Central Asia: Stuck Between A Sinking Russia And A Dominant China

Via Forbes, an interesting look at Central Asia’s geopolitical reality at present:

Central Asia, stuck between Russia, the dominant power of yesterday, whose cultural influence in the region remains strong even as its economy implodes and its political clout increasingly plays second fiddle to China, and China, the dominant power of tomorrow, whose targeted economic power is increasingly shaping the choices of Central Asian leaders and reshaping the region as a whole, is seeking other options. A story that is being lost in the attention paid to the new “Great Game” between Russia and China for dominance in Central Asia is how the Central Asian governments themselves don’t wish to be dominated, are unwilling to be tied too closely to either Russia or China, and are beginning to push back against such an eventuality.

It has been easy for outside observers to perceive the Central Asian states as pawns in a “Great Game” – to be passive recipients of the actions of more powerful outside actors which actually shape their region, rather than those taking the most active/prominent role in shaping their region themselves. Central Asian leaders, however, have increasingly been voicing their dissatisfaction with the choice between being dominated by either Russia or China – or by any outside power, and have been taking a more pro-active role in shaping their own futures.

Where Russia is concerned, a distinct lack of enthusiasm for Moscow’s attempt to tie its neighbors to itself through the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) has been exhibited. The quickening pace of the Russian economy’s implosion, with the Russian Central Bank on Monday increasing the interest rate yet again (this time from 10.5% to 17%, a move clearly reflecting the desperation of the Russian government and an implicit admission that it has no power to arrest the free fall of the rube which has fallen to lows not seen since the economic chaos of the 1990?s), is merely emphasizing what the Central Asian governments already knew – that tying themselves to the Russian economy through the EEU is unwise and that Moscow is a very poor partner. Central Asian governments have also pushed back against the use of their territory by the Russian military and security services – Uzbekistan’s 2012 withdrawal from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Tashkent’s concerns about Russia using the CSTO not for its stated purposes but in order to exert a greater degree of political control over the region, is a case in point. Kazakhstan’s growing concern regarding Putin’s intentions towards it in light of his actions in Crimea and Ukraine, fear stoked further by statements on the part of Putin seeming to question Kazakhstan’s right to statehood, is another.

China, which is rapidly taking over the region due to its massive economic penetration and growing political influence, is not trusted, either by the governing elites or by the public at large and Central Asian governments have no more desire to become satellites of Beijing than they wish to become satellites of Moscow. Turkmenistan is a case in point: Worried about its growing reliance on China, particularly China’s dominance of its energy sector (China being by far the most important purchaser of Turkmen gas) and the resulting looming presence of Beijing over Turkmen politics, Turkmenistan, which has the fourth largest gas reserves in the world, is attempting to give itself greater room for maneuver by seeking to diversify its gas supplier relationships. Turkmenistan appears to be losing two major purchasers, with Iran, whose domestic natural gas production is rising, signaling that it will no longer purchase Turkmen gas, and Russia averring that it may annul Gazprom’s contracts with Turkmenistan. This leaves China, the only other major purchaser of Turkmen gas, in the driver’s seat in terms of Beijing’s ability to negotiate prices (and the Chinese are, if anything, hard negotiators – just ask Vladimir Putin) and in terms of political influence.

Discomfort at being so completely dependent upon China appears to be the single biggest reason why the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline, which has been fruitlessly championed by Washington for years, seems to finally be making headway. At the Turkmen government’s urging, the four partners in this project last month finally set up a jointly-owned pipeline company, and the Asia Development Bank (ADB), the transaction advisor on the project, has been searching for a consortium leader which is to oversee the construction and operation of the pipeline. During a road show to market the project to potential Western partners, ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and Shell all expressed interest in the project, but were unable to extract the concessions (notably, an equity stake) that would justify their risk of capital on a project that still faces significant logistical, security (such as the fact that it must transit war torn Afghanistan), and political challenges (such as concern on the part of India, which is the end point of the pipeline, that Pakistan will use the gas transiting its territory as political leverage). This past August, France’s Total has expressed an interest in leading the consortium, but Total is no ExxonMobile or BP, with the result that the project may yet be more process than real. However, the important point here is intentionality – the Turkmen government dislikes its nearly complete dependence upon China and is actively seeking other options.

Elsewhere in the region, Tajikistan has come to fear that it is quickly becoming merely an economic appendage to China’s Xinjiang Province. And in neighboring Kyrgzystan, speaking of the choice between Russia and China and the desire for other partners, Kyrgyzstan Prime Minister Ortobaev was quoted last month as saying in relation to his government’s decision to join Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Union despite the harm that tying itself to the falling Russian economy will doubtless cause: “With whom are we going to trade? . . . . The United States is not here. Europe neither. China is very aggressively importing things. If someone would advise us, I would be more than happy to hear them.”

This desire for partners other than Moscow and Beijing is occurring at a time when feelings of insecurity are also growing in the region due to the withdrawal of NATO and the US from Afghanistan, with fears that the resulting power vacuum will be filled by more extreme forms of Islam, either on the part of a resurgent Taliban or greater influence on the part of ISIS, which the secular Central Asian leaders fear is appealing to a small but growing radical segment of their societies (and some Central Asians are known to be fighting with ISIS in Iraq and Syria). Turkmenistan has nervously noted that the Taliban have in the past few weeks overrun Afghanistan’s bordering Khamyab District and some fighting has already taken place between the Turkmen military and the Taliban. Turkmen security forces have been reinforcing the border since early October.

These very real economic and security concerns are causing the region’s leaders to re-evaluate their options and their relationships with outside powers, and may present an opportunity to Washington and Europe, if they commit to greater involvement in the region and convince Central Asian leaders of their long-term commitment to the region. This is not to say that there would be no frustrations on the part of the West in developing a deeper, more committed relationship with Central Asia. Handling these governments in such a way that allows the West to advance principles of political transparency and human rights protections without alienating these authoritarian governments will require a deft hand. And the West does not want to allow the Central Asian governments to play all the great powers against each other and merely use trade with the West and Western aide to strengthen their authoritarian regimes. The frustrations of the United States in dealing with both Uzbekistan (where the US was expelled from an air base partially due to criticism of the killing of hundreds of opposition protesters by President Islam Karimov’s government in 2005) and Kyrgyzstan (from which the United States was expelled from Manas Air Base this past summer) over the past decade illustrates the difficulty of diplomacy in the region. However, given that a stable and economically thriving Central Asia can only help the prospects in Afghanistan, and that the United States and Europe have an interest in ensuring that an authoritarian Russia and China are not the only outside powers with an influence in the strategically vital heart of Eurasia, the effort is worth making.

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