Central Asia is once again emerging as an important crossroads in a geopolitical competition between great and rising powers, notably China, Russia and the United States. In the years following the US military invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, the states of Central Asia have moved from being tangential and ancillary pieces in US national security strategy as it prosecuted its so-called war on terror to being important partners for several great and rising powers.
Simultaneously, China has pursued geopolitical advantage as it implemented its development strategy towards the region, an effort to connect China with distant markets and ensure access to resources which could meet quickly rising demand. However, as Western human rights campaigners continue to express support for democratic activists and opposition movements in Central Asia, Beijing has sought to avoid attaching such ideological requirements to its investments. Instead, China has implemented policies grounded in pragmatism that have as their goal access to vital natural resources, connection to the European markets and the security of its project through Xinjiang to Central Asia.
Russia has sought to offset the influence of China and the US through a persistent, methodical approach that attempts to weave the interests of regimes in the region, particularly in Bishkek and Dushanbe, into Moscow’s foreign policy strategy. In doing so, Kremlin officials have positioned Moscow in direct competition with both China and the US for influence in Central Asia.
This reinvigorated competition between external powers has developed over resources and pursuit of geostrategic advantage. As these interests have mingled together, they have combined with the nascent but developing national interests of the regional states themselves. As a result, Central Asia has become a geopolitical battleground, one that is increasingly the focus of investment, influence and intrigue while also becoming a potential cauldron of violent conflict.
As a result of these converging interests, the individual states of Central Asia have become pieces in a major powers game of geopolitics. But the states themselves are not passive actors in this game, nor are they entirely pawns of those external players. The combination of external state interests and internal regime power dynamics has great consequence for the future of democratic governance and stability in the region.
In this series, I will examine the interests of the three main competitors for geopolitical and geostrategic advantage in the region: China, Russia and the US. I will also explore the role of the regimes of each state, their interests, and their multifaceted approach towards cultivating and sustaining relationships with each external player. I will explore the reasons for the most recent evolution in Central Asia’s role as a central focus of China, Russia and the United States. Ultimately, while the three competitors have occasionally declared their willingness and intent to pursue cooperation between themselves for access and influence in Central Asia, interests will collide. The interests of the external powers and the reactions of the regimes of the region will determine whether geopolitical competition manifests in violent upheavals, proxy conflict or open warfare.
A seemingly interminable number of non-specialists with little understanding of the internal power dynamics of the regimes that govern the region’s states have offered distortions, conjecture and speculation as to the impact that ISIS has or will have on the stability and security in Central Asia. This has further clouded robust analysis of the region.
As a result, many Central Asia specialists have noted that the threat of ISIS to the regimes of the region has been ineffectually assessed and even inflated. This is due in part to an unfamiliarity of many in the West with the region and the tendency for many of those same Western observers to project familiar themes of Islamist motivation and purpose observed in places such as North Africa and the Levant onto Central Asia. This method fails to take into account the vast cultural, economic and political differences that distinguish the states of Central Asia from those in other regions and from one another. (For in-depth analysis on the region, see: Bruce Pannier, Nate Schenkken, Alexander Cooley, Christian Bleuer, Joanna Lillis, Joshua Kucera and Catherine Putz). In bringing together the work of these experts, I hope to provide clarity to a number of issues in the region.
Afghanistan, Insurgency and the Concept of Spillover
As the US has drawn down in Afghanistan and the insurgency has been reinvigorated with key victories by assorted anti-government forces in places such as Sangin and Kunduz, the security of Central Asia as a whole has been cited by many as a reason for increased Russian military presence, re-conceptualized US post-war strategy and Chinese concerns over the security of the country’s large financial investment in wider Eurasia. Increasingly, the concept of spillover of militancy from places such as Badakhshan, Kunduz and Faryab has concerned observers both inside Central Asia and out.
As the US has withdrawn its military forces from forward deployments in Afghanistan (especially the border regions), China, Russia and the US itself have signaled increased interest in and concern for security in Central Asia. Simultaneously, each of the three states has adjusted its national strategy towards the region and sought to improve its position in the region for competitive advantage over the other two. Even more recently, India and Japan have begun taking on more assertive roles in the regional geopolitical game as well. However, security is only one of a number of concerns shared by the three competitor states. There are a myriad of other interests, all motivated by economic, energy and geopolitical considerations.
