Global Rivalry and Power Dynamics in The Central Asian Region

125

Central Asia, previously perceived as a distant and politically inactive region, is now gaining prominence in global affairs. Spanning across vast territories, Central Asia encompasses countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, reaching from the Caspian Sea to Western China and from Afghanistan to Russia. In the past, Central Asia played a crucial role as a hub for the Silk Road trade routes, enabling the exchange of people, goods, and ideas between Europe and the Far East.

With powerful countries like China, Russia, and Iran surrounding it, Central Asia occupies a significant geostrategic position. Due to its strategic location, it plays a vital role as a transit route for energy resources, trade, and connectivity initiatives such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). With the aim of extending their reach in the region, Central Asia has emerged as a significant area for both geopolitical rivalry and collaboration among global powers.

The population of the region, which consists of five countries, is approximately 72 million. Kazakhstan has the highest population among these countries. The population of modern-day Central Asia is incredibly diverse, with the inclusion of European settlers who migrated during the times of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. This has greatly enriched the cultural fabric of the region.

Recent geopolitical changes, such as Russia- Ukraine war and China’s growing economic influence, have had a significant impact on the dynamics of Central Asia. Over time, Russia’s influence in the region has evolved, leading to more intricate dynamics in its relations with Central Asian states. Leaders in the region have displayed a certain hesitancy in fully endorsing Russian actions. China, on the other hand, has strategically taken advantage of economic opportunities and invested in infrastructure development projects, establishing itself as a significant player in Central Asia’s economic landscape.

Amidst the intricate dance of global powers, the significance of Central Asia only continues to rise. The strategic location, abundant energy resources, and pivotal role as a transit hub position it as a significant influencer in shaping the trajectory of global politics and economics. Nevertheless, the region’s geopolitical significance also presents challenges, as various interests compete for control and influence. Central Asia’s transformation from a historically significant crossroads to a modern-day geopolitical battleground highlights its changing position on the global stage.

Central Asia: A Strategic Nexus for Global Powers

China’s Comprehensive Cooperation Strategy in Central Asia

China’s strategic strategy in Central Asia relies on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and periphery diplomacy, with the goal of increasing regional influence. Since the BRI’s inception in 2013, China has tried to include Central Asia in its grand plan, making it a high priority within its foreign policy framework. China’s multidimensional involvement stresses the ideals of peaceful coexistence, mutual benefit, and non-interference, with the goal of establishing a sphere of influence via economic integration and infrastructural development.

Despite rivalry with Russia and geopolitical obstacles, China promotes collaboration and non-interference, respecting Central Asian governments’ ability to shape BRI projects to accordance with their national interests. Economic incentives and infrastructural development are critical weapons for promoting regional cooperation and strengthening China’s strategic position in Central Asia. China’s geopolitical objectives in the area are focused on protecting state integrity and securing regional stability to protect its own interests, which are consistent with the worries held by the United States and Russia about terrorism and Islamic extremism.

China’s economic engagement with Central Asia has seen remarkable growth, with bilateral trade increasing 25-fold over the last two decades to reach $38.6 billion in 2020. China’s investments in the region have also surged, totaling $40 billion by the end of 2020, primarily in sectors like energy, manufacturing, and infrastructure. The presence of Chinese firms in Central Asia has expanded significantly, with 7,700 operating in the region by the end of 2021. China aims to further deepen economic cooperation, targeting a bilateral trade volume of $70 billion by 2030. This partnership is poised to drive economic development and foster mutual prosperity in Central Asia. Ultimately, China intends to steadily enhance its political and economic power in Central Asia, perhaps displacing Russia as the region’s dominant commercial presence via investments and trade agreements.

US Strategy in Central Asia: Navigating Geopolitical Shifts

Since the Cold War ended, the United States’ attitude toward Central Asia has gone through many stages. Initially focused on strengthening sovereignty and security, the United States switched to increased security concerns after 9/11, creating military sites throughout the area. Central Asia has grown in strategic importance during this period of geopolitical struggle and the United States’ disengagement from Afghanistan. The United States intends to deepen connections with Central Asian countries, boost economic growth, counter-terrorism activities, and combat sanctions evasion. Key measures include utilizing trans-Eurasian trade lines, improving border security, and bolstering Kazakhstan’s multifaceted foreign policy. By participating in international forums and promoting regional cooperation, the United States exhibits a long-term commitment to the region’s stability and development.

The Complex Geopolitical Dance: Russia’s Power in Central Asia

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has retained a tight hold on its relationship with Central Asia, regarding the area as part of its sphere of influence. However, recent geopolitical upheavals, especially Russia’s participation in the Ukraine war, have caused a rethinking of regional dynamics. While Russia seeks to maintain control by obstructing multilateral organizations such as the OSCE and promoting authoritarian regimes that serve its interests, other global players such as the United States, China, Germany, and Turkey are actively engaging with Central Asian countries to expand their influence. Despite this rivalry, Russia remains a key participant, fostering stability while protecting its energy and security interests. Despite threats to its dominant position, Russia’s historical links and geopolitical posture assure that its influence will continue to dominate Central Asian developments.

