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Great Game in Central Asia: Rivalry Persists

Central Asia, a zone of geopolitical rivalry between the world’s top players for centuries

Friday 16 November 2018, by Andrei Kadomtsev

Article re-published with the kind authorization of Modern Diplomacy.

On October 19, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin visited Uzbekistan. According to media reports, Moscow and Tashkent focused on “prospects for further strategic partnership”, cooperation in military technology, and economic ties between the two countries. Moscow is investing billions of dollars and is planning to open more branches of top Russian universities in Uzbekistan. On the same days, October 17-19, Tashkent played host to the VIII Central Asian Trade Forum, organized by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). As they spoke at the event, the US representatives announced Washington’s interest in providing duty-free access to its domestic market for several thousand products from Central Asian states. This approach reflects the policy of bilateral cooperation, which the two parties agreed upon during a visit of the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev to the United States in May this year, which resulted in $4.8 bln contracts.

Central Asia has been a zone of geopolitical rivalry between the world’s top players for centuries. Even when the main part of this territory was part of the USSR, the USA, China and other countries tried to influence the Soviet “soft underbelly”. After 1991, the region quickly moved to the sidelines of the military-strategic interests of Moscow, Beijing and Washington. At present, the three powers are concerned about the threat of Islamic extremism and an increase in drug trafficking in the region. While sharing the same concerns, the parties interpret the causes of these threats in different ways [1]. In general, regional competition of external powers is moderate, being visible mainly in the economic sphere. For now, two integration projects are developing at fast pace in Central Asia — the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), promoted by the Russian Federation, whose members are Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and the Chinese Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), targeted at all Central Asian countries. In the mid-2010s, the United States unveiled its conceptual vision of the future of the region — the New Silk Road Initiative, which, however, has not yet seen any substantial progress.

At present, countries of the region are pursuing the policy of building secular national states. Searches for national identity in the values of Islam or Pan-Turkism is a thing of the past. Meanwhile, for a part of the population, religious principles still prevail over the national and civil ones. In addition, there are a number of other challenges to the stability and security of the region. Russian International Affairs Council experts say that political institutions are weak, the economy is poorly diversified, heavily corrupt, hinging largely on “shadow” schemes and smuggling. Social and economic problems, disputes over the distribution of water resources, and inter-religious and inter-ethnic conflicts are acute. On top of all this comes the rapidly aggravating problem of uneven economic development of countries. The main external threats are proximity to Afghanistan and the Middle East with a high degree of border penetrability.

In general, the ruling circles of the states of the region are trying to maintain power and property and evade serious socio-economic upheavals. The financial and economic interests of the elite are largely oriented at the West. However, the current challenges to domestic and regional stability, as well as the nature of the existing regimes, are what scares Western investors the most. As a result, countries of Central Asia are drifting between globalization and regionalization, between economic projects that benefit primarily the elites themselves, and the need to guarantee an increase in the living standards of wide sections of society, “between efforts to preserve a niche in the old world economy and secure niches in the new one” [2].

Over the past few years, Russia has been promoting its interests in the region within the framework of the CSTO, the EAEU and the Customs Union. Until recently, the majority of projects with the participation of Russian investors were concentrated in the oil and gas sector. Meanwhile, representatives of local elites and business communities would prefer to see Russian investments in the energy sector, in the creation of cross-border “transit transport routes”. There is a high demand for projects that would develop interstate economic cooperation within the framework of the EEU, and projects whose products would be oriented at markets beyond the post-Soviet space. These areas include the military industry, the mining sector, and the supply of agricultural products [3]. At the same time, experts point out “excessive” “coordination and regulation of economic relations” within Russian regional initiatives.

Nevertheless, Russia maintains a significant potential to secure its economic influence in the region. Most enterprises and agricultural facilities in Central Asia date back to the Soviet days and most of the infrastructure, railways and highways are focused on Russia. The Russian media are popular in the region, supporting the idea of stability and sovereignty [4]. Until early 2010s, the “Soviet legacy” enabled the Russian Federation to remain a major economic partner for all the Central Asian countries. However, in recent years, Moscow has been losing its leading economic position to China, mainly, for lack of investment.

China’s rapidly growing economy requires more and more resources. Given that Central Asia is rich in oil, gas, minerals and cotton, Beijing has been trying to promote economic projects in the region since the early 2000s. At the end of 2017, trade turnover between China and countries of Central Asia reached $30 bln, whereas trade between Russia and the region was less than two thirds of this figure. China overtook Russia in trade with all countries in the region, except Kazakhstan. Now, China is pursuing multibillion-dollar projects in transport and pipeline infrastructure as part of the strategy of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), and is increasing investment in industrial facilities and joint ventures. There are plans to build three railway corridors: between the Chinese port of Lianyungang and Kazakh Almaty, and two between the south of China and Central Asia. By the end of 2017, the Chinese investments in Central Asia had exceeded $100 bln. Investment plans until 2030 are estimated at several hundred billion dollars.