As each of these countries has intensified their engagement in Central Asia, their efforts have further strengthened and emboldened oppressive regimes which have remained for more than two decades as legacies of Soviet rule. These regimes have a history and legacy of despotism. With the notable exception of Kyrgyzstan, each regime currently rules largely by crushing political opposition movements, clamping down on dissent and consolidating power through leveraging the interests of engagement by China, Russia and the US.
In my article Afghanistan and Central Asia: A Collective Security Problem, I argued that a regional approach to the problem of continued security degradation in Afghanistan is both necessary and possible; the continued collapse of the Kabul government’s ability to project its authority and power throughout Afghanistan, especially to the border regions where insurgent forces have repeatedly stepped up and overrun key population centers since the beginning of 2015, is a direct threat to the security of the Central Asian states.
The states of Central Asia are not passive pawns on the chessboard of the newest Great Game being played by the three main powers, China, Russia and the US. The states of the region are active participants, each using the interests of external actors to the distinct advantage of the respective regimes’ continued consolidation of power and rule. In this series, I will examine the interests of China, Russia and the US while exploring each country of the region individually. In doing so, I will explain why Central Asia is at a crossroads along the path to the future.
China, Russia and the United States have intensified their efforts to compete with one another in the region with increased investment, intensified diplomatic engagement and a re-conceptualization of national policy towards the region, one teeming with natural resources and simultaneously burdened with Soviet-style regimes and stunted democracy movements.
Photo Credit: Cam Foss
The interests of the three main competitor countries converge and collide in this pivotal space, historically a battleground for powers competing for geopolitical advantages and resources. The interests of these three states will have an impact on the future of democracy and human rights in the region, the region’s security and the stability of the regimes that rule each state. These states are not alone. The European Union has also recently begun reassessing its policies towards the region as well.
In his seminal work following the conclusion of the Cold War, Zbigniew Brzezinski shined a light on the newly-independent states of Central Asia as he underlined how the unipolar world of the moment would evolve. Realpolitik-focused leaders in great and rising powers throughout history have prioritized Central Asia as key to controlling surrounding regions. This continues today.
However, while the three competing powers have had and will have a great impact on the future of the states in the region, the regimes and governments of the region should not be viewed as passive pieces in a greater game. Each of the governments has pursued a strategy that underpins what Alexander Cooley accurately termed multivector foreign policies, cultivating the approach in order to avoid being captured by a single external power as a client state. The multivector strategy Cooley outlines has at its core the purpose of maximizing the given state’s ability to ensure its interests by balancing the influence of China, Russia and the United States.
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan emerged as independent states in the wake of the breakup of the former Soviet Union in 1991. Following independence, each state has pursued a different path for its foreign policy. Each country has also been a target of external powers seeking influence and access as they pursue resources and territorial dominance for geostrategic advantage over competitor states.
While the paths of the individual regimes have often diverged with regard to foreign policy, each country has suffered from similar problems in the years since independence. Among these problems has been the legacy of dominance by former Soviet bureaucrats and state leaders which has facilitated decades of false starts for democratic movements and the occasional violent suppression of political opposition. Stagnant economies have characterized the imbued sense of stunted progress of each country and growing popular discontent has often materialized in the form of inter-ethnic violence and violent tactics by the regimes in suppressing unrest.
Photo Credit: James Barben
While Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are fortunate to have significant deposits of natural resources, the varying levels of social and political progress have nonetheless fallen short of expectations in many ways. While Kazakhstan appears to be slowly emerging as a possible pivot economy in the region, the line of succession for current 77-year old strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev is a concern for democracy advocates.
Turkmenistan remains a cloistered country. Even while the country boasts the fourth most natural gas deposits in the world, it has been unable to break free of a North Korea-like government led by President Gerbanguly Berdimuhamedow.
Uzbekistan continues to rely on agricultural means for its survival even as the Tashkent regime has sought to consolidate its continued control through a robust security force structure.
