Central Asia: The Linchpin We Forgot

Central Asia: The Linchpin We Forgot

Although sometimes ignored as the vestiges of the old USSR, the five “Stans” of Central Asia are crucial to the world balance of power and US efforts against narcotics and terrorism.

 

Global politics and security often turn on unexpected dimes: the Mongols burst onto the 13th century international scene from the obscure Asian plains, a minor power’s tiny fleet took down the mighty armada of Spain’s King Phillip II, and the fledgling United States emerged as the premier global superpower of the late 20th century. Although time has shown that no region of the globe should be taken for granted, there is the lingering suspicion that one region of the world, Central Asia, is of little value in the global power game. While, in the words of international affairs expert Pauline Luong, the countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan have been “largely ignored as a scholarly backwater of the defunct communist world system,” they are of incredible importance to the security interests of the United States and, not surprisingly, other rival powers.1 The strategic potential built up in the region in the areas of counter-terrorism, military basing, trade, and governmental stability alone are compounded by the increased power grabs by Russia and China. The United States must naturally balance its interests in Central Asia with more immediate concerns in other corners of the world, but it cannot afford to ignore the five “Stans” entirely. Central Asia is worth the investment.2

Central Asia: Make-up and Neighbors

As defined by the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Central Asia is a region that “consists of the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.”3 It extends from the Caspian Sea in the west to the border of western China in the east; and it borders Russia to the north and Iran, Afghanistan, and China to the south. The region covers a surface area of just over four million square miles, about half the surface area of the United States, an contains over 65 million inhabitants.4

Historically, Central Asia has been the stage on which various world powers have wrestled for dominance. Mighty empires, including the Persians, Mongols, Turks, and Russians, have spilled blood to control the territory.5 Indeed, it was not until 1991 (with the collapse of the Soviet Union) that the five “Stans” achieved independence from direct foreign control.5 The reason behind this constant struggle for Central Asian superiority boils down to one crucial factor: strategic location. According to renowned political and geographic scholar Sir Halford Mackinder, Central Asia serves as the great heartland occupying the center of the Eurasian continent; according to Mackinder, the power that dominates this Heartland would possess “the necessary geopolitical and economic potential to ultimately control the World Island [Eurasia] and the planet.”6 While Mackinder likely overstates his case, Central Asia does stand at the crossroads of East and West, lies near the conjunction of three continents, and, as will be addressed further on, borders multiple global hotspots and world powers who want a slice of regional influence. The historical importance of this central location has not diminished with the times, and Central Asia’s strategic position ultimately provides the framework upon which its current place in the jigsaw puzzle of global politics is based.

The Current Situation in the “Stans”

In order to comprehend where American security interests lie in the Central Asian region, it is important to gain an understanding of what each of the five regional countries have to offer in terms of strategic capital. States with different geographical locations, resources, and relationships with its neighbors will naturally suggest different diplomatic responses, and thus it would be wise for any foreign policy analyst to understand each country individually, and not focus only on the region as a whole.

Kazakhstan

The first of these five countries is Kazakhstan. According to the Heritage Foundation, Kazakhstan is currently the “largest, richest, and most stable state” in Central Asia,7 serving as a potential partner in the fight against terrorism, organized crime, and drug trafficking; a valuable producer of natural resources; and a gateway for commerce and communication between East and West.

Among other strategic advantages, Kazakhstan provides an excellent staging ground and flyover route for NATO military operations against Al Qaeda militants and Taliban insurgents. In 2001, for example, Kazakhstan allowed member nations in operation “Enduring Freedom” to fly over their territory at no cost so that the military forces could utilize the quickest and safest air route into Afghanistan.8 While operations in Afghanistan have diminished since 2014, Kazakhstan still serves as a vital staging base for supplies into the terrorism-heavy region.9 With the rise of transnational terrorism and its consequential attack on Western interests, Kazakhstan has also shown itself willing and able to support international efforts to counter regional terrorist networks.10

Kazakhstan is also strategically positioned in the fight against organized crime and drug trafficking in Central Asia. The country is often used as part of a northern transit route for Afghan weapons and drugs (heroin and opiates); thus, for powers such as Russia and the European Union, whose citizens suffer under the effects of this trade, enhancing Kazakhstan’s willingness to seize illegal material and make efforts to close this route is crucial.10

In addition, Kazakhstan is valuable as a major producer of crude oil, exporting 3.165 billion dollars’ worth over the past year alone.11 It also possesses multiple natural gas reserves and some of the world’s largest reserves of uranium, making it valuable as a regional economic and trade powerhouse.12