Meanwhile, according to most Western analysts, Russia and China have been pursuing a coordinated and well-balanced policy of extensive cooperation in Central Asia. China has been focusing on economic projects in the region, while Russia, besides the economic sphere, has taken the lead in ensuring military and anti-terrorism security and regional stability. According to Western estimates, Central Asia has been picked by Moscow and Beijing as number one site to practice strategic interaction, which can then be used in other parts of Eurasia. This cooperation hinges on an agreement reached by the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China at top level in 2015 on integration between the EAEU and the SREB. The economic role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is also expected to increase after Kyrgyzstan assumes the SCO presidency in 2019 [5]. Both countries are fully aware of the strategic mutual benefit from participation in these projects and neither pursues economic or regional security initiatives that could be detrimental to the other party.

In 2011, Washington launched the New Silk Road Strategy (NSR), which initially focused on the economic revival of Afghanistan through its integration into regional development projects. In autumn 2015, as the US Secretary of State, visited all five Central Asian countries in the course of his first tour, the Samarkand Declaration was adopted to promote the New Silk Road, which declared the widest possible range of areas of cooperation between the United States and countries of the region. Gradually, the United States began to shift from the still idealism-ridden policy of supporting the “development of democracy” in Central Asia towards a more pragmatic course, aimed at reducing the influence of the Russian Federation while simultaneously moderating the presence of China.

So far, the extent of the Trump administration’s interest in Central Asia is uncertain. It looks like the United States is ready to encourage local authorities to “soften” domestic policies, including on the expansion of international contacts, by boosting economic assistance and cementing ties between representatives of the business community. In particular, moves of this kind have been reported to come from the USA in the direction of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. USAID enjoys a significant influence on public associations in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. As for region-wide economic projects under the patronage of the United States [6], most of them are stalling, because they are made dependent, to this or that extent, on stabilization in Afghanistan.

Another important tool for strengthening the US positions in the region after 2001 is the promotion of a counter-terrorism agenda, a military presence, primarily in Afghanistan, and the development of military and defence ties with the Central Asian states. Preventing the spread of radical movements in Central Asia meets the interests of both Washington and all countries of the region.

In the meantime, the interests of Central Asian countries spread beyond the bounds of financial assistance and economic cooperation as they are unequivocally making it to understand that they are looking for new partners and security guarantors capable of balancing the United States, Russia and China.

This encourages countries of Central Asia to develop contacts with a whole range of external players that have noticeable interests in the region. The influence of the European Union in Central Asia decreased, after the promising projects of the previous decades fell through. EU experts argue that the Union lacks the resources to compete with Russia and China. Therefore, they call for “focusing on specific projects” that would contribute to raising the living standards across a wide section of society. As for China’s SREB initiative, the EU sees it as a significant destabilizer, given the insufficient involvement of local, particularly human, resources, and a dramatic increase in Central Asia’s political and debt dependence on Beijing. Therefore, the EU is seeking to “fit” “into the current situation with a view to influence further developments from within.” [7]

Since 2012, Japan has been stepping up its political efforts in Central Asia. As he visited the region in 2015, Prime Minister Abe signed $27 bln agreements, including on cooperation in the fuel and energy sector, in infrastructure projects, and in measures to combat terrorism and extremism. While doing this, Japan reiterates its readiness to maintain extensive ties with other powers, including Russia, China and Turkey. The latter persists in its claims to play a leading role in Central Asia, nurturing ambitions to become the leader of the Turkic world. However, Ankara’s positions have suffered a blow in recent years. President Erdogan has faced a lot of criticism for not providing enough support for the Turkic communities in Russia and in the west of China.

Thus, the leading circles of the Central Asian countries are pursuing a “purely pragmatic” policy. Among the priorities are structural economic reforms, attracting more investments, primarily to the production sector and high-tech industries, and the development of “human capital”. As global players demonstrate renewed interest in the region, Central Asia has an option to pursue an increasingly varying and multi-vector policy. In spring this year, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan made a bid to form a community of five Central Asian states without participation of external powers. At last, the transformation of Central Asia is taking place against the background of the arrival of a relatively new generation of leaders, fewer and fewer of whom see Moscow as a major historical partner. Given these conditions, Russia, if it wants to maintain its positions in Central Asia, ought to devise new approaches to regional policy. In our opinion, a strategy that should take centre stage in Central Asia in the near future is one that would provide countries of the region with an economic cooperation agenda that does not require a clear geopolitical choice. ■


[1As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said recently, Russia is getting more and more evidence of the US transporting militants of ISIS (an organization whose activities are prohibited in Russia) to Afghanistan

[2Cf. here.

[3Cf. here.

[4President Putin’s visit to Uzbekistan demonstrated Moscow’s understanding of the importance of further efforts to popularize the Russian language and culture among the population of Central Asia.

[5Along with Russia and China, the founders of the SCO comprise four of the five (with the exception of Turkmenistan) countries of Central Asia.

[6For example, CASA-1000, envisaging the supply of electricity from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Or the TAPI Gas Pipeline Project (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India).

[7Cf. here.

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