Everyone likes a snappy pop-cultural title with which to approach international politics and strategy because it makes relatable what is often viewed as an opaque process of the elites. Rudyard Kipling’s “Great Game” was a chessboard and originally referred to the various schemes and posturing of the British and Russian empires throughout Central Asia, with both parties trying to keep their opponent out of fragile imperial holdings. This dynamic was reformulated after the fall of the Soviet Union, with regional experts now using it to refer to the jockeying of larger regional neighbors — Russia, China, India, Iran, Turkey — for geostrategic and economic advantages.
Then there is the Silk Road. It’s an exciting term, invoking adventurous long-distance treks between the affluent Chinese Empire and voracious European markets. It seems like everyone wants to attach themselves to the name, with both China and the US articulating their own Silk Road projects. Tellingly, when some Central Asian policymakers proposed a new visa plan, they called it the Silk Road Visa. Even more telling, however, the visa is designed to attract tourists and make life easier for visitors.
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We are thus presented with two terms that, for all their pedigree, have by now come to mean the same thing. For China, a new Silk Road means a series of subservient vassal states operating as markets as well as a way to get goods more cheaply to Europe while supporting the growth of Xinjiang — a strategic vision that suits certain European consumers perfectly while ruffling the feathers of other powers who fear some kind of threat to their interests in the area.
This sounds very similar to a Great Game competition for access and resources. The Silk Road, as articulated by policymakers on both sides of Eurasia, comes to mean the clearing of space for trade, linking Chinese and Western markets while winning over the hearts and loyalty of the restless tribes inhabiting the wilderness in between.
Heart of Eurasia
But what of the restless tribesmen themselves? Their own histories tell a vastly different story of the region and paint a picture of a Silk Road that was something altogether different from what policymakers in Beijing or Brussels would articulate now. Rather than a vision of long-distance travel, the Silk Road needs to be approached as a network of overlapping and thriving societies and trading economies, each exchanging concepts and adding value as goods rippled back and forth across them.
Central Asia itself has always possessed goods that neighbors were eager to gain access to, whether they be the legendary blood-sweating horses of antiquity or the abundant gas and mineral resources of today. New religions, technologies and goods raced up and down trade networks while the great steppe empires would routinely produce visionary rulers that founded great royal dynasties in what is now India and China. Obviously, nobody is expecting a return to militarily-dominant Central Asian states with cutting-edge technology, and there is so only so much that harkening back to a golden age will do for us in analyzing the present. However, referencing history is a helpful tool for expanding our mindset when it comes to looking at long-term prospects for the region.
It is in US interests to help the region capture the true spirit of the Silk Road once again. At its strongest, the Silk Road was a collaborative process driven by supply and demand, a physical space defined by a dynamic interaction between communities rather than the foreign merchants that had to traverse it. Almost every economist or development expert would tell you that connections are a good thing, making you stronger as a country and as a network. It’s how you manage those connections that makes or breaks a state, something that worries Eurasian and American strategists alike.
Central Asia remains of strategic importance to the US. Its five countries — Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — occupy the heart of Eurasia, acting as a geopolitical buffer against revisionist powers like Iran, Russia and China with pretensions to regional hegemony. Central Asian involvement will be crucial in helping Afghanistan to rebuild, while the region also figures prominently in plans for massive transportation networks primarily benefitting China (best known through the One Belt One Road Initiative that has been so debated by Western observers) and, to a lesser extent, Russia. The strength of borders and governance styles of the five states also play a role in controlling the spread of narcotics and international terror, both as overflow from Afghanistan and in response to oppressive domestic policies.
On the face of it, there are of course significant barriers to a meaningful American role in Central Asia. A US drawdown in Afghanistan means that there is no longer demand for the logistical support that facilitated cooperation between authoritarian national leaders and US military planners, while both economically-dominant China and militarily-embedded Russia are better able to exert political and economic pressure in order to achieve favorable outcomes. Insular Central Asian elites have shown a tendency over the past 30 years to squabble both amongst themselves and with neighboring states, with a Soviet legacy of divide-and-conquer border creation as well as acute natural resource management issues encouraging competition rather than collaboration. Weak economies are dependent on energy sales and remittances, meaning that Central Asian countries are heavily dependent on Russia and China.