Uzbekistan

The second of these countries is Uzbekistan. After Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan represents the second most powerful country in Central Asia; this is due in part to its population, which at over 30 million is almost as large as the other four Central Asian countries put together.7, 13, 14 As with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan’s location near the Middle East makes it an important staging ground for counterterror operations. For example, in 2001, the United States sought out and signed an agreement with Uzbekistan allowing the US to base 1,500 troops out of an Uzbek airbase in Karshi Khanabad.15 From the particular standpoint of US security interests, Uzbekistan is “arguably the most important country in the region,” and although US policy aims to reduce its presence in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan will remain a crucial asset as long as the West has interests in the Middle East.13

Uzbekistan is also a large producer of natural gas, possessing approximately 1.1 trillion cubic meters of natural gas in underground reserves.16 This resource is transported through a network of Soviet-era pipelines to nearby nations (such as Russia and, more recently, China).16 In addition to natural gas, Uzbekistan is also a high-value exporter of cotton, gold, and uranium.16

Tajikistan

The third country is Tajikistan. As with the previous two Central Asian states, Tajikistan is well positioned in terms of surrounding global hotspots (i.e. the Middle East, Pakistan, Russia, and China). Like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan has had partnerships with the West during its conflict in Afghanistan, with which the country shares a long, rather porous border.17 Tajikistan also currently possesses multiple agreements with foreign states (primarily with Russia, but also with the United States and India) to house military personnel within its borders.16,17 These several agreements exemplify the country’s chief foreign policy strategy: a risky attempt to play world powers off each other.17 Tajikistan recognizes that its location is makes it valuable for major powers (particularly Russia and China) as a regional security buffer, and so to maintain its autonomy it seeks with diminishing degrees of success to curry the favor of all states at once; this, however, has only served to make countries in both the East and the West even more determined to enlist Tajikistan’s favor.17

Tajikistan is also a key player in the fierce Central Asian water feud. Along with neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the mountainous region of Central Asia provides the source for 80% of the water in the region. Tajikistan frequently turns this control of water reserves into political leverage in cases where it disagrees with the policies made by other Central Asian countries (e.g. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan) or when it seeks to coerce a state into fulfilling some demand. Tajikistan’s tight control over its water, and its consequentially great hydropower potential, makes it a significant participant in regional politics.17

In addition, Tajikistan is the main transit point for Afghan drug trafficking; according to one estimate, eighty tons of Afghan heroin and 20 tons of Afghan opium flow through Tajikistan annually.18 As a result, cooperation with Tajikistan is an important antecedent to reducing the spread of narcotics into Europe and the West.

Kyrgyzstan

The fourth country is Kyrgyzstan. Politically, Kyrgyzstan is the freest state in Central Asia.7 With its relatively democratic government structure (consisting of a semi-parliamentarian system) and a recent history of peaceful transition of power, it consistently ranks high on freedom indices, much higher than other states of a similar economic performance; this certainly makes it valuable to countries seeking to promote democratic governments (including the United States).19 Like its four regional neighbors, Kyrgyzstan has played an important role in the conflict in Afghanistan; besides hosting US troops in the Manas Transit Center outside the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, the country has also participated as part of the Northern Distribution Network for the transit of military supplies to and from Afghanistan.19

Like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan is also an important source of water in the region. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have a long history of disputing these water rights, the latter frequently exerting its political capital to keep Kyrgyzstan from investing heavily in hydroelectric power, which would drastically reduce the downstream water flow into the heavily-populated Uzbekistan.20

Economically, Kyrgyzstan’s most important relationship is with China, its Eastern neighbor. China has made it a point to invest heavily in Kyrgyz highways, dairy facilities, cement production, and overall infrastructure; as things stand, these ties will only grow stronger.20 In the end, Kyrgyzstan differs from its neighbors in that it has few natural resources of its own, yet it consistently shows itself capable of making the most of what it does have and using its resources and leaders to create a country much less oppressive and more balanced with regards to foreign powers than its neighbors, so in this aspect it carries substantial strategic influence.21

Turkmenistan

The fifth and final Central Asian country is Turkmenistan. Unlike its four neighbors, Turkmenistan is not a state with a robust interest in foreign policy or in building relationships with foreign countries; on the contrary, it exercises a kind of self-imposed isolationism pushed by its authoritarian President, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov.21 However, this isolationism does not mean Turkmenistan lacks all strategic value to the United States, Russia, and China. Turkmenistan’s great importance stems from two factors: its energy resources and its coastline along the Caspian Sea. With regards to energy resources, Turkmenistan has 17.5 trillion cubic meters of natural gas (9.4% of the world’s total proven resources), and the export of this gas has been the main focus of Turkmenistan’s foreign relations.22 Currently, China is the main consumer of the country’s gas (receiving 30 billion cubic meters in 2014), followed by Russia (receiving 11 billion cubic meters).22