Kyrgyzstan has experienced the most progress towards democratic governance, though impediments re-emerged in 2015 that cast a shadow over what had been a tenuous path towards representative government. Tajikistan has experienced the most economic stagnation of the states and has been criticized by international human rights organizations for continued suppression of political opposition and oppressive means of ensuring the regime’s control.
The value of the states to the United States, Russia and China pivots soundly upon geography, geopolitical interests, energy resources and the aforementioned geostrategic competitions. While the United States has often positioned human rights and democratic reforms at the center of its relationships with the state governments of the region, China and Russia have focused their pursuits on ensuring the stability of the same regimes. Ultimately, this will result in conflict. Whether that conflict takes the form of diplomatic engagement or military confrontation will be determined by the way in which each of the three competitors views the interests of the others.
China’s interest in Central Asia is multi-fold. Foremost among these interests are access to vital hydrocarbon resources, the linking of Beijing to the markets of wider Eurasia and beyond, and the security of Xinjiang.
The country’s status as a fast-rising power has highlighted the need for resources to support its pursuit of resources and the furtherance of its effort to ensure the stability of key regions such as Xinjiang. These two issues are central to Chinese policies in engagement of the governments of Central Asia.
In Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia, Cooley writes:
“China’s effective diplomacy in Central Asia has been rooted in its nimble ability to pivot back and forth along the legs of the strategic triable, forging partnerships with both Washington and Moscow when it was expeditious to do so, while remaining closely focused on its security priorities.” (Cooley, p. 176)
Photo Credit: James Barben
Cooley, among the foremost experts on the region and its relationships with external powers, expands thoughtfully on the impact of rising China upon the consolidation of power by each state regime in Central Asia. He also explores the possibility that as the interests of the three powers continue to intensify in the region, collisions could alter the futures of the regimes themselves through further consolidation of power or popular upheavals.
Growing Chinese demand for hydrocarbon resources has catalyzed Beijing’s pursuit of important agreements with the states of the region. The vast oil deposits of Kazakhstan and natural gas fields of Turkmenistan are key pieces in China’s One Belt, One Road project, Beijing’s long-term plan to connect the country with the states of the region and beyond. As China continues to emerge as a legitimate global force, the country’s continued access to oil and gas will pivot around the relationship it nurtures with the states of the region. However, energy resource demand hardly defines the entirety of Chinese interests in Central Asia.
Beijing’s growing concern over separatism in Xinjiang has seeped into Chinese foreign policy. Xinjiang’s geography is key to understanding why subjugating the rising tide of Uighur insurrection in the restive northwestern province has seeped into the agreements that the country has codified with states such as Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Bi-lateral agreements which provide for the return of insurrectionist leaders underline both the security strategy of Beijing in the region and its relationship with regimes such as that of Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana. Interestingly, China has also pursued partnerships with regional governments through defense agreements, something that would have been difficult to foresee in the years immediately following Kazakhstan’s independence.
China’s interest will be to maintain as much stability in the region as possible. That will ultimately mean dealing with (and strengthening) regimes that the West has consistently accused of egregious human rights violations. Should the regimes be weakened or face the prospect of coups, China will ultimately face the difficult decision of whether to intervene militarily (or otherwise) to ensure continued Chinese access to regional resources and the stability of its eventual infrastructural link to the market of Europe.
Infrastructural Investments and Markets
By financing important infrastructural improvement projects, especially highways, railroad lines and pipelines, China has invested not only in long-term access to important oil and gas sources but also to the growing trade market of Kazakhstan itself, an essential link to Western markets.
As Kazakhstan’s infrastructure improves, it becomes an essential component of China’s strategy to link Chinese manufacturing and exports to the markets of Europe. Railroads and highways in Kazakhstan will eventually play an important role in China’s emergence as a vital trade partner for Europe.
