We are living in the ‘Asian Century’, some analysts suggest; but will the next decade become known as the ‘Central Asian decade’? The Central Asian (CA) region (comprising, in this dossier, the five republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) is indeed drawing increasing attention from politicians and analysts all over the world. And not without good reason. The area is covered by roughly 60 percent of desert but its central geographical location and abundance of hydrocarbon reserves, concentrated mainly in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, make it highly important geopolitically. Located in a strategic position between Europe and Asia, CA has been historically fought over by Western and Eastern powers. Today, Russia considers it part of its sphere of influence and maintains solid trade, political and cultural links with all of the CA republics. China has increased its commercial presence considerably and sees CA as a key transit route for its long-haul connectivity project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Meanwhile, other actors, chiefly but not solely the EU, the US, and Turkey, have been striving to establish or maintain their influence.
The abundance of energy resources partly explains external powers’ interest in the region. According to EU data, Kazakhstan alone has double the oil reserves of the North Sea, while the gas reserves of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are estimated to be respectively the 5th and 8th largest in the world. Furthermore, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have significant quantities of uranium, the former being the world’s third largest producer. But the so-called ‘return of geopolitics’ – if it ever went away – also helps shed light on the competition for influence between global and regional powers in CA. Geopolitical struggles – partly driven by the rise of China at the international and regional levels – are becoming such a debated issue that more and more analysts have begun talking about a “New Great Game”, echoing the competition between the Russian and the British Empires for supremacy in CA during the late 19th century, known as the “Great Game”.
Several international, regional, and domestic factors – and their intersection – will impact on the development of the region and determine whether the next decade will be a Central Asian one. Among the several international geopolitical factors at play, two stand out in particular. First, the ability of Russia and China – by far the most powerful external players present in CA – to sustain and enhance their cooperation. China has been increasing its presence in CA, traditionally viewed by the Kremlin as its own backyard, since the early 2000s. Many pundits see this expansion as a potential source of trouble between Moscow and Beijing; so far, the two countries have been pursuing a ‘division of labour’, wherein Russia wields the gun – i.e. takes care of security – and China the money. Yet recent signs of Beijing’s willingness to take up a hard security role in the region may complicate the picture. The increase in Chinese arms sales, the recent joint military exercise with Tajikistan in the Pamir mountains, the discovery of a Chinese military operations base in Tajikistan and the rumours about a second base located in the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan shed light on the direction where China’s strategic interests and regional role are heading. Right now, it looks like China and Russia are coordinating their policies (at least not to conflict openly over them); furthermore, the opposition to a common enemy (the US) is strengthening the Sino-Russian partnership. But in the long run, China’s growing importance as a security provider in CA may represent a stress test for the enhanced Russia-China cooperation with potentially deep implications for the region, forcing the CA governments, usually pursuing a multivector foreign policy, to take sides.
The second element potentially enhancing CA’s global relevance is China’s ability to legitimize and implement the BRI. That may take the CA region back to its former glory as a crucial trade and geopolitical centre during the time when the Silk Road was active over a millennium ago. Since 2013, when the BRI was launched, many CA countries indeed signed cooperation agreements with China to invest in energy and transport infrastructure. Yet several problems haunt the success of the BRI. Endogenous factors include poor governance, unfulfilled contracts and high levels of corruption, which may delay projects and put investments at risk. Corruption, in particular, acts as a double-edged sword for the BRI projects: on the one hand, the Chinese government exploits the widespread corruption culture in CA to advance Chinese companies in local bids – to the extent that Chinese projects are ‘associated with corruption’ in the region; on the other, Beijing runs the risk of suffering big losses connected to corruption, fraud and graft. As a result, the Chinese Communist Party plans to expand its anti-corruption campaign overseas by embedding officers in countries participating in the BRI. Exogenous factors include the increasing opposition facing the BRI from powerful international players in light of the political component and potential of the project. In the words of the renowned expert on CA Marlene Laruelle, the BRI includes a ‘vital security dimension, namely China’s gradual “securitization” of the continent in response to the United States’ renewed focus on the Asia Pacific region’. It is no wonder then that the US – and, to a lesser extent, the EU - is dismissing, countering or openly clashing over the BRI, also in the context of general deterioration of Washington’s relations with Beijing.
The key domestic factor capable of enhancing the importance of CA is the ability of CA states to overcome long-standing hostilities and work together to address the common challenges plaguing the region, such as terrorism, brain drain, the stabilization of Afghanistan and climate change. The recent warming-up of intra-state relations (also made possible by power transitions in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) drew international attention to timid attempts to foster regionalization in a ‘region that isn't’, that is, a region marked by a lack of intra-regional cooperation mechanisms. While we should not set our expectations too high, developments such as the thaw between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and the March 2018 meeting of CA leaders in Astana (now Nur-Sultan) represent small but significant steps towards growing – and badly-needed – cooperation. Even if external actors – especially Russia and China – will continue to matter, the future of the region does not rest in foreign powers’ hands only. Eventually, the ability of CA states to integrate and cooperate with each other will allow them to address common challenges and gain international relevance, without necessarily depending on a great power for leadership, wealth and security.