The Multi-player Game in Central Asia

Igor Pejić
Igor Pejić has graduated from the Faculty of Political Science University of Belgrade, MA in Terrorism, Security and Organized Crime at the University of Belgrade, currently on PhD in International and European Studies at the Faculty of Political Science.

The region of Central Asia has a reminiscent feeling of a bygone age, a remote area on the Eurasian land mass occupied by the Soviets but never entirely conquered. During the Cold War Central Asia provided the Soviet Union with even more strategic depth, allowing it to expand and project its power towards Iran, Afghanistan and China. Before the modern era the region already had echoed with great strategic significance, Sir Halford Mackinder conceptualized his entire geopolitical theory around this particular area. British imperial desires that were opposing Russian interests in Central Asia during the nineteenth century influenced Mackinder's scientific thought, paving the way for the famous Heartland theory. The political significance of the region back then was obvious. Although landlocked, the immense amounts of natural resources would allow any state controlling Central Asia to further develop and greatly expand its power. Mackinder went even further when he established a dictum: the one who controls the Heartland controls Eurasia, thus controlling the world.

            The Cold War however, proved the flaws of this theory. Controlling Central Asia didn't allow the Soviets to ascend as the world’s sole superpower. Nevertheless, the region remained a pivotal point for future theory-crafting, as it was a significant counterpart to the Spykman's Rimland thesis. As a landlocked area, Central Asia remained in the focus of a continental power, namely the Soviet Union and now Russia. After the collapse of the USSR the Central Asian Republics (CAR) remained a vital part of Russian regional policies and interests. Establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Russia clearly stated its political interest in the former Soviet satellites. Today the CAR, although independent, still bear the marks of their shared communist legacy. However, in our multipolar world Central Asia ceases to be an exclusive Russian sphere.  

            Looking at the region from the Western perspective it is hard to understand how Western powers can participate decisively in the politics of Central Asia. The landlocked character of the Republics makes them a remote territory for American naval capabilities. Furthermore, Central Asia is composed of non-democratic and relatively distrustful (to say at least) countries that are highly suspicious of any kind of foreign, especially Western activity in their zone of interest. From the civilizational perspective the situation is not much different. The region of Central Asia doesn't share any particular values with the Western civilization. Civil society is mostly a marginal social concept while the communist totalitarian heritage evolved into the contemporary authoritarian regimes that govern the CAR. The political elites don't seem to share the West’s visions of democracy and pluralism. In fact, their overall attitude towards governing and politics is actually much more similar to that of the Russian political elite.

            One of the primary reasons for the rise of such a geopolitical environment was the lack of having felt the consequences of globalization in the remote region. Although Central Asia saw its fare share of ethnic conflicts and faced political instability during the last decade of the twentieth century it was never seen as a crucial point for Western intervention. Preoccupied with other more important events during that time, the U.S. along with its allies left the region to fend for itself. As a matter of fact, the first truly significant U.S. engagement in Central Asia came after 9/11. The U.S. military was forced to utilize the area because of its engagement in Afghanistan; even then, U.S. interests in the region were shallow, exploiting Central Asia only in terms of logistics and military transport. Although the situation may change over time, it's hard to expect any deeper Western engagement in Central Asia in the time ahead. Nevertheless, this doesn't mean the region is less significant. The lack of Western interest for Central Asia is due mainly because of the region's remoteness and status-quo nature. Although Russia is still being perceived as a de facto patron of the CARs thus maintaining the balance of power, in a different scenario in which a more assertive regional power would take over, the West would be forced to react regardless of the distance and overall inaccessible character of Central Asia.