It is thus tempting for US foreign policymakers to write off the region as doomed to domination by larger neighbors, but it would be a mistake to not consider all possible futures and opportunities for involvement. It would also be a rather traditionally American mistake to assume that what we want matters, particularly to local governments and societies grappling with their own challenges and interests.
Ultimate outcomes will come only from the decisions and actions of the Central Asians themselves, but the US would be best served by foregoing the transactional, bilateral boardgame maneuvers of other Eurasian regional powers in favor of helping to revive a dynamic, unified Silk Road system that benefits growth and reform across the five states. There are three potential futures for Central Asian countries that take into account how US involvement in the region could look.
The easiest of the outcomes to foresee, a stagnation scenario envisages a brutal near future where the economic pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic would leave national economies in such shambles that already slow economic growth grinds to a halt. If this happens, economic and political reforms recently instituted in Uzbekistan under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev are likely to fall by the wayside, resulting in the country cutting down on its recent regional outreach and aspirations to be a transportation and tourism hub. Momentum on the recent thaw in relations between Uzbekistan and the rest of the region could dissipate, leading states to abandon cooperative initiatives in the face of the unprecedented pandemic.
Tajikistan would remain in the grips of the authoritarian Emomali family, which has controlled it since the end of the Tajik Civil War in 1997, and losses stemming from the outbreak will only worsen living conditions in what is considered the poorest country in the Commonwealth of Independent States. The political gridlock of Kyrgyzstan’s fledgling democracy is likely to continue, alongside the accumulation of wealth and power by a small number of families.
The collapse of oil prices will hit Turkmenistan particularly hard, increasing internal elite infighting while keeping the country in what is already almost total isolation and economic disfunction. Kazakhstan’s relative economic development and success in modernizing its infrastructure and oil industry over the last decade are likely to be erased as its dependence on reeling oil export prices leaves other underdeveloped sectors more vulnerable than ever.
In all of these situations, uncomfortably large amounts of debt and reliance on Chinese infrastructure investment would only intensify, leaving governments longer-term as little more than vassal states firmly in China’s political orbit, with lip-service paid to Russia’s historical military role in the region and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) would continue to exist as long as the Central Asian states see value in its economic support, but it could be dealt a fatal blow by countries defecting for more favorable terms with China. Long-standing competition over borders and water resources between the five states could flare up as they see opportunities or need to present an external enemy for their populace to rally against.
In this scenario, the United States has largely continued to stay on the sidelines amidst its own coronavirus-related struggles. Involvement still would revolve around verbal urgings to steer clear of Chinese investment and a strategy that consists of trying to convince states to connect with Afghanistan as it goes through a painful peace process following decades of war. Efforts to rile up anger at Chinese treatment of Uighurs and other Turkic nationalities in the province of Xinjiang would continue to be ignored by Central Asian elites and leaders who don’t want to risk confrontation with their large neighbor, while China would continue to expand its influence over much of the Eurasian heartland.
In this scenario, the disruption caused by COVID-19 to guest workers and the price of natural resources would still keenly be felt by all of the states, but a potential global vaccine effort could mean that normalcy is more or less restored within a short period of time. Kazakhstan’s economic growth could slowly be eclipsed by a revitalized and more populous Uzbekistan, but both countries would become standout performers in the area. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would continue to be dependent on remittances from their citizens abroad, with political power relatively stable but ossified in both countries.
Isolationist Turkmenistan would thus remain viable based on the sale of its abundant natural resources but becoming ever more dependent on the energy trade with regional partners, namely China, which, as of 2019, already accounted for almost 80% of Turkmen exports. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan could decide to enter into the EEU in an attempt to synchronize with its nearby markets but maintain a strong military outside of the CSTO. In a region with immense pressure coming from outside, Kazakhstan could grow closer to Russia in an attempt to withstand increasing Uzbek and Chinese collaboration while other regional powers get involved with rebuilding Afghanistan.
US political and economic involvement with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan could scale up from its current relationships — primarily oil-industry infrastructure investment and security collaboration with Afghanistan, respectively — and in recognition of their growing importance, with emphasis on providing alternatives to Chinese investment in the developing countries. The US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC, created in 2019) could herald the start of major American investment on projects related to infrastructure and development, and the multi-stakeholder Blue Dot Network Initiative (also launched in 2019) may begin to bear results as individual projects are licensed as non-exploitative and sustainable.
