Features | Security | Central Asia

China, US, Russia eye Bishkek

Regime change in Kyrgyzstan is largely down to local factors. But it could still have a big impact on geopolitics in Eurasia.

By Richard Weitz for

Kyrgyzstan may be a landlocked country with a population of less than 5.5 million, but it still looms large in the regional calculations of China, Russia and the United States. The Kyrgyz Republic is the only country to host both a Russian and a US military base. The Russian base at Kant symbolises Moscow’s preeminent security role in the region, while the US base at Manas plays a vital role in sustaining NATO military operations in Afghanistan. And Kyrgyzstan also borders Xinjiang, prompting concerns among Chinese policymakers over infiltration by terrorists and narcotics smuggling into this sensitive province as well as the security of their growing commercial stakes in Kyrgyzstan.

It’s clear, therefore, that the change of regime that has just taken place after a bloody uprising last week (For an eye witness account read ‘What I Saw in Bishkek’) has global political implications, not least for US forces stationed there. One key question is whether Russian diplomats will lobby the new Kyrgyz government not to renew the US lease to the air base at Kyrgyzstan’s Manas international airport when it expires in June. Last month, the Pentagon transported 50,000 NATO soldiers and other important items to and from Afghanistan. Although other routes exist, they have less capacity, take longer to use, are more expensive to operate, or are less secure. While the interests of the three great powers in Eurasia largely overlap, Russian and Chinese policymakers may still be tempted to exploit the current situation to weaken the US military presence in Kyrgyzstan.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was quick to recognize the new Kyrgyz government and offered financial and other backing. In recent months, Russian policymakers have grown dissatisfied with now deposed Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and were cultivating ties with the opposition. Kyrgyzstan is a member of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Organization and hosts a Russian air base at Kant. Moscow also has important allies within the Kyrgyz intelligence and military establishments.

Since the United States began using Manas and other Central Asian military facilities following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Russian policymakers have regularly expressed unease about a semi-permanent US military presence in what many Russians see as Moscow’s legitimate sphere of security influence. Beginning in late 2008, rumours surfaced that Russian representatives were pressing Bakiyev to close Manas, with some sources reporting that the Russians were offering large sums of money for the eviction. Influential members of the Kyrgyz parliament were also pressing the government to close the unpopular base.

US officials and commentators perceived a Russian hand behind Bakiyev’s February 3, 2009, decision to end the lease— after all, he announced the decision in Moscow after the Russian government pledged to write off $180 million in debt, lend Kyrgyzstan $2 billion, give $150 million in direct aid and help subsidize the construction of the $1.7 billion Kambarata-1 hydropower plant. After a few months of additional bargaining, however, Kyrgyzstan and the United States signed a new one-year lease on June 22. In return, the Pentagon agreed to rename the facility a ‘Transit Center’ and provide more rent and other financial benefits.

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The Chinese government has also been alarmed by the chaos within its neighbour. On April 8, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu told reporters that, ‘We are deeply concerned over the developments of situation in Kyrgyzstan and hope to see early restoration of order and stability in the country and that relevant issues can be settled through the legal means.’

China has important interests tied to Kyrgyzstan. Its volatile province of Xinjiang, the scene of periodic ethnic clashes involving China’s Uighur minority, borders Kyrgyzstan and the last thing Beijing wants is for Uighur terrorists to establish a safe haven there. The Chinese government rapidly delivered communications equipment, tents and other defence items to Kyrgyzstan to help its government ward off a 1999-2000 incursion by Islamist terrorists. Indeed, Chinese policymakers consider developments in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan so important that, during the chaos of the country’s 2005 Tulip Revolution, Chinese officials even indicated that they might deploy combat forces there (though local and Russian opposition ultimately prevented any Chinese military operation in Kyrgyzstan).

More recently, the growing number of Chinese nationals and businesses in Kyrgyzstan has shaped Beijing’s perceptions of its evolving interests in the country’s security. Although no Chinese nationals were injured during the April riots, some Chinese businessmen suffered property losses when their shops were looted and burned along with most other business establishments in Bishkek.

Russian and Chinese policymakers face conflicting considerations in deciding whether to exploit the new situation in Kyrgyzstan to try to secure a US military withdrawal from Manas. On the one hand, Moscow would enhance its leverage with Washington if the United States were to lose its access to the base and have to rely more heavily on bringing supplies into Central Asia through Russian territory. Denied use of Manas, the United States and other NATO countries would depend on Russian goodwill to continue supporting their Afghan contingents through this northern route. Moscow could threaten to suspend transit through its territory should NATO prove excessively recalcitrant regarding Afghanistan, Georgia, missile defence, or other disputed issues.

On the other hand, NATO might decide to expand use of the South Caucasus as an alternative transit route, which would enhance the leverage of the current Georgian government, which is seeking to join the alliance. Or NATO might curtail its efforts in Afghanistan, which would increase the danger that terrorism and narcotics trafficking would spread to Russia and its Central Asian allies. In any case, a Russian effort to evict NATO from Manas would certainly harm the reset efforts that have produced the New START Treaty and possibly greater cooperation over Iran and Afghanistan.

Beijing appears not yet to have made a formal decision on Manas and Chinese officials may find themselves equally cross-pressured. Manas’ location only 200 miles from the China-Kyrgyzstan border, combined with Washington’s longstanding military cooperation with Taiwan and Japan as well as its growing security ties with India, invariably has stimulated fears of US encirclement. On the other hand, Chinese leaders thus far have avoided directly challenging the NATO military presence in Kyrgyzstan.

China’s ambivalence reflects recognition of the advantages of having the United States heavily involved in suppressing potentially anti-Chinese terrorism in Central Asia. It also results from uncertainties over the ability of China or Russia to manage the consequences of a precipitous NATO military disengagement from the region.

In all likelihood, providing the new Kyrgyz government can re-establish internal stability and agrees to meet the core demands of Russia (respect Russian military and economic primacy) and China (suppress Uighur nationalism and protect Chinese nationals and businesses), Moscow and Beijing will accept whatever decision the new Kyrgyz government takes regarding Manas.

Richard Weitz is a senior fellow and director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Political-Military Analysis.