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Investment in modes of transportation, the attainment of strategic depth, as well as the lure of natural resources has led to many countries to seek access to the Central Asia region. However, countries must surmount the barrier imposed by the region’s landlocked predicament, along with the increasing ability of the Central Asian Countries (CAC) to play to their strength through abundant natural resources such as through hydrocarbons, uranium, and agricultural output, which can be harnessed efficiently due to low labor costs. This has naturally prompted a torrent of attention from the colossuses residing on the continent and region. Notably, China, whose One Belt One Road Initiative (BRI) christened the new lever of the balance of power, is contingent on the cooperation of the CAC. Moreover, China requires the CAC to gain access to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea.
China has been “a convenient partner” to CAC, but to guarantee its influence, access, and the success of BRI, China is emerging as Central Asia’s biggest customer for hydrocarbons, construction of the Eurasian Landbridge through the CAC and its principal external investor. Additionally, BRI seeks to build a regional community of shared interests and norms, where China desires to contribute to global governance. China aspires to play a more significant role by bringing its development model to the international spotlight. This is part of the Beijing agenda to emerge as a rule maker instead of a rule-taker in the US-led world order. The latter has already been demonstrated in Kazakhstan where the BRI has been utilized as a vehicle to build a web of nations that adhere to Chinese cyber policies and standards as well as employ Chinese technologies.
However, involvement in the region is also a security imperative for China as Kazakhstan borders the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) which has been reported to have separatist intentions brewing in the province’s ethnic Uighur population. Another concerning development has been the deployment of Chinese troops alongside Tajikistan’s south-eastern border across from Afghanistan and the Wakhan corridor which could emerge as part of the Chinese calculations in case of a US withdrawal from the region.
The US has utilized Central Asia’s strategic location to achieve its logistical and combat goals in Afghanistan with CAC granting the US access to land and air routes to send supplies to its troops and the same routes have been projected to be employed in the case of a US withdrawal which could signal a diminution of US influence in the region. However, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have been assessed to be the direct recipients of US generosity. Moreover, the US has been working on the “Greater Central Asia”, wherein South and Central Asia are to be regarded as a single unit. This concept has been propounded to be leveraged to shield India’s geostrategic concerns in Central Asia with the construction of transport links including a railway line, expansion of power lines, and extension of communication grids. The US has also been in pursuit of the advancement of the C5+1 which was demonstrated in a recent virtual meeting organized by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken focusing on a diverse range of sectors such as “economy, energy and environment, and security“.
The eternal leviathan of the region, Russia, inevitably casts a long shadow over the CAC. Historically, the existence of a system of spheres that encompass CAC has been perceived by Russia to be operationally functional as layers of protection from adversaries and bridgeheads for proceeding forward in an unending pursuit of supremacy, control, and security. Furthermore, Russian aspirations include the transformation of the region into a “zone of privileged interest”. Shrewdly, Russia is working towards the accomplishment of this objective through a string of military bases as well as economically under the guise of integration by the means of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
CAC had been utilizing a delicate balancing act to counter the creeping influence of the Russian and Chinese hegemonic institutions, actions, and intentions in the region. This commanded immense collaboration between the CAC and has prompted the enhancement of intra-regional relations. Russia is vehemently opposed to the development of intra-regional ties and instead prefers regional organizational structures which are either founded or controlled by Russia in order to consolidate Russian control and protection of its interest in the region. However, the CAC has been focusing on and studying the functioning structures of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Nordic Council. These models are likely to preserve the individual autonomy of the CAC and lead to the creation of a regional common.
Another player in the region since the disintegration of the Soviet Union has been Pakistan which has been looking for a foothold in Central Asia for the establishment of a regional Islamic commonwealth or a security belt extending from Turkey to Pakistan and the CAC as “the buckle”. The intention behind these aspirations is the attainment of strategic depth as well as the attainment of multiple partners to back Pakistani interests in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The CAC has not been tempted to respond to Pakistani gambits due to the historical bequest of the Pakistani support to the Mujahideen during the civil war, the secular principles espoused by the CAC, along with the Sufi influences present in the region.