The vast natural gas wealth in Turkmenistan’s possession is incredibly important in giving the country a seat in global trade talks, but it is the country’s location on the Caspian Sea that makes it a key link in geopolitics.21 For years, the European Union and the West have sought a route by which they can import natural gas without having the gas pass through Russian hands; in doing this, they strive to reduce their high dependence on Russian energy.21 The “Southern Corridor” route, however, would funnel natural gas from Turkmenistan to Europe across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, allowing the West to greatly diversify its energy imports. Naturally, the West has been pressuring Turkmenistan to open this southern channel; Russia, meanwhile, has long opposed this plan.21 The country of Turkmenistan, unwilling to become embroiled in foreign disputes, interested in exploring Western trade partnerships, and wary of Russia’s attempts to force dependency, is thus caught in an unwanted limbo between two geopolitical giants.22 This cold conflict between Russia and the United States, due to the country’s location, adds greatly to the strategic value of the country.

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Alike and Yet Not Alike

In the end, it would be easy for the United States, or any power, to take these five countries and lump them together in terms of their similar strategic capital. After all, the nations are alike in that they each are low-performing post-Soviet states desiring autonomy, without a cohesive national identity, and in a resource relationship of some kind with its neighbors.7, 23 However, it is also important to understand that despite all these similarities, the region is certainly not homogenous. There are significant regional rivalries between Central Asian countries (such as that mentioned between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan), as well substantial differences in their domestic politics, natural resources, and levels of development.20 Most importantly from a US perspective, they also have varying degrees of friendship with the West, Russia, and China; some of the “Stans” are more willing to comply with Russian demands and power grabs due to their histories and ethnic ties to the old USSR, while others favor their important trade relationships with China, Europe, and the US.7 Ultimately, any foreign policy directed toward Central Asia should view the area as strategically valuable, but should also recognize that the various countries contribute uniquely to this regional value.

Russia and China

While the individual Central Asian states have much to offer as regional powers and potential strategic partners, it is the increased Russian and Chinese involvement in Central Asia that both amplifies and provides the context of US interest in the region. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, both Moscow and Beijing have sought to keep or gain strongholds in Central Asia, either through bending the five countries to their will (in the case of Russia) or through creating economic dependency (in the case of China).14

The present Russian and Chinese fascination with the Eurasian Heartland is driven by three primary concerns: Islamic radicalism, the potential destabilization of the “Stans,” and fear of the United States.14 In the case of the first, the two powers (Russia and China) are concerned that once the Islamic State is defeated in the Middle East, ISIL might attempt to build a new “caliphate” in Central Asia, which is more defensible against invasion than, say, North Africa and which already has a majority-Muslim population.23 An increasing number of extremists are already beginning to infiltrate Central Asia, and the two powers consider this threat much too close to home.14 In the case of the second concern, while the five “Stans”—particularly Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan—have made significant progress in achieving stability following the collapse of the Soviet Union, in recent years most of the Central Asian states have begun to deteriorate through the development of factions, succession debates, and domestic terror attacks.14 On June 5 of this year, for example, a large group of militants stormed a supposedly secure weapons depot in western Kazakhstan, killing several dozen people.14 In late August, Uzbekistan’s long-time President Islam Karimov died, sparking an ongoing clash in rival Uzbek factions as to what process should determine the transition of government power.24 These are just two examples of many that, in the words of international affairs expert Timofey Bordachev, make the continued stability of Central Asia “especially urgent for both great powers.”14 In the case of the third concern, Russia and China feel that their attempt to create a Central Asia that is both stable and Russo-centric/Sino-centric has been threatened by the United States. They claim that the US encourages risky political reforms by encouraging the five “Stans” to pursue democracy.14 For Russia and China, this means that the far-off US, at little cost to itself, is destabilizing a region they consider vital to regional security. They also fear that Western attempts to diversify the “Stans’” trade is threatening their own economic prosperity.7 It is no wonder, then, that they have acted on this concern to reduce the influence of the US in Central Asia.

