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Foreign Policy

No Win Expected for US in Central Asia

Jul 02 , 2020
  • Sajjad Ashraf

    Former Adjunct Professor, National University of Singapore

As the world watches US-China relations degrade amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, few observers are paying attention to renewed American interest in the Central Asian Republics. The area, formerly a part of the Soviet Union, comprises of five countries: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Launching a new Central Asia strategy in February, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the region in one of his only three trips abroad since the Covid-19 outbreak earlier this year.

The region’s abundance of hydrocarbons, its economic promise, and its location which borders both China and Russia, makes the region a subject of significant international attention - the region is Russia’s underbelly and China’s backyard. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has remained the dominant power in the region. But during the last two decades, China has developed strong energy and other economic interests, making stability in the region one of its primary concerns. Central Asia is a fundamental link in China’s economic and strategic reach across the Eurasian landmass. The US earlier used Uzbekistan as an alternate freight route to Afghanistan when access through Pakistan got disrupted. Both China and Russia, deeply entrenched in the region are unlikely to cede space. 

Since establishing diplomatic relations with these nations in 1991, China has already become the region’s largest trading partner and investor. China needs energy, minerals and raw material from the region. In Kazakhstan alone, China has invested over $70 billion, mainly in the oil sector, which is 80 percent of investments made in the Central Asian Republic. Even though Turkmenistan does not share a border with China, it is perhaps the economy most reliant on China, sending four-fifths of its gas production – its main export earner – to China. In addition to providing energy and a market for Chinese goods, Central Asia is also a critical part of China’s reach towards Europe through the Belt and Road Initiative. Investing in Central Asia also sits alongside its investment in Xinjiang – a province in Western China that shares ethnic, cultural, and religious links with Central Asia – in a bid to bring stability to the area. 

China is the main – and sometime the only – source of prosperity in the impoverished region. And although the creation of favorable conditions does translate into political influence for Beijing, China does not seem to have any ambition to remake local politics in the area. The countries are still governed under authoritative regimes, allowing the governing elite disproportionate opportunities to enrich themselves at the expense of general population. Deals struck sometimes secretly by the elite are not always easy to explain. As resentment grows against the local elite, China becomes a target by proxy. There is grudging praise, however, for the extent and quality of projects undertaken with Chinese assistance that provide jobs and benefits to the local populations. Indeed, many of the pockets of affluence in these countries are the creation of Chinese-funded projects or Chinese businesses. 

While China spreads its economic influence, Russia’s influence over the area as a security provider – a throwback to the Soviet era – remains. Such a position shields threats to the Russian territory and also works as a control mechanism over the former Soviet republics. Garnering support in the region is, therefore, a tough mission for the US. 

Remaining passive in the region for many years, the US now seems to realize that unless it becomes more active in the wake of its impending exit from Afghanistan, it will have little stake left in this strategic region. Except for possible counterterrorism cooperation, there is little on which the three agree. The US attempt is therefore a zero-sum game in competition with Russia and China – a game with two entrenched players that the US has little chance of winning.  

American officials’ visits, especially during the Trump era, “tend to be heavy on aggressive warnings and light on promises,” according to some commentators.

For example, the US’s paltry $1 million for technical assistance to Uzbekistan, announced during Mr. Pompeo’s visit during February this year is dwarfed by the enormous size of Chinese commitments. In a first cabinet level mission to the region in half a decade, Secretary Pompeo was keen to warn the regional states against cooperation with China, but suggested no realistic alternatives. Clearly referring to American attempts to play its big power game against China and Russia, the foreign minister of Uzbekistan said, “we would really not like to feel on ourselves unfavorable political consequences in relation to some competition in our region between large powers.” 

The US has little chance of making its presence in Central Asia. 

A new “great game” is now underway in the region, expecting leaders to hedge their bets when it comes to aligning with Beijing or Washington. The recently released “United States Strategic Approach to The People’s Republic of China” underscores American paranoiac assumptions based on China’s rise. The paper is a declaration of a new “Cold War,” which the US is unlikely to win. Time for passing the baton has come. 

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