Important developments are taking place around Central Asia against a background of geopolitical tension in the Middle East. Steps taken by superpowers in terms of the region are in global spotlight. It appears that Russia, China and the US have entered a new stage of their struggle for the region. Political, economic, energy and military aspects play a critical role here. This causes several questions in the context of the region’s destiny.
Moscow’s power display
U.S.-based The National Interest journal posted an article titled “Central Asia Can’t Be Forgotten” in its August issue (see: James L. Jones Jr. Central Asia Can’t Be Forgotten / www.nationalinterest.org, 14 August 2013). This warning by General James L. Jones is no coincidence. The reason is that geopolitical struggle for the region has stepped into a new stage. The West, Russia and China have intensified efforts concerning the region. New features are evident in Moscow’s and Beijing’s policies on Central Asia.
The Diplomat, a popular magazine within Japanese diplomatic circles, claims that Russia is showing off its power in Central Asia (see: Farooq Yousaf. Russia ’s Central Asia Power Play / www.thediplomat.com, 2 September, 2013). In an article called “Russia ’s Central Asia Power Play”, the magazine says that Russia is providing the billion dollar military aid package to Kyrgyzstan. ”This support came after that country’s parliament voted to force U.S. forces out of the country by closing down the Manas Transit Center (MTC) before July next year.” It also says that official Bishkek prolonged the lease for the Russian military base in Kant until 2032.
”Tajikistan was another beneficiary of Russian generosity and military support in Central Asia, as the recipient of an arms deal worth $200 million.” The Kremlin has close political, economic and military links with Kazakhstan. Astana is, in fact, one of the main contributors to the idea of Eurasian integration and Customs Union. Kazakhstan is an active member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Moscow and Astana enjoy shared views on regional security issues.
Turkmenistan is neutral. However, it would not be correct to expect any anti-Russian moves from official Ashgabat. On the contrary, it has always taken Russia’s interests into account. Uzbekistan is another, complicated story. Official Tashkent is not pro-Western. Instead, it has inclined to cooperation with Moscow with respect to security issues recently. As a whole, it is apparent that Central Asian countries need foreign support in defense and security aspects.
The point is, as Iranian Iras edition writes, that the security issue has taken topicality in the region (see: Эхсан Тагаваи-Ния.Региональная интеграция как орудие влияния России в государствах Средней Азии / www.inosmi.ru, 18 July, 2013).This is why, in order to increase its influence, Moscow puts emphasis on defense and security cooperation with regional states. Naturally, against a background of this the process of expansion of energy and economic relations is intensifying. And this, in general, is called ”humanitarian cooperation”.
Experts divide the threats faced by Central Asia into three groups (see: the above article). The first group includes indirect risks and the possibility of violation of state borders. The second group features the intensification of terror organizations’ activities, while the third one includes the deepening of contradictions between Central Asian states.
Russia’s strategy to tackle these threats can be divided into two aspects. The first is ensuring security of regional states. The second is fighting against direct and indirect threats to national security, and preventing terrorism. The Kremlin has undertaken very serious tasks in pursuance of its interests in the region. In this context, official Moscow’s making vast military investment in Central Asian states is quite understandable. On the other side, Moscow understands that it needs to renew the structure of the security system in general to achieve its strategic goals in the region. Observations show that in order to get this done Russia is using two factors. The first is strengthening the Collective Security Treaty Organization and building real mechanisms of its activities. The second is ensuring maximum control over the use and transportation of regional energy resources. But Moscow faces serious rivals on both fronts.
China’s delicate steps
They are the USA, NATO and China. Washington’s pulling its military out of Afghanistan does not mean the USA is completely leaving the region. On the contrary, it is evident that Washington is trying – in a more subtle and comprehensive manner – to increase its influence in the region (see: Джошуа Кучера. США-Центральная Азия: Где обоснуются американскиевоенные после ухода с базы Манас? / www.russian.eurasianet.org, 17 August, 2013. Denis Corboy, William Courtney, Richard Kauzlarich & Kenneth Yalowitz. Changing Strategic Interests in the South Caucasus / www.the-american-interest.com, 31 May, 2013).
Washington looks at the Central Asian region in the context of struggle with Russia and China for geopolitical influence. The primary factor for the USA here is preserving its role of a super power. Washington can even reach consensus with its rivals on this issue, but it will never quit its pretentions to regional leadership in a greater sense. The Kremlin is well aware of this, so the USA is the major rival for Moscow in the region.
NATO’s mission in Central Asia fully serves the West’s geopolitical interests. The USA and Europe will certainly use NATO as a tool of military pressure. It should be noted that the military aspect will for a long time be of critical importance in the region. NATO will try to make its military presence felt in Central Asia. This definitely means that tough competition – overt or covert – will make itself felt in Central Asia.
And, finally, China. The country’s president Xi Jinping visited Central Asia. He signed several agreements in Turkmenistan, and the two countries agreed that Ashgabat will triple gas supply to Beijing until 2020. This means 65 million cubic meters of gas per year. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow said China is a key partner for Turkmenistan (see: Мурат Садыков.Туркменистан: Визит китайского лидера цементирует отношения в энергетической сфере / www.russian.eurasianet.org, 5 sentyabr). Experts emphasize the fact that the more gas Turkmenistan exports to China, the less it gives to Russia. This, definitely, annoys Moscow.
Jinping is determined to develop China’s relations with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan too. His visits to these countries will mark the signing of concrete cooperation agreements. This signals Russia’s emerging as China’s main rival in Central Asia.
Such circumstances prompt Russia to be more active in Central Asia. So there is logic behind the Kremlin’s recent moves. But Russia’s rivals are also taking serious measures. China-U.S. confrontation may deepen in the near future. The point is that Beijing’s struggle against the US is tougher in the areas that are geographically close to its own borders.
Washington remains committed to its plans. This means that the struggle for Central Asia between Russia, the USA and China can aggravate. So Moscow’s intensifying its efforts and showing off power there does not mean its victory. There is a difficult struggle ahead.