The new significance of Central Asia

By Vivek Y. Kelkar, Mumbai

In the ancient world, Central Asia was understood as the key to the rise and fall of great powers, from ancient Persia to Parthia, Greece, India, China, and the Arab world. The armies of Ögedei Khan—the son of Genghis—traversed these roads to drive into Europe in the 13th century. The Mongol Empire’s western conquests included Volga Bulgaria, almost all of Alania, Cumania, Rus, Hungary, Poland, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, the Latin Empire, and Austria—and then the Mongols suddenly and inexplicably withdrew. The fabled Silk Route formed the crucial trade link between the east and the west, from China to Rome and beyond.

In the 15th century, the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and British discovered new sea routes to conquest, trade, and wealth. Central Asia was forgotten, first by Europe and then by the United States, for a century. It was not forgotten by the Russians, who ruled over the region under the czars and then the Soviets for nearly two centuries, nor by the Chinese, who found it a troubling backyard.

But the ides of August have suddenly made these lands crucial, again, to the balance of global power. Beijing’s Belt-and-Road Initiative through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is at stake. But it isn’t just this—or the region’s mineral wealth—that is causing strategists to dust off their algorithms and atlases. These countries are on Afghanistan’s border. Russian and Chinese investments are the backbone of their economies.

As the Taliban consolidates its power in Kabul, the military links, economies, religion, and politics of Central Asia have suddenly acquired enormous importance. The US and the EU have neglected the region for the past three decades, particularly since the war in Afghanistan began. This is now hugely significant.


A quiet race for influence

In recent years, Beijing and Moscow have both quietly built up their military and economic presence in the region. Iran, too, has begun forging economic and religious ties to the region—the economic ties a consequence of the US sanctions, the religious outreach part of Tehran’s effort to establish itself not just as the heart of the Shia world, but the Islamic one.

Earlier this month, Russia made a conspicuous display of its military muscle in the region. On August 10, as the Taliban gained control of regions of northern Afghanistan bordering Moscow’s Central Asian allies, Russia wrapped up joint military exercises with troops from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan at the Harb-Maidon training ground in Tajikistan, about 20 kilometers from the Afghan border. They made no attempt to disguise the reason for the drill. The Russian Defense Ministry issued a statement from the commander of the Central Military District, Colonel-General Alexander Lapin: “The exercise was conducted against the background of the aggravation of the situation and the threat of penetration of radical terrorist groups into the border countries of the Central Asian region.” The week before, Russia and Uzbekistan held similar drills near Uzbekistan’s Afghan border.

Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, hosts Russia’s 201st Military Base. It dates from the Soviet era, but of late Russia has augmented it with troops, their latest mobile weaponry, aircraft, and radar installations. At any given time, some 7,000 Russian troops are stationed at Dushanbe. In recent weeks there have been reports of enhanced numbers. Despite their diplomatic outreach to the Taliban—and the Taliban’s promises, in turn, not to allow Afghan soil to serve as a launching pad for attacks on neighboring countries—Russia has good reason to be worried about the region. In 2019, the Tajik government blamed ISIS for a deadly attack on the strategic Ishkobod border post that left two security officials and 15 militants dead. This was the first evidence of militants crossing from Afghanistan into a Central Asian country. Although ISIS claimed credit for the attack, the part of Afghanistan bordering the area where the attack took place was then under Taliban, not ISIS control.

Russia is the most significant security player in the region, but China is quickly picking up its pace. Between 2014 and 2019, 62 percent of the region’s arms deals were made with Russia. China has begun making substantial inroads into the market, though, especially in areas where Russian technology is lagging. Since 2014, China has supplied its FD-2000 medium-range air defence system to Uzbekistan; Turkmenistan recently bought QW-2 Vanguard 2 portable surface-to-air missiles. All three of Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors have purchased Chinese armed drones including the CH-3, CH-4, CH-5, and the Wing Loongs. China now makes up 18 percent of all arms sales in the region, up from just 1.5 percent in 2014. 

To manage its vulnerability in Xinjiang, China has quietly built a military base, with troops and mobile weaponry, in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan province, just 14 km from Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor. The region is critical to China’s BRI plans, a crucial land route for its railroad links. Joint training exercises have been on the rise in recent years.

Turkey is also vying for military influence in the region. In 2019, Turkey became the largest supplier of arms to Turkmenistan, exporting US$407 million worth of weaponry. Russia was next, with sales of US$370 million; China’s sales were worth US$234 million.1 Turkey has not yet made a play for a military base, though reports suggest it is actively looking into the prospect.


Dependent economies

The region could well become one of the world’s largest natural resource producers over the next decade; it is home to some of the world’s richest deposits of minerals, natural gas, and oil. But to say that Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan have been growth-constrained is to understate the problem.

Nearly 33 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP depends on remittances from overseas migrant labor, the bulk of it from Russia.2 External debt accounted for nearly 35 percent of its GDP; nearly half of this was owed to China, whose investments have made up nearly 75 percent of the nation’s foreign direct investment for the past two decades. In recent years, the Tajik government has chosen to pay off its debt to China by ceding mining rights and even territory near the China-Afghan border. Tajikistan’s Yakjilva mines— containing an estimated 415 tons of silver deposits—were given to China in 2019, with a seven-year tax holiday, following just thirty minutes of debate in the Tajik parliament. Chinese companies are also the largest stakeholders in the gold mines in the Panjakent, Aini and Vahdat regions.

In a 2019 report, the International Tax and Investment Center suggested that Uzbekistan’s metallic and non-metallic mineral resources might be worth US$ 11 trillion. But the country is dependent upon its links to Russia and China for growth. Russia’s Gazprom and Altmaz Holdings control the bulk of Uzbekistan’s oil and gas resources. China is slowly gaining control of its mining. In 2019, China surpassed Russia as Uzbekistan’s largest trade partner. Nearly 1,000 Chinese companies operate within its borders.

