in terrorist activities during the early to mid -1990s (Ruget 2011, p 48).
China is wary of such an event happening once more since the politically sensitive Xinjiang region shares a 520 mile border with Kyrgyzstan and as such should the internal conflict within the country spiral out of control this may result in what China deems as “adverse influences” spreading towards Xinjiang resulting in the spread of even greater anti-government sentiment within the region culminating in its own brand of regional uprising (MacHaffie 2010, p 368-380).
The same sentiment is echoed with Russia who also considers the potential for the spread of anti-government and radical Islam influences detrimental towards continued regional stability.
The article “U.S.-Russian Summit: Kyrgyzstan Reverses on Manas” (2009, p 15) explains that both China and Russia have a vested interest in maintaining a “peaceful neighborhood” within their periphery and as such it is likely that in the future both countries will exert some form of influence on Kyrgyzstan in the form of military and financial aid in order to crackdown on anti-government and terrorist groups within the country (U.S.-Russian Summit: Kyrgyzstan Reverses on Manas 2009, p 15).
Both countries have had a rather “chilling” experience in regards to cracking down on anti-government sentiments (i.e. mass arrests and executions) and as such this could potentially lead to even greater animosity between the ethnic groups within the country as the influences of China and Russia cause the government to utilize extreme measures of keeping the peace which would result in even greater conflict.
Based on what has been presented in this paper so far it can be seen that the intersection of interests of the 3 states within this paper is not without a certain degree of contention.
The main problem, as based on the realist framework, is that of absolute gains versus relative gains with Russia and China refusing relative gains in the face of the U.S. gaining more from a cooperative agreement. In fact the intersection of interests and the degree of contention is very likely inextricably linked to mutual distrust among the parties involved, a factor that is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.
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