These projects would be viewed within the context of providing an alternative to Chinese Belt and Road projects and could give leaders the leeway to pursue multi-vector foreign policy. The C5+1 format would remain a benign but unobtrusive forum for US officials to communicate with Central Asian officials on improvements to security, the promotion of economic connectivity and increasing resilience against the impacts of climate change.
Unfortunately, the scope of investment would not be able to directly supplant Chinese support, with the DFC’s $60-billion portfolio expected to do the work of the nearly $1 trillion expected to be spent on One Belt One Road investments. Canny leaders may simply play offers of support against each other in attempts to increase political and personal dividends, with the strings attached to Blue Dot and DFC investment proving to be too demanding for consistent usage. Similar individual attempts to cajole leaders to reject Chinese financing or technologies may be pursued in a transactional, ad hoc manner, but would do nothing to halt the overall trend. The US would remain too physically, financially and ideologically distant to matter, while local governments would be wooed by players like Russia, India, Turkey, Iran or Pakistan.
In the most unlikely of all scenarios, Central Asian states could band together more and more until they present a formidable regional bloc. This is hard to envisage, as relations between the five countries have historically been marred by intense saber-rattling and attempts to isolate each other. Former Uzbek President Islam Karimov was the best example of a strongman leader working to sabotage his neighbors, but relations between the states have recently seen an uptick with the ascendance of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan.
In this scenario, Uzbekistan’s outreach would act as a catalyst that starts resolving long-running resource consumption disagreements while also breaking the ice on greater regional infrastructure and internal transportation networks. Chinese interest might slowly cool amidst a backlash against the Belt and Road Initiative as well as a changing Chinese domestic market rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the economic imperative of connecting the region would be taken up by the countries themselves. Roads and railroads are used to move goods between Europe and China, but the increased connectivity and mingling of Central Asians themselves could result in mutual economic gains between partners.
On the one hand, this dynamic could mark the limit of positive gains, with authoritarian leaders empowered by economic gains still able to exert rigid control over their populations. On the other hand, economic growth and increased ease of movement between countries could also propel the growth of cross-border organizations and government-level cooperation. While national identity remains paramount, a shared Central Asian identity could gradually coalesce, belying the ethnic diversity of the region.
This sense of community would be based on shared historical experiences under Russian and Soviet rule, with Islam a component of identity and cultural expression that has long been separate from the state and political processes. Leaders might begin to consult with each other, and increased regional economic gains mean that states would be better able to identify and pursue their own strategic objectives. With less reason to compete over resources, states may pursue win-win arrangements that could lead to an informal or formal bloc of governments able to present a more united front to Russia and China.
Here, American policymakers would have moved away from the single-tone attacks on China to embrace more nimble involvement in the region. Economic agreements and infrastructural investment could be presented on terms that are both palatable for local leaders while also building toward cooperative and organically-driven local needs. A two-pronged approach would grow support for strengthening civil institutions and developing private entrepreneurship, combined with a government-level focus on coordination and cooperation between states that doesn’t threaten sovereignty. The C5+1 organization would be strengthened and foregrounded as support for states attempting to pursue multi-vector foreign policies, providing alternatives that will give local decision-makers ways to rally together to resist debt entrapment or the sale of strategic assets to China. The US-backed TAPI pipeline project and other similar infrastructure initiatives could help widen potential partners for Central Asian resources and economies, giving access to Western markets while lessening dependence on China and Russia.
It is in US interests to help the region expand its own internal infrastructure and collaborative networks, allowing for the rise of resiliency and dynamism of Central Asian expression and reform. While improving economies certainly doesn’t guarantee political reform, a more cooperative relationship between the five countries allows for the creation of an environment that could allow for, or even encourage, positive change.
Similarly, there is no guarantee that a friendly bloc of small nations would be a steadfast ally of the US or change the balance of power in Eurasia. It is more the case that a strong Silk Road stands to benefit both Central Asian and American interests. The United States still has a role to play in the region, and it is one that will help the people of Central Asia capture the true spirit of the Silk Road once again.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.