• Login

Balanced Geopolitics

Emеrging Gеostratеgic Alliancеs in Cеntral Asia 2024

19 January 2024

Historically, Central Asia, comprising Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, has played a pivotal role as a geostrategic hub, connecting Asia and Europe through its infrastructure, trade, and energy networks. Being the world's largest landlocked region, Central Asia is surrounded by influential neighbors such as Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and other Caucasian countries. This unique geographical positioning presents significant challenges and opportunities for the region.

In 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union posed significant challenges for the countries of Central Asia, both internally and externally. Geopolitically, the region bolstered its infrastructure through closer ties with China, while economically, Central Asian nations endeavored to attract investments and development support from Western sources.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, two pivotal countries in Central Asia, adopted a "multidirectional foreign policy" characterized by a pragmatic, non-ideological approach. This strategic stance enabled Kazakhstan and its neighboring countries to align with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which is dominated by Russia, and become integral members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), led by China.

In the past, Western international actors displayed minimal interest in Central Asia. However, the situation has undergone a significant transformation, as the region has now emerged onto the geopolitical stage, becoming a focal point in the political geography of the Eurasian region. This shift was notably demonstrated when, during the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 2023, a US President held a historic meeting with the leaders of the five Central Asian countries - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. President Joe Biden emphasized the significance of this meeting, marking it as a "historic moment." Furthermore, although the (C5+1) group has existed since 2015, the international dialogue format had previously been limited to discussions at the level of foreign ministries.

Thе sudden US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, along with the ongoing Russian-Chinese competition in the region, has created new opportunities for alliances in Central Asia. This shift has transformed the region from a "forgotten area" into an emerging area for a "great game." However, Central Asia is not without its challenges. These include conflicts along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, water disputes with Afghanistan, and the repercussions of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Despite these obstacles, Central Asian leaders are actively working towards institutionalizing their alliances, particularly with third-world countries. They are also organizing annual meetings to facilitate trade and investment.

Thе Escalating Importancе of thе Middlе Corridor

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has necessitated the exploration of alternative routes to enhance economic flexibility and diversify trade links. As a result, a multimodal transport corridor, known as the "Middle Corridor" or the China–Central Asia–West Asia Economic Corridor, has emerged. This initiative, also referred to as the Trans-Caspian East-West-Middle Corridor Initiative, connects European markets to Asia through the countries of Central Asia, the Caspian Sea, and the Caucasus. Importantly, it serves as a significant competitor to the routes controlled by Russia.

With the implementation of the right policies, the Middle Corridor, which links Chinese and European markets via Central Asia and the Caucasus, has the potential to invigorate regional trade and significantly improve connectivity for the countries along the route. Notably, the corridor can play a crucial role in providing resilience and route diversification for the China-Europe container trade. This, in turn, can shield countries and supply chains from geopolitical shocks, as highlighted in a World Bank report released in November 2023.

However, on another note, the same route encounters significant challenges related to borders and cargo transportation. In response, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey joined forces and signed a roadmap in November 2022 to prioritize crucial investments along the Middle Corridor. Despite being a regional corridor, the Middle Corridor in Central Asia is set on increasing the trade of goods by 40% before 2030, aiming to reach a volume of 11 million tons. This growth is expected to be driven by high-value commodities such as fertilizers, chemicals, machinery, and metals, with the potential to substantially elevate the rate of freight movement.

Rеviving thе Cеntral Asia–China Gas Pipеlinе D

China relies heavily on imports for its natural gas, with 40% of its supply coming from liquefied natural gas (LNG), long-distance pipelines, and sea transportation. The largest pipeline in the region is the Central Asia-China Gas Pipeline D, which passes through Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Currently, PetroChina, China's state-owned oil and gas company, is preparing to resume the construction and operation of Pipeline D in 2024. The financing for Pipeline D, originally planned to tap into the Galkynysh gas field in Turkmenistan, one of the world's largest gas reserves, is provided by the China Development Bank. During the China-Central Asia summit held in May 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed establishing an energy development partnership between China and the Central Asian countries.

At thе samе timе, China is currently exploring the Russian proposal to provide gas to Central Asian countries through Kazakhstan to meet their domestic demands. If implemented, this initiative would bolster China's gas pipelines with ample reserves. However, both proposals necessitate extensive negotiations encompassing export and import expenses, infrastructure development, and long-term sustainability.

It is noteworthy that China stands as Kyrgyzstan's largest trading partner, accounting for 40% of the Central Asian nation's debt. This economic interdependence is emblematic of the challenges faced by several countries entangled in the debt trap resulting from China's Belt and Road Initiative. Consequently, the inability to repay Chinese loans has allowed Beijing to secure regional advantages and mining rights within the territories of both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, prompting deep-seated concerns across Central Asian nations.

India's Efforts to Establish Prеsеncе

The strategic and economic importance of Central Asia holds immense value for India, given the deep cultural and historical ties between the two sides. The inaugural Central Asian-Indian Summit took place on January 27, 2022, where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with the Presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The summit resulted in the signing of the "Delhi Declaration,” which encompasses three key decisions.

Firstly, regarding Afghanistan, the leaders of the six countries reiterated their strong support for a peaceful, secure, and stable Afghanistan with a truly representative and inclusive government.

Secondly, on connectivity, the leaders agreed to utilize the services of the Shahid Beheshti Terminal at the Chabahar Port to facilitate trade between the land-locked Central Asian countries and India/other external markets.

Thirdly, structures were established for coordination, and an agreement was reached to institutionalize the Summit mechanism by holding it every 2 years.

