How Rising Great Power Tensions Will Affect Central Asia

This arti­cle is part of a col­lab­o­ra­tion between the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs.

The recent esca­la­tion in diplo­mat­ic ten­sions between the U.S., EU, China, and Russia is an unwel­come devel­op­ment for Central Asia. With the recent com­pli­cat­ed vis­it to Moscow by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell marred by aggres­sive bilat­er­al rhetoric, the White House labelling China as its major com­peti­tor, and recent ver­bal sword­play between President Biden and President Putin, it seems that a new “iron cur­tain” is quick­ly descend­ing between the west, on one side, and Russia and China, on the oth­er. These states are sig­nalling a readi­ness to engage in a strate­gic com­pe­ti­tion which will pos­si­bly spread into dif­fer­ent regions of the world, includ­ing Central Asia.

External region­al part­ners may start insist­ing that they select one of them as a major polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic ally, scup­per­ing cur­rent efforts at mul­ti-vec­torism. Such poli­cies will lead to increas­ing pres­sure on Central Asian lead­ers to clear­ly dis­play their polit­i­cal alliances and to adhere to norms estab­lished with­in that camp.

This is already start­ing to occur. During his speech at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, President Putin stat­ed unequiv­o­cal­ly: “We will nev­er tol­er­ate [any­one] using Russia’s rich gifts to dam­age the Russian Federation.” While he did not name any par­tic­u­lar coun­try in his speech, it appeared that the state­ment was direct­ed at the for­mer Soviet republics, warn­ing them to refrain from main­tain­ing close part­ner­ships with Russia’s adver­saries. As sev­er­al post-Soviet coun­tries like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have entered into a long-term con­fronta­tion with Russia and are seek­ing alliances with the U.S. and European coun­tries, Moscow has been inten­si­fy­ing its efforts to retain its sphere of influ­ence, espe­cial­ly by inte­grat­ing them into the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

At the same time, for­mer U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attempt­ed to ral­ly Central Asians against Beijing dur­ing his vis­it to the region in February 2020, par­tic­u­lar­ly with regards to the human rights sit­u­a­tion in Xinjiang. He encour­aged region­al states “to join us in press­ing for an imme­di­ate end to this repres­sion.” Earlier, in October 2019, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross warned that Uzbekistan’s desire to join the EAEU may com­pli­cate and extend the process of the country’s acces­sion to the World Trade Organization. Despite the fact that the new U.S. Administration led by President Biden has not yet clar­i­fied its pol­i­cy on Central Asia, it seems that his approach will not change sub­stan­tial­ly from the pre­vi­ous administration’s, and Washington will seek for the reduc­tion of Russian and Chinese influ­ence in the region. 

China usu­al­ly tries to avoid open­ly crit­i­ciz­ing the activ­i­ties of exter­nal pow­ers in the region, pre­fer­ring to dis­cuss sen­si­tive issues behind closed doors dur­ing bilat­er­al meet­ings.  However, Chinese-Central Asian joint offi­cial state­mentsdemon­strat­ing a readi­ness to “oppose inter­fer­ence in oth­er coun­tries’ inter­nal affairs and uphold fair­ness and jus­tice in the world” appear to be aimed at the United States and the European Union. In addi­tion, Chinese offi­cials often express their con­cern about the grow­ing U.S. mil­i­tary pres­ence in the Asia-Pacific. One way to reduce Western forces there would be to expand secu­ri­ty engage­ment in Central Asia.

Regionalism has also been on the rise in Central Asia since Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to pow­er in Uzbekistan in 2016. Moving away from iso­la­tion and con­fronta­tion with the region, Uzbekistan has aimed to estab­lish a new coop­er­a­tive approach toward its neigh­bors. The five Central Asian republics launched a plat­form for annu­al con­sul­ta­tive meet­ings among heads of state in 2018, the first such ini­tia­tive with­out sup­port from exter­nal pow­ers. Before this, the preva­lent ten­den­cy in the region was bilat­er­al diplo­ma­cy and nego­ti­a­tions to solve press­ing issues. This offers a renewed hope that Central Asian states can col­lec­tive­ly address com­mon chal­lenges such as water dis­tri­b­u­tion, delim­i­ta­tion of bor­ders, low con­nec­tiv­i­ty, cli­mate change, and poor infrastructure.

Boosted region­al coop­er­a­tion in polit­i­cal, socio-eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al spheres can sub­stan­tial­ly strength­en Central Asia and main­tain its resilience in the face of con­tem­po­rary chal­lenges and threats, includ­ing great pow­er com­pe­ti­tion. Multilateralism will allow the region to devel­op a strong, uni­fied voice in pro­mot­ing its inter­ests while avoid­ing being drawn into the zero-sum games of great powers.

However, Russia and China have been main­ly pri­or­i­tiz­ing bilat­er­al rela­tions with the region, along­side their own mul­ti­lat­er­al frame­works such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the afore­men­tioned CSTO. The estab­lish­ment of effec­tive intra-region­al coop­er­a­tion mech­a­nisms poten­tial­ly coun­ter­acts great pow­er efforts to lock region­al states into rela­tions of depen­dence. The fact that the U.S. and the EU are pro­mot­ing the fur­ther deep­en­ing of region­al coop­er­a­tion, may lead Russia and China to view them as a threat. This may explain the new 2018 Russia-Central Asia plat­form and the 2020 China-Central Asia counterpart.

Finally, the esca­la­tion of con­fronta­tion between exter­nal great pow­ers might threat­en the inter­nal polit­i­cal sta­bil­i­ty of region­al actors. Major pow­ers can active­ly sup­port and patron­ize inter­nal polit­i­cal groups who will sup­port their inter­ests. This is already hap­pen­ing in Kyrgyzstan. For exam­ple, the issue of the mil­i­tary pres­ence of the U.S. and Russia there was an impor­tant fac­tor in desta­bi­liz­ing the coun­try. During the past 15 years, Kyrgyzstan has faced three rev­o­lu­tion­ary regime changes. Moreover, it has become tra­di­tion for all lead­ing can­di­dates for the Kyrgyz pres­i­den­cy to vis­it Moscow and oth­er impor­tant for­eign cap­i­tals on the eve of deci­sive elec­tions or cru­cial polit­i­cal events. According to some reports, for­mer Kyrgyz President Jeenbekov can­celled his planned vis­it to the U.S. after talks in September 2019 with Russian lead­er­ship. Experts also note that Sadyr Japarov had per­son­al­ly worked with Chinese nationals,with some 1 mil­lion Kyrgyzstani som ($11,794 USD) raised by his 2020 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign donat­ed by a Chinese investor hold­ing Kyrgyz citizenship.

Altogether, Central Asia is enter­ing a peri­od of grow­ing geopo­lit­i­cal rival­ry between its major exter­nal part­ners. This will pos­si­bly spread con­fronta­tion between the U.S., Russia and China into Central Asia, estab­lish­ing alliances and forc­ing region­al actors to pick sides – height­en­ing the risk of desta­bi­liza­tion. But there are still alter­na­tive options for the region. The fur­ther deep­en­ing of Central Asian coop­er­a­tion, for­eign pol­i­cy coor­di­na­tion, and trust-build­ing mea­sures can act as a bul­wark against great pow­er destabilization.

The views expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author alone and do not nec­es­sar­i­ly reflect the posi­tion of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-par­ti­san orga­ni­za­tion that seeks to pub­lish well-argued, pol­i­cy-ori­ent­ed arti­cles on American for­eign pol­i­cy and nation­al secu­ri­ty priorities.

Akram Umarov, Foreign Policy Research Institute

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