CENTRAL ASIA. Recent ideological and strategic initiatives of the USA, Russia and especially China, indicate that the scenario of a big geopolitical game in Central Asia is in the writing. The political course of Central Asian states and the ambiguous position of local elites characterise the muse of the future of the region, which is of high interest to the superpowers.
Russia as an heir of the Soviet Union has a leverage of influence and pressure over the region and offered distinct models of political and economic integration to the Central Asian republics, while China has intensified setting up initiatives in this direction in the last 10 years. The USA, in turn, prefers to limit to the military with anti-drug cultivation and smuggling initiatives as well as anti-terrorist cooperation in the region.
At the same time, a significant reduction in US military presence in Afghanistan after 2014 reflects the desire of Washington to shift much of the responsibility for the security of the region to Russia and China, among other countries. Without doubt, in the emerging situation, the USA will not play a leading role in Central Asia. Most likely, Washington will operate as a “secondary” player.
The present Central Asian leaders regard China, which revitalised the project of the Silk Road Economic Belt, as a more alluring partner. A tour to Central Asian states made by Chinese president Xi Jinping in September 2013 brought them an investment of about 50 billion dollar. Moreover, it is noteworthy that China has always persistently pursued a strategy of economic cooperation with the region, which, nevertheless, was not yet beneficial in economic terms for the local population. Few will doubt that the drive for economic cooperation harbours serious imperial ambitions of China. Even though the economic “proximity” may be beneficial and advantageous with China for the personal bank accounts of the Central Asian elites, in the long-term it may result in menacing not only economies of local states but also even their statehood.
Though the Chinese leadership makes all attempts to present the project as a revival of the ancient trade route, there is no guarantee that under the guise of economic cooperation, the so-called “new-colonialist” economic expansion, which is been carried out by China in Africa and South America, may be concealed. The territorial proximity of China, contrary to the other said continents, adds sovereignty and territorial integrity threats to this issue. In strategic terms, increased economic cooperation with China in short-term perspective will lead Central Asia to greater dependence on Beijing.
Furthermore, the withdrawal of US troops from the region can enhance Chinese “opportunities” for geopolitical manoeuvring. It seems that Beijing is ready for these acts as it can be also viewed in the light of China’s policy in strengthening regional organizations.
Likewise, the departure of US military from the region could benefit Russian aspirations, as it will have its chance to strengthen its geopolitical influence in Central Asia. New opportunities are add to the traditional strong position of Russia in the region. For example, while USA shut down its military base “Manas” in Kyrgyzstan, Russia on the other hand has increased significant military assistance to the country. Though Kremlin’s geopolitical project in Central Asia has faced the emerging challenges from contenders as China, USA, Turkey and Iran, its main trump card still is the shared history, culture and language, which can serve to form a common economic and political space. As a leverage of pressure, Moscow could also choose to place restrictions upon immigrants coming from Central Asia. As the states are heavily dependant on remittances, this might be a hard blow. However, up to the moment the integration process and construction of relationship with Central Asian states is shortsighted as the Russian-led integration model is far from being successful.
China instead will keep on relying on its financial advantageous resources in its approach to the region.
It seems that the further struggle will turn towards a weakening of the US’ position in the region. There are experts who consider that the strategy of the US will be more “neutralizing” than “offensive” as Central Asia becomes an area of secondary importance for the US. However, other analysts argue that the Far East and the Pacific Rim remains Washington’s main geopolitical space, where China plays the role of its main adversary forcing the US to find some countermeasures to the growing Chinese presence in Central Asia.
There is almost null probability of direct confrontation between USA, Russia and China. Moreover, Russia and China may coordinate (they form tandem when they need) its efforts to “repel” American interests in the region in the next years. However, even so, the interests of Russia and China in the region will undoubtedly clash in the further future.