            The multi-player game in Central Asia treats the Western states as spectators while the real players are regional powers like Russia, China, Turkey, and Iran. All of these powers, besides their geographical proximity to Central Asia, also share a spectrum of similar cultural and political values. But before we examine the interests of these regional powers, we need to understand why Central Asia is alluring for these countries. First and foremost, the territory of Central Asia is almost half the size of Europe (not including Afghanistan and Caucasus states) with a population the size of France. It's a vast scarcely populated territory with relatively limited industrial potential. The region never actually went through an industrial revolution while most of its machinery and industrial knowledge came from Russia. Nevertheless, Central Asia has huge amounts of natural resources including minerals, ores, wood, and, most importantly, oil and gas. Although some researches vary in their results, many of them do suggest that oil and gas reserves are similar to the ones found in the Persian Gulf. Turkmenistan is probably the best example of this. For many states this would be more than enough to try establishing their dominance over the Heartland. However, this is not the only reason that regional players are competing for influence in Central Asia. After the dissolution of the USSR a power vacuum occurred in the former Soviet space. The vacuum wasn't only present in terms of power and politics but became present in the cultural field as well. Despite Russian attempts to integrate the region’s former Soviet republics by establishing both the CIS and CSO, thus mitigating the effects of the USSR’s disintegration, the vacuum that occurred started to attract other regional players. Although Central Asia is still being perceived as a Russian sphere of influence, mainly because other powers are not willing to threaten the status quo, the patterns of regional affairs are changing, suggesting that Central Asia could play a bigger role in the world politics of the future.

            The main external actor in Central Asia is of course Russia. Despite the collapse of the USSR, Moscow managed to retain much of its influence in the CAR. Moscow’s placement of military and scientific installations for space research, but more importantly slow and steady increase in trade and investment, shows that Russia is still very present. Although the region’s economy is not booming, it stills provides Russia with a fine market for its exports, especially in terms of heavy machinery. Furthermore, Russia and CAR share a lot of common history and culture. The communist period and the totalitarian nature of the Stalinist regime almost entirely eradicated religious incentives across this territory. Though we are witnessing a comeback of religion in many parts of the region, the religious aspect of identity is only partially present. CAR governments are still very skeptical towards the revival of religious identity—a skepticism even further bolstered by the religious ramifications of the Arab Spring. This religious skepticism is not unfounded. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Zbigniew Brzezinski predicted a very turbulent period for the states of Central Asia in the form of ethnical and religious conflicts similar to those that were already taking place in the Western Balkans. Despite occasional conflicts and political crises, the Balkanization phenomena never came to Central Asia. Nevertheless, Russia managed to exploit the fears of ethnical and religious wars positioning itself as a primary security provider in the Republics.

            Similarly to Eastern Europe, Central Asia is a strategic buffer zone for the former Czardom. Kazakhstan along with other neighboring states forms a shield on the southern borders of the Russian state, thus making a safe zone between Rimland powers and the Russian underbelly. Although we are living in a modern age where territory is not considered the most important aspect for projecting power or influence, in the military sphere having a landmass buffer the size of Central Asia significantly compliments a nation’s sense of national security while at the same time discouraging any potential adversaries. The military-strategic urge to keep foreign hosts as far as possible is still very present in the Russian political narrative. Therefore it is natural that the Russians want to keep the status quo in Central Asia. Despite lacking the economic capabilities or developed soft-power approach Russia will nevertheless strive to keep its presence embedded in the societies of Central Asia while discouraging other regional players, especially in the security sphere.

            Iran and Turkey are probably the biggest potential competitors for the larger sphere of influence in Central Asia besides Russia. Since the 1990s Turkey has been ever more assertive with the five `Stans; during the same period Turkey was also one of the first countries that reached out to CAR, establishing diplomatic and economic ties with the newly independent states. The common historical and cultural heritage that CAR share with Turkey has also served to strengthen bilateral ties while providing Ankara with a strong soft-power asset. A growing economy such as that of Turkey understands the energy potential of the Caspian basin. Turkey's diplomatic efforts, which were focused on resolving the disputes between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, are primarily a reflection of Turkish energy interests. Not only does Ankara want to tap into the oil reserves of Central Asia but it also sees the potential of establishing an energy transit corridor between Central Asia and the EU—with Turkey as its main transit hub. Aside from these economic prospects Turkey's engagement in Central Asia is also governed by its neo-Ottoman ambitions. Although the two main vectors of Turkey's foreign expansion are directed towards the Balkans and the Middle East, Central Asia shouldn't be disregarded as a potential point of interest. Turkey is trying to reinvent itself as a regional power and a prominent leader in the Muslim world. The most recent Turkish presidential visit to Sarajevo shows how much support the Turkish government can muster on its periphery. Besides, the Turkish semi-democratic authoritarian model of government and society—which is used to be firmly secularist but is now increasingly dominated by a religious narrative—is very appealing to some of the Central Asian governments. However, any deeper engagement in Central Asia will be conditioned by the future of Russian-Turkish relations. For the moment, Russia has proven to be a good partner of convenience in the Middle East. Until Turkey feels safe on its south-eastern borders, or until it solidifies its power in its neighborhood, it is unlikely that the government will try to push any broader agenda onto the states in Central Asia. 

