Russia, China, and the US in Central Asia

In the next few years Central Asia will become a focus of Russian foreign policy both where the Kremlin’s interests in the post-Soviet space are involved and, in a broader perspective, in the context of the Afghanistan factor, relations with the Asia-Pacific Region, and “friendly rivalry” with China.

In the next few years Central Asia will become a focus of Russian foreign policy both where the Kremlin’s interests in the post-Soviet space are involved and, in a broader perspective, in the context of the Afghanistan factor, relations with the Asia-Pacific Region, and “friendly rivalry” with China.

This conclusion follows not only from Vladimir Putin’s statements but also from the very logic of global economic and political development. After all, Central Asia has enormous communications and transit potential and is rich in mineral resources, primarily oil, gas and uranium.

At the same time, the region is not homogeneous in terms of economic development and local politics. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are in the throes of major social problems that could cause a deterioration of the domestic political environment. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are both on the upswing, but they are poised to undergo a power transition among elites.

In any event, if Russia loses its preeminent positions in Central Asia, it would lose control of the southern sector of its traditional sphere of influence. This, in turn, would create entirely new conditions in which immense challenges and risks emanating from Central Asia could threaten the stable and steady development of Russia itself.

This is one of the challenges that Russian policy in Central Asia must confront. Moscow is trying to preserve and expand its influence in the region, but it often reacts instead of acts. It lacks a long-term strategy, with the exception of an upgraded version of the Eurasian project in the format of the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space, in which only one country in the region, Kazakhstan, is taking part.

Among the strategic tasks Russia must resolve in this region is how to maintain its soft power, such as preserving Russian as a lingua franca, against the backdrop of a decline in local Russian education. Other tasks include the fight against illegal migration, drug trafficking and religious extremism.

First and foremost, Russia should strive to maintain its special political, economic, military and socio-cultural relations with Central Asia. It can achieve this only through the consistent and systemic development of integration projects, such as the Customs Union, the Common Economic Space, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Still, it will not be easy for Russia to preserve and expand its influence in the region. So far there has not been a single integration project that has successfully brought all of Central Asia together. On the one hand, relations within the region, especially between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, leave much to be desired. On the other, there is growing competition offered by players outside the region. At the end of last year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov acknowledged that Russia had no monopoly on relations with the countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus. It respects these nations as sovereign states that have the right to choose their own partners.

Lavrov was referring primarily to two other centers of power that are active in the post-Soviet space – the United States and China. Washington considers Central Asia a strategically important region in the context of the expected withdrawal of the coalition troops from Afghanistan in 2014-2015. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are actively involved in the northern supply route that delivers equipment to troops in Afghanistan and will subsequently assist in the withdrawal.

Since last fall, the United States ceased using Pakistani land routes for supplies to Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan has come to play the main role in the northern supply route used by the U.S. and NATO. Many foreign experts believe that this route will become increasingly important in the region in light of the fact that the United States plans to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in 2014.

In parallel, Washington is actively using the Afghan factor to consolidate its own long- and short-term positions, and has actually ceased criticizing Central Asian regimes for human rights violations. In addition, the United States is enhancing its defense cooperation with Tashkent and Dushanbe by, for example, supplying leftover military equipment to the Uzbek and Tajik armies as part of the coalition troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

According to the media, in early 2012 the Barack Obama administration submitted to Congress a draft federal budget for 2013, which includes a request to allocate $1.5 million in military aid to Tajikistan. This sum is almost double what was earmarked for this year.

The Manas military base is another U.S. stronghold in the region. The Kyrgyz leaders intend to keep this U.S. facility on their territory, with plans to redesignate it as a civilian supply center in 2014. The reason is simple – the lease of this facility is an important source of revenue for that chronically cash-strapped nation.

Some experts believe that in light of the shift in focus of U.S. foreign policy to the Asia-Pacific Region, Washington is likely to use Central Asia as a bridgehead in order to create hotbeds of tension along the Chinese border, in particular, in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

It seems that Beijing believes this scenario is likely and, therefore, is trying to position itself in Central Asia to promote its own interests, first of all, in the economic sphere. China does not need to build military bases on the territory of the region’s countries. Goods and money are its main levers of influence.

Eighty percent of goods sold in Kyrgyzstan are made in China. As for loans, they are mostly issued for the purchase of Chinese goods, and in this way Beijing not only consolidates its position as the main creditor of Central Asian regimes, it also boosts its own economy.

China uses Kyrgyzstan for the transit of its goods to the CIS markets, while Kazakhstan continuously supplies hydrocarbons for the Chinese economy. This is a simple but very effective division of labor.

At the same time, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan may create serious risks for Central Asian countries, especially for Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, all the more so since most experts doubt the ability of the Hamid Karzai’s government to keep the situation under control after the coalition troops pull out. However, there is no alliance to counter these Afghan risks or a common position on the future of Afghanistan itself. It is difficult to reach consensus when some sections of the Uzbek-Tajik border are still mined and surrounded by barbed wire.

Can the new Russian project – the Corporation for Central Asia Development – resolve the region’s issues? A number of experts believe that this initiative is a chance for the region to resolve its chronic problems – reduce poverty, create new jobs, overcome water shortages and make power consumption more efficient. However, there are also pessimists who believe that the ideal model proposed by the project’s authors will fall far short of regional realities and is bound to turn into one more bureaucratic format for the funneling of funds.

In any event, Moscow is running out of time to make a decision. The year 2014 is approaching and, just as important, a new generation is coming up in Central Asia. It has no experience of living in the Soviet Union and does not miss the Soviet past. Moscow should present its new image to this new generation, and it is only by pursuing modernization and creating a successful democracy that we will be able to hold onto traditional supporters and gain new ones in the critically important post-Soviet space.

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