“The Silk Road slogan may be new, but many of its goals are not. Beijing has long been working to secure a share of the region’s rich natural resources to fuel China’s industrial economy; it is building a network of security cooperation in Central Asia as a bulwark against Islamist extremism that could leak into China’s restive western province of Xinjiang, and it wants to create alternative trading routes to Europe that bypass Asia’s narrow, congested shipping lanes.” (Simon Denyer, Washington Post, December 27, 2015)
One of the more intriguing aspects of this surge in investment is the confrontation that it sets up with Kazakhstan’s historic patron, Russia. While Russia and China have ostensibly intertwined the futures of their respective economies in the codification of agreements such as the $400 billion, 30-year gas deal, they remain geopolitical adversaries. As China continues to rise and Russia battles for legitimacy among the global state power elites, it is likely that China’s interest in Central Asia (especially in Kazakhstan) will be seen by strategists in Moscow as a subversion of Russia’s own influence. While this is likely to be further afield, the two countries will ultimately face the reality of an adversarial relationship, one that is as inevitable as it is masked by their current apparent united front opposing US hegemony globally (especially in the South China Sea and Eastern Europe) and intensified American involvement in Central Asia.
In contrast to China, Russia’s interest in Central Asia is more one-dimensional but with a bifurcated approach: one that ensures Russian security against intensified US presence along its southern flank and another which guarantees the Kremlin leverage in the game it is playing against the US around the world.
While issues surrounding remittances from low-cost Central Asia migrant laborers are certainly important to the Russian national economy, Central Asia is primarily important to Russia for reasons of geopolitical advantage over competitor states China and the United States.
At least on the surface, Russian officials’ concerns over a perceived growing tide of Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan spilling over into the states of Central Asia appear to drive Moscow’s recent efforts to close the space between Russia and the governments in the region. This is especially true of Moscow’s relationship with Tajikistan’s ruling regime. In the past year, Russia has noticeably increased its security presence in the Central Asian country, particularly along the border where it maintains bases in places such as Kulob. Though several incidents involving military personnel threatened to upend Moscow’s efforts to pull Emomali Rahmon’s regime in Dushanbe closer to the influence of the Kremlin.
In Kyrgyzstan, Russia has pursued a similar path, prioritizing geopolitical advantage by working methodically to reduce the influence of the US and moving to fill the gap.
Following the closing of the Masa Air Base in 2014 by the United States, Russia moved quickly to assert influence. In July 2015, the relationship between Washington and Bishkek were suddenly strained as the US State Department honored dissident Azimjan Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, with the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award. As a result, Bishkek tore up the 1993 agreement between Kyrgyzstan and the United States. The diplomatic row has opened a space for influence in the country. Russian strategists raced to fill it, under the auspices of countering the encroachment of the Islamic State (ISIS), and agreed to supply more arms to Kyrgyzstan.
Just over a year ago, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reiterated that the arms destined for the Kyrgyz government were for purposes of battling ISIS:
“Shoigu said the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating due to the appearance of Islamic State groups there. Russia keeps a military airbase in Kant near the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.” (Reuters, December 23, 2015)
As Russia has rushed to fill the gap left by the US in Kyrgyzstan and further pulled the Rahmon regime in Dushanbe into the Kremlin’s sphere of influence, it has repeatedly reinforced the underlying narrative of a battle against international Islamism, particularly the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and resurgent Taliban groups in Afghanistan. Russian strategists are often said to be preoccupied by the prospect of a reinvigorated insurgent or separatist movement in Dagestan and Chechnya in the North Caucasus (and often similar concerns related to neighboring Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria). Observing the number of Russian security operations in the North Caucasus over the past few years, it is in Dagestan where the largess of Russian counterterrorism concerns are especially evident.
Photo Credit: James Barben
By investing in the militaries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Moscow is seeking to burgeon its ability to project power in Central Asia, especially over the foreign policies of the regimes in Bishkek and Dushanbe where American military presence since 2001 has been seen as a creeping encirclement of Russia on its southern flank by many Russian defense strategists. The threat of ISIS to the relative stability of the regimes in Central Asia is one that has been contested by many Central Asia analysts.