Russia’s actions in Central Asia are rather varied in scope. To keep the former Soviet states under its influence, Moscow has shown itself willing to manipulate states’ populations to make their governments toe the line; in 2014, for instance, when Kazakhstan proposed uniting Central Asia under one government, Moscow threatened to annex the ethnic Russian regions of Kazakhstan, causing the Central Asian country to immediately drop its proposal.25 Russia has also used inter-regional disputes to its advantage; in response to Uzbekistan’s recent attempts to become more autonomous, Russia has begun to fund Kyrgyz efforts to invest in hydroelectric power and cut back water flow to Uzbekistan.26 This, Russia hopes, will bring Uzbekistan back into the fold. Regarding the West, Russia has reportedly pressured Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to evict the US military from bases on their territory.10 It has also staunchly opposed all US investment or energy projects in Central Asia.7

China’s policy toward Central Asia is oriented toward achieving greater economic influence, as opposed to territorial expansion. Central Asia’s trade turnover with China reached over $40 billion in 2013, most of this in oil and gas from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.16 China has taken a leading role in partnering with the five “Stans,” investing in new highways, uranium enrichment plants, oil pipelines, and hydroelectric plants. While this investment is largely due to an effort to gain economic power, China is also motivated to maintain its internal stability; its Muslim-majority Xinjiang province directly borders Central Asia, and if the states there were to collapse and radical Islamists take control, there would be a very real threat to Chinese security. In addition, while China has not been hostile to US presence in Central Asia, it is largely US presence that has delayed China in their attempt to become the dominant Asian power.16

 The United States and Conclusion

While its willingness to remain involved in the region has diminished since the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States still has a continuing interest in Central Asia. Over the past 20 years, the United States has been involved with the five “Stans” in multiple areas of trade, politics, and human rights concerns. As mentioned earlier, the United States has signed multiple landmark agreements with the various Central Asian states regarding the war in Afghanistan. The US has also made it a priority to foster pro-western movements in Central Asia and, through such means as the Silk Road Strategy Act and the Economic Support Fund, sends millions of dollars in aid to promote and reward human rights and freedoms.16 All five “Stans” have pledged to become more democratic, and though they have not made nearly so much progress as promised (with the possible exception of Kyrgyzstan), their willingness step out from Moscow’s control and become more autonomous is a positive development that is due in large part to America’s continued involvement in the region. On the level of economics, the United States has a robust trade partnership with Central Asia, in 2015 receiving $928.7 million in imported goods from the region and exporting $780.3 million in goods.27

Of course, the idea that Central Asia is important for United States foreign policy considerations must be tempered by noting that the US has more immediate security interests elsewhere. The Asia-Pacific Region and the Middle East present much more pressing challenges to United States security, so it is unrealistic to expect the United States to elevate the five “Stans” to the same level in foreign policy discussions, especially as it withdrawals its massive physical presence in Afghanistan.7 In addition, Russia’s and China’s proximity to Central Asia allows them to more effectively influence the region, meaning that being equally competitive would require more resources than the US is able to spare.7 Nevertheless, the Eurasian Heartland is significant enough that it should not be ignored entirely or written off as a second-order area of the world, as some analysts have done.1 Such a hands-off policy would, in the words of Dr. James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation, “only embolden Russia to make the most of its asymmetrical advantage,” and the same would likely occur in China as well.7 Instead, America should remain involved in the region, providing low-key US support to maintain stability in Central Asian states while slowly paving the way for them to adopt democratic institutions; using its influence to ensure that no one state (particularly Russia) gains complete control over all five states; and exploring means to diversify and expand trade with the region (such as with the “Southern Corridor” shipping route in Turkmenistan).7

While many today neither know nor care about Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan, these countries play vital—if unaccredited—roles in the various geopolitical actions in Eurasia, much as they have in past centuries. Whether it be in counter-terrorism, resource disputes, or in serving as a buffer against other aggressive states, each “Stan” influences the region and its surroundings, and each has something to offer its power-hungry neighbors. While Central Asia may not prove as immediately important to US interests as the Middle East or the South China Sea, it will remain an important piece in the ever-shifting puzzle of global politics—one that no major power can afford to leave in the box. This the United States would do well to remember. ■

