Central Asia, usually defined as the family of the ‘Five Stans’, has recently returned to the geo-political spotlight after President Xi Jinping’s ten-day trip across the region. Apart from being a show of Chinese influence in the region, this reflects a wider trend of renewed American, Russian, and Chinese interest in Central Asia, and could potentially make the region the ‘grand chessboard’ that Zbigniew Brzezinski envisioned following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Image courtesy of Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway © 2008, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway © 2008, some rights reserved

The region is undoubtedly volatile for reasons that will be discussed later. We should be wary, however, of interpreting volatility as a propensity towards conflict; as such a situation can also offer equal opportunities for co-operation. We should also avoid drawing false historical parallels with the imperial ‘great game’. A competition of influences will occur, however. Central Asian countries won’t be mere pawns on the chessboard but key players as well[1], especially in the post 9/11 world. It is important to ask not only why Central Asia would be the next ‘frontier’, but also what kind of game will be played there.

Put simply, Russia, China, and the US all have interests, or rather, concerns that they cannot ignore in Central Asia.

For China, security in Central Asia directly affects Xinjiang, an autonomous region on her Western frontier. Xinjiang is culturally closer to Central Asia than it is to Beijing, and it remains a base for Uighur (Xinjiang natives) independence movements. While the PRC has maintained that Xinjiang is an inseparable part of the ‘unitary multi-ethnic Chinese nation’, such movements have been a perennial concern for Beijing, as recent unrests in 2013 and earlier in 2009 would suggest. A direct connection with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was established in 2011 when the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the organisation alleged to be responsible for unrests in Xinjiang, merged with the IMU. After the 9/11 attacks, China was quick to push for both organisations to be classified as terrorist organisations.

Russia faces a similar problem in that Islamic extremism could potentially spill over into Chechnya. After 9/11, Russia allowed the stationing of US troops in the region, and, although it was hailed as a hallmark of Russo-American cooperation at the time, it soon became a source of tensions and the US is gradually being forced out of the region, first in Uzbekistan in 2005 and then in Kyrgyzstan in late 2013.

The US became directly involved in the region after 9/11, and the imminent pull out from Afghanistan produced worries that the region would become destabilised again, as all five Central Asian Republics feared ‘a redoubled onslaught of extremists (IMU and other al-Qaeda linked groups) coming across their borders from Afghanistan’. Indeed, the foreign ministers of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan warned of threats of ‘extremism emanating out of Afghanistan after 2014’. A destabilised Central Asia, due to an unfinished job in Afghanistan, would add another blemish to the already precarious ‘War on Terror’, and remains a concern of Moscow’s policy in the region. Despite this, American exposure in the region remains low, as no US President has ever travelled to Central Asia, in contrast to a series of visits by Li Peng, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao.

Central Asia is also one of the most energy-rich regions in the world. According to the Central Asia Atlas of Natural Resources, the region has vast reserves of hydrocarbons, especially natural gas. Given its strategic location between Asia and Europe, it has enormous export potential, especially to rapidly developing Asia-Pacific and South Asian countries. The region is rich in uranium as well— Kazakhstan accounted for 36.5% of the world’s uranium production in 2012. As such, the region is of interest to all three actors. Firstly, the US is seeking to diversify its energy supplies through non-Russian energy transit routes for Central Asian oil and gas. Secondly, Russia’s Gazprom maintains major pipelines throughout Central Asia, and lastly, China’s CNPC (China National Petroleum Corporation) is tipped to replace Gazprom as the region’s ‘main outside gas source.’

Such a web of vested interests can result in a stable balancing act, however an unstable domestic environment catalysed by the imminent US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and long-standing disputes over territories such as the Fergana Valley, might throw off this balance.

The main actors appear to appreciate this and are hedging against instability through organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes the Five Stans, Russia, and China. Initially founded to settle border disputes and ensure stability in the region, it has developed over time to include security, economic, and even educational co-operation, with China as the leader of the group. The construction of international terrorism as a global threat consolidated co-operation, illustrated by SCO performing joint anti-terrorist military exercises.

Nevertheless there are destabilising factors lingering on the horizon. Ironically, most of these are attempts at integrating the region. Xi has talked of a ‘Silk Road economic belt’ and the SCO maximising Beijing’s economic access to the region. Likewise, the US’s proposed ‘New Silk Road’ would open intra-region (including Afghanistan) trade, while Russia is pushing for an Eurasian Union modelled on the EU by 2015. Such overlapping institutions can cause tensions, especially when combined with insensitivity towards local conditions.

Economically, the region remains one of the world’s least integrated regions, and there exists a large development disparity across states. It must be asked whether or not it makes sense to treat the region as one economic entity.

More importantly, overlooking the differences between national identities would turn attempts at fostering cooperation into potential flashpoints. For example, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are ‘engaged in an undeclared cold war’ over water resource allocation. With such underlying political and ethnic tensions in the background, the push for democracy might lead to instability, as was the case in Kyrgyzstan. Russia’s attempts at constructing a Eurasian identity might also generate a pushback that could snowball into open conflict.

Amidst all these competing forces, China is currently the middleman amongst the Central Asian countries, since she doesn’t bind them to restrictive trade policies like Russia or influence their domestic policy like the US. This ‘no-strings attached’ approach enables China to be a stabilising force. Whether or not this lasts, however, might be contingent upon the US pivot into the Asia-Pacific.

One of the reasons for China’s ‘turn to the west’ was the US pivot, which encouraged China to reduce dependence on sea-lanes in the Asia-Pacific. It is plausible to assume that this issue is still exists in the minds of Chinese decision makers. Therefore, a more assertive US pivot might result in a more assertive China in Central Asia, which will result in the loss of her position as the viable middleman. Such a shift would make future tensions more likely to develop into opportunities for conflict rather than co-operation.

At the moment, the ‘game’ can go both ways. What we can be sure of is that Central Asia will become a contested region in the future. Brzezinski’s prediction might yet come true, even if it’s decades late.

[1] Rashid 205