Central Asia: A Threat or an Opportunity?

The removal of the leader of ISIS (banned in Russia), as announced by the US, nearly coincided in time, and maybe not without reason, with the Russia-Turkey agreements on settlement in northeast Syria. Both in theory and in practice, these agreements might become an important step toward peace in this war-ravaged country. Russia, the Syrian Government and, to a certain extent, the Western countries have actually eliminated one of the biggest hotbeds of terrorism in the world.

What’s next? Few people doubt that the threat of internal destabilization in the states of Eurasia and nearby regions will eventually be removed once and for all. But it will exist as long as there is socio-political instability that domestic or outside forces are willing to exploit for their own geostrategic purposes. This means that the seeds of extremist ideas can come up in fertile religious soil practically anywhere, especially where states are not strong enough and geopolitical circumstances are unfavorable.

For this reason, the Eurasian community must primarily focus on Central Asia – a densely populated region that is on a path of deep internal transformation and is of strategic importance to two major Eurasian states – Russia and China. By virtue of circumstances, these powers have become rivals of the United States and its closest allies in rebuilding the world order on a new, fairer foundation.

Central Asia is important to Russia because it is adjacent to its industrial center in the Urals and western Siberia. It means much for China because it is directly linked with the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region – the most problematic part of the Celestial Empire that the Chinese authorities are trying hard to integrate with the main part of China in different ways – from strictly Marxist attempts to win the loyalty of its residents through economic development to fairly modern experiments for introducing comprehensive digital control.

During the history of their new independence, the Central Asian countries have traversed a fairly long road of trials and experience. The independence of all of them has not been the result of fighting a foreign influence. It came with the end of the Soviet Union. The leaders that headed these nations managed to achieve sovereignty and international recognition under arduous conditions. The systems of each of these countries were based both on modern managerial practices and historically established traditions. However, one thing remained immutable – the interest of the great powers in internal stability and the success of Central Asian countries. Russia, and later China, invested in the stability and progress of the Five because they wanted peace in the region. The United States did this out of long-term considerations. When Washington hoped to rule the world, it required support countries and special influence regions. Does it have the same goals now? In the first two cases the interests remained the same, but in the third case everything was not that obvious. It would make less sense to expect Washington’s new policy, which is much more oriented toward domestic affairs, to remain as benevolent in Central Asia as it was under the three previous presidents.

So there are reasons for the Central Asian countries to look to the future with more attention and plan it with consideration for changing international circumstances. The latter is characterized by general instability and unpredictability but this creates new opportunities for resolving their goals through cooperation and integration in Greater Eurasia. In the final count, none of the great neighbors of Central Asia has the resources or desire to ensure its own security by depriving the region’s countries of their sovereignty. As mentioned earlier, Central Asia is not a suitcase without a handle for either Russia or China. But under current conditions neither Moscow nor Beijing want to assume excessive direct responsibility. What is different about it is that now the Five have an opportunity to see their interests as broader community interests.

A regular “Asian” meeting of the Valdai Club will be devoted to ways of incorporating Central Asia into broader international cooperation. This time the meeting will take place in the heart of Eurasia – the city of Samarkand on November 10-11. It sets itself an ambitious goal, relying on regional experts and representatives of the intellectual community of Greater Asia – to look at Central Asian issues through the prism of broader international cooperation in the whole our common space.

It is clear that one of Russia’s most important goals is the internal integrity of the large Eurasian region and the inclusion of these states in common production chains and infrastructure projects. In this context, the priorities of Russia and China coincide and, at the same time, differ from the interests of Europe or America that primarily want to facilitate the internal fragmentation of Eurasia. This explains the talk of forming closer communities by separate groups of countries.

It should be admitted that the Central Asian countries should intensify their regional dialogue, if only to prevent the resolutions of their problems by Washington, Beijing or Moscow. However, it would be short-sighted to think that this dialogue and narrow regional forms of cooperation could become a “lucky ticket” to the world for them. Even Russia, which has a larger population than all of its small and medium neighbors put together, not to mention its territory and military might, no longer views itself as a self-sufficient entity. This is exactly why Moscow is happy to take part in creating a multilateral integration system and sacrifice its rights to collective solutions in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Meanwhile, the EAEU’s executive bodies operate on the basis of consensus and a one country-one vote principle, which is not the case in the EU, the members of which like to present themselves and the EU as examples. In the final analysis, these sacrifices should not be wasted – they facilitate the creation of a common security space in the future.

Of course, China could reason as a self-sufficient country since it has enough people for an inward-looking economy. But it is aware of the potential losses from such a policy. In 2015, Chinese leaders opted for the drafting of an agreement with the EAEU despite the predictions. This decision launched the process of international recognition for the EAEU, which has now become irreversible. There are many people in China who believe in the possibility of making it the sole “good” leader of the world. However, even more and more people begin to view the world in a new way. Thus, Central Asia’s two main neighbors are reshaping and changing their foreign policies. The region will lose by lagging behind its critical partners.

That said, both Russia and China are refraining from creating a situation that would artificially restrict the freedom of choice for their common neighbors. Obviously, a formal military-political alliance between Russia and China would be the best gift for the powers with which Moscow and Beijing have now serious differences. If such an alliance were established, small and medium Eurasian countries would have to choose between the two conflicting groups of great powers. There is a reason for that. The right of choice is an important and inalienable part of sovereignty on which international democracy will rely. But the right of a community is to expect its members to take a broad and responsible view of the world. It is difficult and probably irresponsible to try to reason for our neighbors and friends in Central Asia or to give them advice. But now that the threat of spreading internal instability from the Middle East has receded, the Eurasian countries have gained some time for adopting decisions that will make our common future more stable.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.