The summit will focus on trade, cybersecurity, digital infrastructure, rare earth elements, communications, counterterrorism, and drug trafficking. India's growing alliance with Central Asia faces intense competition from China and the Belt and Road Initiative, which has deeply penetrated the countries of Central Asia.

Symbolic Exit from thе Russian Orbit of Influеncе

Historically, Russia has played the role of a "security guarantor" for the Central Asian countries through its involvement in the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. This involvement is exemplified by the significant presence of the Russian military in Kyrgyzstan and the substantial financial contributions from migrant workers in Russia, which have played a crucial role in the economies of the region, representing about 30% of Kyrgyzstan's GDP.

Furthermore, Russia underscored its influence by hosting the Russia-Central Asia Summit in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, on October 14, 2022. During this summit, Russia diplomatically asserted that Europe and the United States may not be viable long-term partners for the Central Asian countries.

However, there has been a noticeable shift in the overall regional policy of Central Asian countries. This shift was evident when the President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, welcomed Russian President Putin in Astana on November 9 and addressed him in his native language. This diplomatic gesture served as a demonstration that Central Asia is no longer merely viewed as the "backyard" of Russia; instead, the region is striving to assert its historical, social, and cultural sovereignty.

Thе Middlе East Pivoting to Cеntral Asia

Regional cooperation was agreed upon bеtwееn sоmе Arab and Gulf countriеs and thе Cеntral Asian countriеs in thе first summit hеld in Saudi Arabia on July 19, 2023. Thе main theme of the summit revolved around historical and racial commonalitiеs, and regional Islamic unity bеtwееn the sides. Thе 2023-2027 cooperation plan which was agreed upon, еncompassеs dialoguе on sеcurity and diplomacy, along with cooperation in investment and business sectors. Turkеy also intеnsifiеd its diplomatic and military ambitions in Cеntral Asia, especially considering thе substantial trade volumе bеtwееn thе two sides (4.7% with Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, 5.3% with Kyrgyzstan, and 6.4% with Uzbеkistan). Simultanеously, thе hostilе rеlations bеtwееn thе Unitеd Statеs and Iran promptеd Tehran to strengthen its economic and sеcurity ties with thе Cеntral Asian countriеs.

Furthеrmorе, thе rеcеnt United Nations Climate Changе Confеrеncе "COP28," hеld in thе Unitеd Arab Emiratеs in November 2023, urgеd governments of thе Middle East and Central Asian countriеs to attеmpt to adapt to climatе changе and rеducе thеir contributions to global warming. According to rеcеnt studiеs by thе Intеrnational Monеtary Fund on how to adapt to climatе changе and mitigatе еnvironmеntally harmful еmissions, thеrе is an urgеnt nееd to invеst up to 4% of thе total GDP of countriеs annually to еnhancе thе capacity to adapt adequately to climate changе and achieve environmental emission rеduction goals by 2030.

Expanding Europеan Nеighborhood Policy (ENP)

The European Union (EU) is currently prioritizing its "neighborhood" policy to strengthen its relations with Central Asian countries. These countries have been incorporated into the broader European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). On June 2, 2023, the President of Kyrgyzstan, Sadyr Japarov, held a meeting with the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, in Cholpon Ata, Kyrgyzstan, as part of the Central Asia-European Union Summit. The summit was attended by the President of Kazakhstan, Qasym-Jomart Tokayev, and his counterparts from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Emomali Rahmon. Turkmenistan was represented by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nurmuhammed Amannepesov. At the conclusion of the summit, a joint statement was adopted, encompassing areas of trade, mutual investments, technology transfer, and digital communication.

The European Union is notably utilizing diplomatic channels to strengthen its ties with Central Asian countries, rather than resorting to imposing sanctions, especially in the context of their bilateral relations with Russia. Additionally, the EU is actively engaged in developing the "Caspian Sea-Black Sea Pipeline" and establishing an "electronic Silk Road" to integrate energy markets in Central Asia. However, the EU's progress in establishing a political presence in the geopolitical landscape of Central Asia has been relatively slow, which may limit its influence compared to China and Russia.

Japan's Quеst for a Foothold in Cеntral Asia

Japan has recently shown a growing interest in strengthening its ties with Central Asian countries, signaling its entry into the geopolitical arena. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is set to attend an inaugural summit with the leaders of the Central Asian Group of Five (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) during his planned visit to Central Asia in 2024. This move is significant as it underscores Japan's increasing focus on the region.

Furthermore, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov visited Tokyo on November 2, 2023, with the aim of reducing Central Asian countries' dependence on Russia and China. During a joint press conference, the Japanese prime minister stressed the importance of fostering alliances with Central Asia, particularly in the areas of sustainable development, infrastructure support, human resource development, and promoting various exchanges between the two peoples.

In the future, Japan could play a significant role in developing transport routes in the Caspian Sea that pass through Russia. Additionally, Tokyo might offer necessary measures to promote the use of renewable energy and reduce carbon emissions in Central Asian countries.

In conclusion, the current geopolitical changes have compelled Central Asian countries to move away from relative isolation and adopt a strategic position that enhances their presence. However, navigating a world fraught with conflicts and geopolitical shocks necessitates Central Asian countries to carefully evaluate the pros and cons of their multidirectional foreign policy. As multipolarity continues to shape global politics, Central Asia must adeptly balance its foreign policy and forge alliances without jeopardizing its delicate equilibrium with Russia, China, the United States, Turkey, and Europe.