            Iran is in a similar position as Turkey regarding the Central Asian affairs. After the collapse of the USSR Central Asia became a huge geopolitical landscape not entirely familiar to Iran. Although the countries share similar historical heritage and cultures, the communist era made the `Stans unexpectedly secular and thus maintained distanced from the Iranian religious authorities. Nevertheless, in the last two decades Iran has been trying to re-establish its influence in CAR. Unfortunately, the religious character of the Iranian government is often perceived as a threatening factor among the region’s political elites. Though this is probably due to the communist legacy, it didn't stop Iran from altering its foreign politics. Unlike in the Middle East, Iran has surprisingly secularist approach towards Central Asia. Tehran strives to portray itself as a protector of Muslim population. However, in CAR the religious rhetoric of Iranian foreign policy has often been perceived as a harbinger of religious fundamentalism. The cautious political behavior demonstrated by the Central Asian governments has been recognized in Teheran; this has forced it to make alterations to its external narrative, which has resulted in the employment of a rather pragmatic approach regarding the politics of the five `Stans.

            Despite religious ambivalences Iran is an important partner for the economic development of CAR. The landlocked nature of Central Asia is a troublesome factor for the region’s economic development or for exporting any kind of products; Iran, on the other hand, can connect the Heartland region with the Arabian Sea, thus providing much-needed warm water port access to its northern neighbors. Similar to Turkey, Iran’s foreign policy approach to Central Asia will be governed by its partnership with Russia. Over the past few years Teheran has managed to create a very durable relationship with Moscow. Mutual interests in the Middle East, especially in Syria, allowed these two powerful countries to find common ground on national security issues. Furthermore, the growing Russian presence in the Middle East is welcomed by Iran since it can balance American and Israeli power in the area. Lastly, by restoring the sanctions and nullifying the nuclear deal, the U.S. actually pushed Iran further away towards Russia and China. The new-old American policy against Iran only cemented the country's skepticism and hostility towards the United States. Therefore in the upcoming years Teheran will most probably seek to deepen its relationship with Russia and China in order to secure its economic exports, security, and overall geopolitical position in the region. Because of such dependency and bilateral partnership with an important power, Iran will tread carefully in Russia’s backyard. It is safe to conclude that the Iranian penetration into Central Asia won't come quick or easily. Similarly to Turkey, Teheran is constrained by its contemporary partnership with a larger power whose favor is still very important on the Middle Eastern theatre of war.

            The last big player in Central Asian arena is China. In the past few decades Chinese interests have been focused on its eastern frontier towards Taiwan, the countries of Indochina, the Indian subcontinent, and the South China Sea. The Chinese western frontierhas lacked political and economic initiatives that could potentially preoccupy Beijing's mindset. The problems of Xinijang and especially Tibet are important security issues however; these regions don't bear the same economic significance as the coastal regions in the east. The absence of modern industry has allowed the Chinese leadership to deal with any potential problems in these areas with relative ease. But what about Central Asia—does the Beijing's lack of interest also extend to beyond its western borders?

            The answer to this question is somewhat blurred. China doesn't seem to have a grand political design that could potentially include its western neighbors. The country's characteristic politics of non-interference makes Chinese government to behave in a restrained manner regarding its obvious hegemonic potential. Nevertheless, China isn't indifferent towards Central Asia and the communist leadership definitely recognizes the potential of the Heartland, which has become especially obvious in the economic sphere.