Turkmenistan is just as dependent as its neighbors. Its economy is based on hydrocarbon exports, with 80 percent of its GDP made up of gas exports to China. When Beijing unilaterally decided in March 2020 to cut its imports of oil and gas from Turkmenistan, the country’s ability to service its debt went into a tailspin, leaving it unable to pay for its hydrocarbon infrastructure investments.


The Islamist genie

These links are critical to the future of geopolitics for two reasons. Russia and China alike are threatened by the rise of radical religious groups in Afghanistan. It is unclear whether Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan are vulnerable to the call of the fundamentalists across their border.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, none of these countries have established anything like a functional democracy. They are Russian-backed authoritarian regimes. Their governments have tried to keep religion under tight control; they have attempted to suppress all but the state-sanctioned version of Islam. Historically, these are Hanafi and Sufi countries. Tajiks also claim a significant Persian heritage; nearly five percent of its population is Shia, mostly in the regions bordering Iran.

Bloody clashes between these governments and insurgents—most significantly in Uzbekistan in 1999, Turkmenistan in 2002 and Tajikistan in 2015—suggest the problem. All three governments labeled these clashes attempted coup d’etats. All three had a common thread—they were led by insurgents linked to Islamist movements. Local clashes often take place in the Ferghana Valley, which compasses parts of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Authorities blame these on extremist movements; the usual culprit is Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international pan-Islamist organization that aims to establish a global caliphate under the Sharia.

There may well be enough ammunition for fundamentalists to use religion as a rallying cry. Over the past three years, for example, Emomali Rahmon’s government in Tajikistan has demolished more than 2,000 mosques, turning most of them into cafes, schools, and public facilities. Some have been turned into cinemas. Cameras and recording equipment have been installed in key mosques to keep tabs on the sermons.

In Turkmenistan, the secret police frequently conduct raids on mosques and homes to ferret out banned literature. The only religious literature allowed to the populace is the government-approved copy of the Koran. People are frequently stopped from entering mosques known to harbor religious fundamentalists.

The situation in Uzbekistan is similar, though of late, the government has loosened its controlling grip on religion. But Central Asia is riddled with groups that claim allegiance to al Qaeda and the Taliban. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement—a designated terrorist group—and other movement offshoots are embedded among the Taliban. They are now stationed on the northern border of Afghanistan, just a few kilometers away from the Central Asian countries.

Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, which abuts Tajikistan, is now home to the Afghan government in exile. Afghanistan’s first vice-president, Amrullah Saleh, retreated to the valley in the wake of Ashraf Ghani’s hasty and ignominious flight to the Gulf. Saleh now claims to be Afghanistan’s president. By his side are Defense Minister Bismillah Mohammadi and Ahmad Masood, son of the legendary Lion of the Panjshir Valley, Ahmad Shah Masood. They’re waiting for the Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum to join them, they say.

Waiting to ignite

Only 20 percent of the population in Central Asia is old enough to remember the fall of the Soviet Empire. The young have no memory of the Soviets; their sense of identity is drawn from legends of earlier kingdoms and the fabled history of such places as Samarkand and Bukhara. The region’s governments have deliberately cultivated this sensibility in an effort to reclaim their history from Russia and the Soviet Union.

The US and Europe have neglected the region. Some French and German companies have invested in Uzbekistan’s mining resources, but their investments pale compared to the massive scope of China’s in recent years. The US and Europe have simply not built an enhanced military presence, nor have they created economic incentives sufficient to build a lasting relationship with the region. In his recent summit with Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin made it clear that he would not tolerate new US bases in Central Asia.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov reinforced the message: “I would emphasize,” he said at the time of the meeting,

that the redeployment of the American permanent military presence to the countries neighboring Afghanistan is unacceptable. We told the Americans in a direct and straightforward way that it would change a lot of things not only in our perceptions of what’s going on in that important region but also in our relations with the United States.

He added that the Central Asian countries have been “cautioned against such steps,” making it clear that the Russian security umbrella must prevail.

To be fair, the US did make one attempt to secure a base in Uzbekistan, in 2001, securing a lease for the Karshi-Khanabad air base. But US relations with Uzbekistan were strained by the Uzbek government’s bloody suppression of a rebellion in the eastern Uzbek town of Andijon. More importantly, Putin placed pressure on Uzbekistan to expel the Americans. NATO maintained a liaison office in Tashkent between 2014 and 2016, but its presence was insignificant and transitory. The US has conducted a few desultory joint training exercises with Uzbek troops over the years, but these sporadic efforts simply don’t compare to the regular joint training exercise drills with Russians.

In the next few years, Americans are apt to be disabused of their hope that China and Russia will be rivals in the region, not natural allies. Beijing and Moscow have a common enemy in the region’s Islamic fundamentalists. At least for now, they are apt to pursue their interests in tandem. Before establishing its base in Tajikistan, in 2017, China made sure that the Russians were sensitized through a “workshop” run by a Chinese think tank. Chinese diplomats are careful to keep Russia in the loop.

Given the strong economic and military network both are building in across the Indo-Pacific and Eastern Europe, a short-term rift over Central Asia is unlikely to surface. For China, Central Asia is the crucial link to the West’s money through the Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese diplomats have been careful to stress that Russia and China have a convergence and balance of interests in the region.

A dark authoritarian curtain is closing over Eurasia. None of this is good news for Washington, a superpower in decline and retreat.

1

According to the SIPRI database. SIPRI cannot, obviously, keep account of covert arms transfers.

2

According to World Bank estimates for 2019.