BACKGROUND: The concurrence of these trends is not a coincidence; they reflect the fact that the U.S. has essentially abandoned the task of formulating, let alone executing, a coherent Central Asian policy. The U.S. New Silk Road initiative remains merely a bureaucratic contrivance that the State Department, which strongly opposed the concept of the Northern Distribution Network, put together when it lost that battle. It took 40 existing projects and repackaged them in a standard bureaucratic maneuver. But funding and vision that could use America’s convening power to help form various consortia of investors for these or projects remain absent. When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under then Senator Kerry published a study of the Silk Road, no comment was heard from the State Department or the Administration.
In contrast to both Russia and China, no senior U.S. policymaker has during President Obama's second term even mentioned Central Asia, let alone traveled there to engage local governments on issues of mutual concern. This absence of high-level activity speaks volumes about the importance assigned to Central Asia and the Caucasus. Indeed, according to U.S. analysts, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, who had steadily sought to collaborate with the U.S., reportedly laughs whenever somebody brings up the topic of the U.S. New Silk Road. But we can be sure he is not laughing about China’s “Silk Road Economic Belt”, in which he eagerly seeks participation and, perhaps more importantly, he signed a strategic partnership agreement with China. Similarly nobody in the U.S. government, apart from Secretary of State Clinton in 2011-12, has said a word about Putin’s Eurasian Union that will diminish the economic independence and/or growth potential of Central Asian states.
While we do, from time to time, proclaim that these governments are anti-democratic or engage in such behavior, we have otherwise made it clear that we are not very interested in their affairs. Since we will not engage them on issues of consequence to them, they will return the favor. It must be emphasized in this context that the problem is not merely a lack of funding though that certainly will constrain policy towards Central Asia, as it already has in Afghanistan.
Rather, the real problem is that there is no vision, no concept, nor any leadership coming out of the executive branch to imply that U.S. involvement in Central Asia or the Caucasus are important U.S. interests. Such involvement should not primarily constitute a military presence or policy, quite the opposite. However, if nobody will make the case for a U.S. presence or the region’s importance, Congress in its present composition will hardly rush to fill that breach.
IMPLICATIONS: There is little doubt that governments in the Caucasus and Central Asia would welcome a sustained U.S. engagement even if there are serious issues where we disagree, not least over democracy. But we could at least take their concerns seriously. Given the lack of any evidence of such concern it is hardly surprising that other actors with objectives inimical to our interests are filling that vacuum while partners like India are losing in this competition. Indeed, it is not commonly realized that it was the sustained U.S. involvement here plus our effort to tie Central Asia more closely to India that made it possible and desirable for India to expand its presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia. As the U.S. leaves, that presence becomes vulnerable to terrorists, Pakistani obstruction (both of which are often part of Pakistani policy), or to the superior economic and other forms of Chinese power. Thus, as one recent account puts it, China is implementing its version of a Marshall Plan for Central Asia and genuinely building the Silk Road but tying it to Chinese dominance and the creation of a Renminbi bloc and what could well be considered as an overall China “co-Prosperity Sphere” (see the 10/16/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst).
For its part, Russia is stepping up its political and military involvement in the area, building more military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and seeking to expand the missions of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and its capacity to perform those missions. At the same time it is bringing enormous pressure to bear upon Central Asian states to join the Eurasian Union despite Kazakhstan’s growing misgivings and the fact that it may actually have a negative impact upon Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, let alone Ukraine. Russia also continues to expand its political operations in these countries, e.g. making Tajikistan give it a base in return for supporting President Rahmonov in his re-election campaign.
These manifestations of Russian and Chinese policy, along with China’s visible ability to freeze India out of competition for major investment and energy opportunities in Central Asia, represent the fulfillment of the old axiom that nature abhors a vacuum. These states, pursuing objectives that are not only anti-American but in many cases also aim at the diminution of Central Asian states’ independence, sovereignty, and in China’s case, even territorial integrity, are filling the vacuum we are leaving behind.
Yet nobody in policymaking positions in Washington seems to notice or care. This neglect can only have malign consequences. Indeed, in Central Asia as in many other venues, there can be no such thing as benign neglect given the real threats to security that abound in Central Asia and other regions. The U.S. withdrawal, retreat, or simply renunciation of interest in Central Asia and other areas will almost certainly lead to heightened international rivalries among U.S. competitors like Russia and China for influence and the creation of regional spheres of influence and will also probably lead to more conflicts within or even between or among these states.
We are already seeing the consequences of this U.S. renunciation of interest throughout Central Asia. For example, in the recent Indo-Russian summit, India agreed to discuss with Russia the creation of a pipeline route from Russia to India. The scale of such an endeavor is mind-boggling and the fact that India even agreed to consider it reflects its growing anxiety about its energy supply and increasingly clear apprehension concerning the TAPI pipeline.
A similar perception emerged out of this summit with regard to both sides’ shared views about Afghanistan. As the U.S. and NATO leave, India inevitably becomes more exposed to threats in Afghanistan. Therefore it must look to Russia for cooperation against Pakistan and terrorists like the Taliban. Formally touched off in September, China’s Silk Road initiative represents another such reaction to the U.S. withdrawal, which Beijing sees as an opportunity as well as a threat from Islamic insurgencies. Moscow’s recent initiatives can be similarly categorized.
CONCLUSIONS: Unfortunately these initiatives return Central Asia to the era when the great powers saw it as an object of their designs rather than as an area of fully sovereign states able and willing to be subjects of world politics in their own right. Clearly neither China, which has abridged the territorial sovereignty and integrity of many of these states, nor Russia whose contempt for their sovereignty is a matter of record, can be counted on to preserve the real gains of 1991 and after. Moreover, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are already highly vulnerable states while the prospects for internal stability in the other three states are doubtful as they will inevitably experience succession struggles.
These vulnerabilities are amplified by the potential threat from Afghanistan either though direct support for Islamic insurgency and terror or by the example of such forces “liberating” Afghanistan and thus threatening their neighbors. In addition, Indo-Pakistani enmity has spilled over to Afghanistan and into the diplomacy of Central Asia. Therefore it is worth asking exactly what U.S. interest is served by this precipitous disregard for Central Asia, especially as it is clear that events and trends in the region have potentially serious repercussions for the U.S. itself.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council.