ORF: The overlooked heartland — Recognising the strategic relevance of Central Asia in the US-China rivalry

The US proclaims its main goal in the region is to expand security cooperation with Central Asian states and improve their ability to respond to the challenges affecting regional stability, while Russia views this strategy as a plan to divert the region from the Russian and Chinese influence.

The considerable shift in the role of Central Asia from “largely ignored” to “strategically relevant” in international affairs in less than a decade has drawn the attention of leading global powers in the region, turning it into a zone of competition of leading powers. Political instability, economic slowdown, corruption, manipulated elections and many other issues posed challenges for the smooth transition of these states into independent democratic nations. Internal political instability and the failure of its authorities to balance the influence of major powers complicated its effort to diversify its economic ties.

The abundant natural resources of the Central Asian region are not posing any competition to the Gulf states and Russia in the international economic and political landscape. Despite that, today, major powers like the US, China and Russia are competing to invest in the region, especially in accessing its energy resources. Unlike the common concerns of the early 1990s when foreign investments were focused on countering narcotics trafficking, terrorism, and improving overall regional capacity for trade, the current focus is more towards satisfying their own strategic interest.

The abundant natural resources of the Central Asian region are not posing any competition to the Gulf states and Russia in the international economic and political landscape.

The presence of strong Islamic militancy, Ferghana and Andijan Valley incidents, Uzbek-Kyrgyz border issues, the Osh riots, the Jalalabad crisis and many other incidents worsened the tensions within the Central Asian states during the first few years after their independence. In this context, any attempt to bring stability to the region forced Central Asian countries to enter into massive investment agreements in energy exploitation and exports. China became the most significant player not only through energy deals, but through its investment for the transit of Turkmen Gas with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and transit of oil through Kazakhstan.

The US had to look for more reasons to have its military base in Central Asia as its military presence would end with Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Post 2010, military coups prompted concerns that such revolutions could lead to increased international confrontation between the global powers involved. At the same time, rapidly increasing Chinese investments in the Central Asia region not only declined Russian influence in the region but also posed a challenge to the American intention of encircling Russia. On the one hand, China successfully managed to project itself as a lucrative alternative market to Russia, on the other hand, the US’ Baku-Tbilisi Ceyhan (BTC) project intends to divert energy pipelines to Europe. Europe is also looking forward to BTC as an alternative to their dependency on Russia. At a time when the US is still invigorating its cooperation programmes, Chinese investments have already expanded to other economic sectors and is on the verge of becoming the second largest import-export market for Central Asian states.

Rapidly increasing Chinese investments in the Central Asia region not only declined Russian influence in the region, but also posed a challenge to the American intention of encircling Russia.

Earlier limited, the US interest in Central Asia shifted with the launch of the first US strategy for Central Asia under the Obama administration in 2015, initiating the C5+1 format. This step could be bolstered by the prospects of ending the American military presence in Afghanistan. US foreign official visits have intensified since 2019. Secretary of State, M. Pompeo visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to participate in the C5+1 ministerial meeting this year. As per the Uzbek foreign ministry, the agenda of the meeting was regional cooperation, regional security and the situation in Afghanistan. While Chinese media declared Pompeo’s visit as an attempt to undermine Chinese influence in the region, Russian scholar, Andrei Kazantsev, expressed confidence in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan’s closeness with Russia and Russian influence in the region. The reason behind such confidence is also due to their membership in the EAEU, CSTO, and SCO economic and political alliance.

The US proclaims its main goal in the region is to expand security cooperation with Central Asian states and improve their ability to respond to the challenges affecting regional stability, while Russia views this strategy as a plan to divert the region from the Russian and Chinese influence. The US strategy for Central Asia for 2019-2025 retained several key political goals of previous strategies, such as identifying domestic and cross-border terrorism as one of the main security concerns. This US strategy is considered as an attempt to involve Central Asian states in US-sponsored regional security and energy projects, primarily in the Afghan sector. From an Indian perspective, the US presence is required to counter Chinese influence, whereas for the Central Asian states it would allow them to have more freedom to maneuver their relations with Russia and China.

“Observer Research Foundation”
PREETI DAS
28.12.20