The New Great Game: Development, Not Domination, in Central Asia

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The U.S., China, and Russia are taking a different approach to this region, long a chessboard for great powers.

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Workers in Kazakhstan weld an oil pipeline to China. Reuters

In Khorgos, on the China-Kazakhstan border, trucks laden with Chinese goods line up along the road, waiting for Chinese and then Kazakhastani customs officers to give them the go-ahead to continue their transcontinental journey across Eurasia. Many will be heading to the great markets of Central Asia, like Dordoi, Barakholka and Kara Suu, while others head all the way to Europe. Squeezing through a single lane, the trucks get stuck in lengthy backlogs as they wait in the shadow of the brand new multilane Chinese customs point that sits idle next door. This idleness is the product of conflicting strategies, emblematic of a lack of coordination that is taking place across Central Asia.

It is cliché to talk about Central Asia in great-game terms, with battling rival powers elbowing each other to assert their influence. Seeing the region as either as a buffer area to other powers or as a source of natural wealth and instability, the surrounding large powers have long treated Central Asia as little more than a chessboard on which to move pawns.

These days, however, the strategic approach taken by surrounding powers has shifted. Rather than talking about dominating the region, the discussion is focused on differing approaches to development, all of them tied to great powers' particular interests. Lead amongst these are China, Russia and the United States--all of which have launched new initiatives intended to bring stability and security to the region.

Three Rival Strategies

The American strategic approach has been most clearly laid out by Secretary of State Clinton, who last year in Chennai, India told the audience of America's desire to "work together to create a new Silk Road, . . . an international web and network of economic and transit connections." While the United States is clearly eager for the entire region to be developed, later Clinton highlighted one of the U.S. key rationales for this approach: "An Afghanistan firmly embedded in the economic life of a thriving South and Central Asia would be better able to attract new sources of foreign investment, connect to markets abroad and provide people with credible alternatives to insurgency." In other words, it is a strategy focused on tying Afghanistan economically into its neighborhood, which will help facilitate American withdrawal. An "action request" leaked soon after Clinton's speech confirmed that this New Silk Road strategy was Clinton's "number-one policy priority" for Central and South Asia.

For China, whose overriding priority is to develop Central Asia to help stimulate prosperity and stability in its restive Xinjiang province, the approach of tying the region together using trade and transport links is an old one. As early as 1994, then prime minister Li Peng declared in Central Asia that "it was important to open up a modern version of the Silk Road." Years later, in a 2004 article in China Daily, the principle was expanded to include a "landbridge" between China and Europe, a network of train links that would make up a so-called Iron Silk Road and provide an alternative to lengthy and sometimes treacherous sea routes. Since then, China has moved this strategy forward, developing its own rail infrastructure at an astonishing rate, while also investing in regional train systems linking Central Asia together. While some projects such as those in Kazakhstan seem to have stalled, work is advancing on regional rail lines in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Russia, on the other hand, has taken an approach to the region that seeks to build on previous glory. Building on the already extant customs union that Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia formed in 2009, in October last year President Putin proposed a Eurasian Union that would coordinate "economic and currency policy" while also being open to new members presumably drawn from the former Soviet space. As Putin put it, "membership in the Eurasian Union, apart from direct economic benefits, will enable its members to integrate into Europe faster and from a much stronger position."

An admirable goal maybe, but one that directly clashes with China's aims to try to integrate the broader region. In discussions last year in Kyrgyzstan, we were told by a former cabinet-level minister that should the Eurasian Union proceed, the markets in southern Kyrgyzstan at Kara-Suu would be "decimated." And these tensions are already visible here at Khorgos, the ambitious "trans-national free trade center" that China and Kazakhstan opened last December between their two borders. The shining new Chinese customs post is unused, and a field of construction cranes await the go-ahead to continue their work developing the rest of the special economic zone.

And it is not only the Chinese and Russian strategies that are seemingly at odds with one another. As Chinese analysts in Urumqi were quick to highlight, the American and Chinese strategies also differ: America's aim is to tie Afghanistan into its broader region, with paths largely going north-south across the region, while China's is a grander east-west ambition enabling direct trade with Europe. China also is developing different infrastructure plans across Afghanistan, opening up an east-west path across the country to Gwadar, the Pakistani port it has been helping develop. While not necessarily contradictory, different end goals drive the respective projects.

The result is a series of strategies for tying together Central Asia--with each focusing on priorities dictated by the varying interests of Beijing, Washington and Moscow. China is promoting its development and trade; America wants to leave a more stable and prosperous Afghanistan; and Russia wants closer ties with the former Soviet space. These are fundamentally divergent approaches that contradict each other and leave the region torn between competing capitals.

Greater coordination and discussion is needed on what is essentially redevelopment of the Silk Road. The end state desired by all is a prosperous and stable region brought about by economic development--rather than the barrel of a gun. But until there is greater coordination, the result will be a confused latticework of competing strategies that leave everyone the poorer.

This article originally appeared at The National Interest, an Atlantic partner site. Follow @TheNatlInterest on Twitter.

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Presented by

Raffaello Pantucci & Alexandros Petersen

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS) and Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West. Their joint research is available at www.chinaincentralasia.com.

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