  1. Pauline Luong, Institutional Change and Political Continuity in Post-Soviet Central Asia, (Cambridge, UK, 2008), 65.
  2. Yelena Zabortseva, “From the “forgotten region” to the “great game” region: On the development of geopolitics in Central Asia,” Journal of Eurasian Studies, July 2012, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257729806_From_the_forgotten_region_to_the_great_game_region_On_the_development_of_geopolitics_in_Central_Asia.
  3. “Central Asia,” The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2016, https://www.britannica.com/place/Central-Asia.
  4. “Surface area (sq. km),” The World Bank, 2016, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.SRF.TOTL.K2.
  5. Eugene Chausovsky, “Central Asia: A Different Kind of Threat,” Stratfor, 1 January 2016, https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/central-asia-different-kind-threat.
  6. Eldar Ismailov, “The Heartland Theory and the Present-Day Geopolitical Structure of Central Eurasia,” Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, 2010, http://www.silkroadstudies.org/resources/pdf/Monographs/1006Rethinking-4.pdf.
  7. James Carafano, “US Comprehensive Strategy Toward Russia,” The Heritage Foundation, 9 December 2015, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2015/12/us-comprehensive-strategy-toward-russia.
  8. “Afghanistan,” Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2016, http://www.kazakhembus.com/content/afghanistan.
  9. “Kazakhstan Increases Role in Regional Stabilization as U.S. Withdrawals from Afghanistan,” Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2016, http://www.kazakhembus.com/content/kazakhstan-increases-role-regional-stabilization-u-s-withdraws-afghanistan.
  10. “Kazakhstan’s Strategic Significance,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 2016, http://www.eurodialogue.eu/Kazakhstan-Strategic-Significance.
  11. “Kazakhstan Crude Oil Production,” Trading Economics, 2016, http://www.tradingeconomics.com/kazakhstan/crude-oil-production.
  12. Paul Stronski, “Kazakhstan at Twenty-Five: Stable but Tense,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 4 February 2016, http://carnegieendowment.org/2016/02/04/kazakhstan-at-twenty-five-stable-but-tense-pub-62642.
  13. Eugene Rumer, “U.S. Policy Toward Central Asia 3.0,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 25 January 2016, http://carnegieendowment.org/2016/01/25/u.s.-policy-toward-central-asia-3.0-pub-62556.
  14. Timofey Bordachev, “Russia and china in Central Asia: The Great Win-Win Game,” Russia in Global Affairs, 1 July 2016, http://eng.globalaffairs.ru/valday/Russia-and-China-in-Central-Asia-The-Great-Win-Win-Game-18259.
  15. ElizabethWishnick, “Strategic Consequences of the Iraq War: U.S. Security Interests in Central Asia Reassessed,” Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), May 2004, http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/00370.pdf.
  16. Jim Nichol, “Central Asia: Regional Developments and Implications for U.S. Interests,” Congressional Research Service, 21 March, 2014, https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33458.pdf.
  17. Karina Fayzullina, “Does Tajikistan Matter? Political Trends in Modern Tajikistan,” Aljazeera Centre for Studies, 20 June 2013, http://studies.aljazeera.net/en/reports/2013/06/201362082342345467.htm.
  18. Yaroslav Trofimov, “Afghan Drug Trade Sends Tremors,” The Wall Street Journal, 3 August 2012, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10000872396390443545504577563414182938548.
  19. Jim Nichol, “Kyrgyzstan: Recent Developments and U.S. Interests,” Congressional Research Service, 30 August 2013, https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/97-690.pdf.
  20. Eirene Busa, “Kyrgyzstan: A Small Country with a Big Stick,” The School of Russian and Asian Studies (SRAS), 2013, http://www.sras.org/kyrgyzstan.
  21. “How Turkmenistan Can Alter the Russia-West Standoff,” Stratfor, 25 June 2015, https://www.stratfor.com/geopolitical-diary/how-turkmenistan-can-alter-russia-west-standoff.
  22. Aleksandra Jarosiewicz, “Turkmenistan Looks to the West,” Ośrodek Studiów Wschodnich, 1 April 2015, http://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/analyses/2015-04-01/turkmenistan-looks-to-west.
  23. David Denoon, “The Strategic Significance of Central Asia,” The World Financial Review, 4 February 2016, http://www.worldfinancialreview.com/?p=4956.
  24. “Uzbekistan: Where Clans Clash,” Stratfor, 30 August 2016, https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/uzbekistan-where-clans-clash.
  25. “Blurring the Lines of Kazakhstan-Russia Relations,” Stratfor, 15 April 2016, https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/blurring-lines-kazakhstan-russia-relations.
  26. “Russia Uses Competition Over Resources to Increase Leverage in Central Asia,” Stratfor, 4 August 2014, https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/russia-uses-competition-over-resources-increase-leverage-central-asia.
  27. “Foreign Trade,” United States Census Bureau, 2016, https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c4643.html.

Image credits —

  • Map of Central Asia | https://www.flickr.com/photos/centralasian/3201865380/
  • Mt. Langtang Lirung, Himalayas | https://www.flickr.com/photos/allovertheplanet/10081397966

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