While it is certainly possible that Islamist terrorism could eventually rise to a level that could somewhat challenge the legitimacy of the rule of the regimes in places such as the Ferghana Valley, the logistical variables that would be required for ISIS to suddenly open a front in Central Asia are daunting:
- A general lack of established (and prepared) networks in the region would inhibit the coordination of groups to conduct persistent attacks on government forces. For ISIS to effectively challenge the regimes in Bishkek and Dushanbe, for example, the group would require significant numbers of supportive fighters, groups of which are not already established in the two countries and would take years to build and train.
- A lack of prior experience at the command level of those same groups would impede cohesive, focused and effective militant action. Many of the most experienced leaders in groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have been killed fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the course of the last 14 years of war. Those that remain are integrated into many other groups, including al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban movement and Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Waziristan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
Succinctly, Russian reinforcement of the ISIS narrative in Central Asia is a cynical approach. It’s a strategy designed to further install Russian influence over foreign policies in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, largely to ensure that the same regimes do not provide the US and its allies territory for further expansion of a US and NATO military presence in Central Asia.
The United States
The US officially announced the adjustment its Central Asian strategy in the spring of 2014. In doing so, the Obama administration signaled that the US intends to compete with China and Russia for influence in the energy resource-rich region. The recent history of US involvement in Central Asia has vacillated from hard interest in its embrace of governments such as that of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov to democracy and human rights promotion as was witnessed in the summer of 2015 in the State Department’s awarding of an award to an imprisoned Uzbek activist in Kyrgyzstan. Cooley’s observation on the prioritization of human rights by US officials is blunt in its proposal that the US remain less assertive in pursuing a one-track approach to the region:
“In the Central Asian arena, as in the other areas of emerging interest, U.S. policymakers must similarly learn to ’embrace the triangle.’ Multipolar dynamics are difficult enough to predict without self-inflicted constraints about who should and should not be part of any meaningful regional dialogue and partnership.” (Cooley, p. 176)
The U.S. is now well on the way to becoming energy self-sufficient. Energy production capacity is an essential component of a reinvigorated U.S. security strategy which focuses on a more focused application of U.S. military power, a less ideologically-based Grand Strategy which will rely more upon hard security interests to drive military involvement around the world. This is an important variable in US strategy towards Central Asia, especially considering the impact of Russian energy supplies to Europe and the possibility of diversification of sources.
Turkmenistan’s abundance of natural gas and Kazakhstan’s oil reserves both could play a pivotal role in a new era of relationships between the states of Central Asia and Europe. The US could play an important part in facilitating new energy partnerships. That role would be crafted through careful cultivation of bilateral relationships between the US and the regimes of Central Asia. US support for human rights campaigns and democracy movements in the region would be put to the test.
The political, security and social environments of Central Asia continue to be impacted by external and internal influencers which have great consequence for the future of the region and neighboring states. The geopolitical rivalries (China, Russia and the United States), the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the potential re-integration of Iran to the international community, issues of energy resource management and markets, the war in Syria, and internal political strife all impact one another to create a cauldron of regional instability.
The failure of social, political and economic reforms in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, the continued isolation of Uzbekistan, the tenuousness of democracy in Kyrgyzstan and the emergence of Kazakhstan as a potential hub for energy-driven economic growth have conflated with the influence of China, Russia and the US to form a dangerous mix of uncertainty and potential instability in Central Asia. In this series, these factors will be analyzed to attempt a proper assessment of what lies ahead in an intensifying geopolitical battle taking place in a region dominated by a legacy of Soviet governance, unsteady development and political uncertainty.
About the Author:
Eric was awarded a Master of Arts in Political Science (international relations and foreign comparative politics) from Northern Illinois University in May 2006. His research focused on international relations theory, international institutions and governmental organizations, international security, international political economy, international law, non-state actors, asymmetric warfare, economic development, governance, and democratization. Additionally, he contributed in-depth research on international security conventions and nuclear non-proliferation regimes.
Subsequent to his graduate work, Eric served six years as a soldier in the United States Army. His service included two deployments to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).
Eric’s research and writing concentrates heavily on Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Russia, the post-Soviet Central Asian states, Xinjiang, and Afghanistan. He also writes extensively on national security and foreign policy, NATO, the European Union, and United States defense policy. You read more of Eric’s writings at www.foreign-intrigue.com.