            In recent years Chinese investors have become increasingly present in the Central Asian markets. Big infrastructure projects including highways and railways that are sponsored by the Chinese capital have been welcomed by the region’s political elites. As mentioned earlier, Central Asia is a vast, mostly unused industrial space that is waiting for big investments. For now, the Chinese economic approach to Central Asia is similar to that of its approach to Africa: Beijing is trying to establish a solid infrastructure network before it decides whether to invest more financially. Lastly and most importantly, Central Asia represents an important linkage point of the Belt and Road initiative. BRI, as it is known for short, represents a grand infrastructure and trade project launched by the Chinese government in order to connect China's production with Western markets. Though the maritime route doesn't concern CAR, the land route goes right across the entirety of the region. For Beijing the project bears great significance, henceforth we can expect that the government's interest for this region will grow as the project develops.

            The other implications for Chinese interests in Central Asia can be the Southern Corridor. As Frederick Starr explains in his recent Horizons article "Missing Links - Eurasia's Southern Corridor" this land route has the potential to connect Europe with Southeast Asia—in other words, to connect Hamburg with Bangkok. The route would also encompass the southern countries of Central Asia and could potentially represent an alternative to the grandiose BRI project. As Starr suggests, despite being active for centuries, the Southern Corridor has never gained traction in the sphere of international economics. One of the main factors could be that until recently the industrial potential of Southeast Asia was somewhat trivial in comparison to China; however, the rising power of India and other Southeast Asian states could change the desirability of implementing the Southern Corridor concept. Europe is a great producer and consumer; naturally, it will search for new markets or producers that can satisfy the economic needs of its citizens. BRI henceforth was quickly recognized as a good project for future industrial development though we shouldn't disregard other option such as the Southern Corridor. As Starr has discussed various difficulties of this project in his excellent article, I will only emphasize the geopolitical dimension. The Southern Corridor would provide India with great economic leverage against the rising power of China in the region. However since it is envisioned as a land route, one could argue that India could provide the needed infrastructure in all of the countries that the route would go through. Furthermore since the route would also go through Pakistan, which regularly sides with China on a number of important issues, India could face further difficulties. Although making comparisons between BRI and the Southern Corridor is still relatively early, since both routes are not fully developed, we can only conclude that the future of these trade routes will be determined by Western consumer markets. This would obviously greatly impact on the future of Sino-Indian relations.

            We shouldn't expect that China will engage in Central Asia's domestic political quarrels or try to assert its politics on the nations of this region. Although Beijing's primary concerns will remain in the economic sphere, security will play a significant part in China's politics towards Central Asia. As with all investors, security and political stability are important driving factors for new economic ventures. Although China will rely on Russia to keep things in order, it's not entirely impossible to expect that at one point the Chinese military will try to establish its role as a security provider in Central Asia. Despite China’s benevolent political nature of non-interference, economic development and large investments will consequently spread Chinese influence and soft power. The primary future issue for the Chinese leadership in Central Asia won't be on how to politically or economically approach the region; rather it will be focused on how to maintain its growing presence in the region without aggravating or rising suspicions among other regional powers. 

            Because of its geographical position Central Asia retained the status of a backwater throughout the twentieth century. In our contemporary era the same geographical constraints are still present, albeit the political character of the region has somewhat changed. The overwhelming dictum of globalization and technology is forcing CAR, as well as its neighbors, to alter foreign policy perception. Although these traits are applicable to the majority of those developing countries that are becoming more important players in international relations, there is one factor that makes Central Asia to stand out. The geopolitical pluralism found on the Heartland's borders is unseen anywhere else in the world. The 21st century is witnessing the onset of a multipolar world, and with it the rise of what are sometimes called revisionist powers. The four countries already mentioned in the article (namely Russia, China, Turkey, and Iran), along with Pakistan and India, are situated on the rim of Central Asia. Although none of them can at present seriously threaten the global supremacy of the United States, their regional rivalries will become more intensive as they accumulate more relative power. Finally, when we discuss geopolitical games and power plays across the Eurasian landmass we shouldn't disregard the status quo nature of the CARs. Because the same status quo which currently provides a balance of power among the Heartland competitors, it will probably become the main trial for the next Eurasian hegemon.

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