EU’s Energy Diplomacy in Central Asia: Towards Diversification and Connectivity

In 2023, the European Union (EU) will continue its strategic engagement with Central Asia, concentrating on energy cooperation to diversify its energy supplies and minimize reliance on large suppliers such as Russia. Central Asian countries, particularly Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, have abundant energy resources, making them ideal partners for the EU’s energy diversification ambitions.

The EU’s Central Asia policy has changed throughout time, with a focus on increasing collaboration via partnership and cooperation agreements (PCAs) and enhanced partnership and cooperation agreements (EPCAs). Energy cooperation is an important component of this plan, with an emphasis on sustainable development of energy resources, diversity of supply channels, and technological exchange. While Russia and China compete in Central Asia, the EU remains committed to strengthening regional energy cooperation. Projects like the Southern Gas Corridor and the Trans-Caspian Pipeline seek to lessen Europe’s dependency on Russian supply and improve energy security. Despite the hurdles, the EU’s strategic strategy emphasizes the significance of sustaining peace and security in Central Asia while capitalizing on its energy potential to fulfill energy diversification objectives.

India’s emergence as a key player in Central Asia

India has recently formed a strong and mutually advantageous cooperation with the Central Asian area, which includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. This shift has been fueled by historical, cultural, and economic linkages, which were reinforced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2015 visit to all five Central Asian nations. The COVID-19 epidemic and evolving global dynamics have strengthened collaboration between India and Central Asia, as indicated by the third India-Central Asia Dialogue in 2021. This discourse focused on the “4Cs” – commerce, capacity development, connection, and contact – and covered a wide range of topics, including security, trade, energy, healthcare, and climate change.

India and Central Asia’s strategic engagement includes military and security relations, economic initiatives, and energy cooperation. India’s pledge to a $1 billion line of credit for Central Asian projects demonstrates its commitment to strengthening regional cooperation. Initiatives such as the Chabahar Port for trade expansion and the TAPI gas pipeline show India’s proactive attitude to connectivity and energy security. Security cooperation, especially in maintaining a calm Afghanistan, is critical. Both parties highlight the necessity for a representative government in Afghanistan and work together to defeat terrorism and drug trafficking. Furthermore, India and Central Asia emphasize energy security via capacity creation and connection improvement, with a particular emphasis on renewable energy and information technology partnership.
Examining Global Powers’ Approaches in Central Asia

Central Asia’s Economic Landscape: Navigating Global Actors and Opportunities

The economic scenario in Central Asia is closely intertwined with the involvement of global actors, each playing a significant role in shaping the region’s economic landscape. Central Asia, comprising countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, is strategically located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, making it a pivotal area for trade, investment, and geopolitical influence. Among the major global actors involved in Central Asia, Russia stands out as a historical and influential partner, particularly due to its energy resources and historical ties with the region. Russia remains a key trading partner for several Central Asian countries, including Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan.

Understanding the trade scenario of Central Asia. Source: Compiled from https://www.focus-economics.com

Global Powers’ Strategic Maneuvers in Central Asia: A Geopolitical Chessboard

Major Powers strategically pursue diplomatic engagements, economic incentives, and infrastructure development to bolster their influence in Central Asia. Nevertheless, Central Asian states are actively asserting their independence, influencing global power dynamics, and pursuing their own interests in this strategically significant region. Essentially, the political landscape in Central Asia showcases an intricate web of power dynamics between major global players, as they compete for economic, security, and geopolitical benefits. Amidst the changing geopolitical landscape, Central Asian states face complex decisions as they strive to protect their independence and promote economic growth by carefully managing their relationships with major powers.

Russia, China, and the United States are vying for influence in Central Asia. For years, Russia has held significant influence in the region due to its historical ties and strong economic presence. However, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has quickly emerged as a formidable force, greatly expanding its economic foothold. Meanwhile, the United States places a strong emphasis on security cooperation while also striving to uphold a strategic presence.

Recent changes in the geopolitical landscape, such as Russia’s involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, have led major powers to adjust their strategies in Central Asia. Central Asian states are becoming increasingly hesitant towards Russia as a result of its actions in Ukraine, while China is seizing economic opportunities. The U.S. is reassessing its approach, placing a strong emphasis on security cooperation while also carefully navigating the complexities of the region. Central Asian states carefully navigate their relationships with major powers, striving to maintain their sovereignty while also pursuing economic opportunities. While maintaining economic ties with Russia, they carefully welcome China’s investments. At the same time, they actively work with the U.S. to strengthen security cooperation and expand diplomatic relations.

In summary, the emergence of Central Asia on the global stage underscores its significant value, driven by its favorable geographical position, abundant resources, and shifting geopolitical landscape. Central Asian countries are at the center of a complex geopolitical interaction, with major players like China, Russia, the United States, and the European Union vying for influence. The geopolitical landscape of Central Asia is an intricate web of interests, where major nations strive to safeguard their holdings through both competition and collaboration. As Central Asian states navigate their way through this intricate network of power dynamics, the region’s significance continues to expand, shaping the trajectory of global politics in the twenty-first century.

– S. M. Saifee Islam is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in Eurasia Review [Link]