Other countries which are vying for influence in the region and, therefore, impact the regional power balance include Japan, Iran, South Korea, and Turkey. Turkey has conspicuously appeared in the foreign policy strategies of every one of the CAC. There are profound historical linkages, and the reliance of CAC was deepened after their independence when Turkey lend substantial support for entry onto the international milieu and into the international organizations including financial and political backing. The CAC is counting on Turkey’s help to shore them up while Ankara focuses on the hydrocarbon reserves in the Caspian Sea. This has led to an intense contestation between Russia which considers any intrusion in CAC to be a threat to its regional interests and Turkey in the region.
Additionally, South Korea has been fixated on engaging and acquiring stakes in the CAC energy sphere. The Korea National Oil Corporation and the Korea Gas Corporation have been interested in exploration rights in gas fields. The companies have acquired rights in Turkmenistan to construct a gas treatment industrial unit. In 2008, the Uzbek government concluded a Memorandum of Understanding with South Korean investors to modernize an airport for the purpose of its transformation into a key air conveyance center which increased commerce and people-to-people ties. In Kazakhstan, agreements were signed for the construction of a petrochemical compound and an electric power plant. Therefore, South Korea is carving itself a niche area wherein its construction prowess is put to good use in the pursuit of its energy security diversification. Furthermore, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have provided South Korea with uranium for its nuclear energy shortfall.
In the international multilateral organizations such as the UN, the majority of the CAC has backed Japan’s entry into Security Council and supported South Korea on the same forum. Political support for the CAC is, however, buoyed by the common discernible threads which are mutual security threat perceptions such as the unrelenting volatility in Afghanistan which has exacerbated the cross-border challenges related to drug trafficking, extremism, radicalization, and terrorism. Furthermore, CAC and South Korea have a shared empathetic understanding of duty in relation to transnational security in particular for the promotion of stability in Asia. South Korea’s capabilities in the spheres of pioneering technologies, including energy and water-saving technologies which the CAC considers a necessity, have provided South Korea with an opportunity to expand its footprint in the region including in the military domain by selling military hardware for border protection to Uzbekistan.
Another country with enormous potential for investing in the region has been Iran. This has already been witnessed in the CAC’s close relations with Iran, membership in the Tehran-based Economic Cooperation Organization, and that Iran has been employed by some countries to act as a counterweight to Russia’s influence in the region. Iran has also been working towards trying to discover convergences with the CAC which includes the Afghan peace process, which has massive implications for the Kyrgyzstan–Tajikistan–Afghanistan–Iran (KTAI) transit corridor. Notably, Tehran is trying to leverage its geographic position to connect the landlocked CAC to international waters. This has led to apprehension from Russia which prefers that China’s BRI-related initiatives pass through its territory to attract the infrastructure investments and acquire a considerable part of transit from trade moving from China to Europe and back.
Regional political linkages are correspondingly accentuated by mutual security threats including the sustained instability in Afghanistan and challenges which are proliferating across the continent due to the ensuing instability. The balanced configuration of the Central Asian nation’s relations with multiple powers operating in the region displays astutely developed multi-vector balancing strategies particularly considering the overshadowing presence of Russia and China in the region. However, the political state in Central Asia is in flux with local leaders who have become susceptible to increasing foreign influence and therefore are pursuing political agendas that are not sustainable or not in line with the future dividends.
Notably, India, as an emerging power in the emerging multipolar world order, is focusing on security collaborations which could also lead to linkages such as joint research opportunities directed at military-defense concerns, counterterrorism efforts, and the Afghanistan factor which is ever-present in the periphery. However, there is a dire need for economic and connectivity ties. Nevertheless, India is evolving a discerning result-oriented outlook and, as such, is nurturing constructive relations in the region on the bedrock of stability and security in the hopes of the commencement of a trickle-down effect in the region. India is working to broaden the strategic edge and open the imagination to look to the region lying beyond Pakistan and China for future engagement and opportunities.
The CAC is developing dangerous dependencies on China as linkages and economic dynamism result in convergence of political conveniences, reciprocal interdependency, and dissemination of security concerns. The Chinese are following a unilateral strategy in Central Asia and a multilateral strategy globally. This is likely to increase the threat perception of powers operating in the region. India requires active Russian support to emerge as a leader in the region to advance its interest as well as influence in the region. Central Asia has been said to be more a geographic grouping rather than a region composed of shared histories, interests, identities, or even ambitions which have given major openings to foreign players including China.