Washington was occupied with Thanksgiving and the health-care debacle in late
November, the prime ministers of
China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan were meeting
in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization to discuss economic and security cooperation. Handshakes were
exchanged, photographs taken, and pledges of mutual friendship made. Outside
the summit, however, a high-stakes game of geopolitical chess has been waging.
Russia is being pushed out, China is moving in for trade and resources, and countries
like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are playing
the big powers against each other. Once in the Chinese sphere of influence, Central
Asia was part of the Russian (then Soviet) empire for most of the past 200 years.
Now it is contested again. And as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan,
it needs to re-up efforts to stay a player in Central Asia.
Secretary of State James Baker's historic pilgrimage to the new capitals of
Central Asia in 1992, the United States has been active in Russia's and China's
backyards. In the 1990s, after the Soviet Union's collapse, the U.S. government
and NGOs pushed democracy and supported civil society while U.S. oil companies
invested billions of dollars in Kazakhstan. By 2003, Kazakhstan's oil
production topped 1 million barrels per day. U.S. efforts at democracy,
however, were less successful -- the region is home to at least four countries
whose "elected" governments make only the slightest gestures at free and fair
ballots. After the 9/11 attacks, American democracy promotion efforts took a
back seat to the necessities of the war in Afghanistan: tracking cross-border terrorists
and drug shipments and opening up routes for supplies and electricity needed to
fight the war. While it would be tempting -- with little direct security at
stake -- for the United States to pull out of Central Asia as the Afghanistan
war winds down, Washington needs a new push based on new principles.
Much of the
recent evolution in Central Asia has been positive. Central Asians have options
like never before. Energy networks, in particular, are transforming the region.
Pipelines now carry natural gas from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to China and
from Turkmenistan to Iran. Electricity
and gas lines no longer flow only north into Russia; Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan
now sell electricity into Afghanistan, and other lines are heading further
south. There are even grandiose plans under way to extend gas pipelines and electricity
lines into Pakistan and India and to bring Persian Gulf hydrocarbons across the
region into China through the back door.
What this has
meant for Central Asians is much-needed financial diversity. Initially, this
meant better prices; Turkmenistan was able to insist that Russia
pay "European prices" for its gas. But even with a softer energy market now,
the countries of the region still benefit from diversified demand coming from growing
economies from Europe to China. That independence unnerves the Kremlin.
long seen Central Asia as part of its sovereign empire. Russia moved into the
region in the 19th century by building military railroads; czars spent much of
their effort falsely reassuring other powers, such as the British and the
Turks, of their benign intentions. In the end, Russia won the Great Game by
taking over the region and incorporating it into the Soviet Union, much to the
detriment of the populations there. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia
has played a different game to keep the Central Asia states under its yoke: Gazprom
As the sole
purchaser of energy (and the most important trade partner) in the region, Moscow's
state-owned energy firm pressured the countries into delivering cheap fuel as a
form of fealty. And trying to break that monopoly resulted in swift punishment:
Russia is suspected
in a mysterious 2009 pipeline explosion that cut gas sales from Turkmenistan.
Elsewhere, Russia has pressured Kazakhstan, and now Ukraine, into a customs union
that largely lacks substance. You can see Russian President Vladimir Putin's
muscle behind Ukraine's rejection this month of an agreement with the European
Union. Reports indicate that Russia offered cheaper gas to induce Ukraine to
sign up with Russia's customs union, while rumors point to a darker side: outright
threats to cut off supplies this winter, as Russia did in 2009. Under the
Soviet Union this was Russian territory; Putin wants it that way again.
have to put up with negotiators who have more choices now. Yes, Moscow is still
the region's big dog -- as a Central Asian leader once reminded me, "We can't
change our geography." That much is still true, but now they can play countries
off each other, diversifying their outlets and hedging against Russian
really making this possible is that Beijing is back. For almost the last 200
years, China was largely absent in Central Asia, but now markets are swarming
with Chinese traders buying raw materials, investing, and trading. China's
trade in 2012 was $46 billion with the region -- 100 times what it was in 1992.
Chinese officials are also interested in security concerns, such as stopping
the Islamic terrorism that derives from this region. But there's a bigger goal.
Were China one day able to acquire significant energy supplies via overland
routes across Central Asia -- and perhaps, one day, able to efficiently move goods
across land routes to Europe and the Arab world -- it would reduce China's
dependence on shipping through the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca, sea
lanes largely guaranteed by U.S. naval power. Chinese strategic thinkers don't
want to depend on the kindness of strangers in either India or the United
States. Having alternate routes for vital supplies is a strategic breakout for
China from U.S. encirclement, one designed to alleviate
America's "strategic exclusion" of China, as one
report describes the Chinese strategy.
What does all
this mean for Washington? Is there really a Chinese strategic breakout? And who
wins and who loses?
depends on whether you believe, as many Chinese strategists do, that the United
States seeks to encircle or blackmail Beijing. India has been looking for
inroads into Central Asia, rather unsuccessfully, but the country still has plenty
of options to develop elsewhere. That
said, neither New Delhi nor Washington is about to cede the region to China,
but more options are good for sales, exports, and strategic balance for the
countries of the region. Moscow is the big loser, however: Putin's stranglehold
on Central Asian gas and the region's trade routes is over.
fundamental takeaway in this new Great Game is that the United States is only
an interested outside power, not one with vital interests at stake. As
Washington completes the pullout of combat forces from Afghanistan, the
necessity of serious engagement evaporates: It no longer has money or treasure
at stake. However, American presence has been good for the countries of Central
Asia; it stirs things up in terms of investors and aid, provides a counterpoint
to both Russia and China, helps a fragile civil society, and opens up private-sector
flows. So, Washington needs to stay active, but in new ways:
- Pipes and routes: The United States can help
relaunch private efforts for southern and western routes, working with
Europe, India, Pakistan, and, yes, even Iran. Even some of the more
fanciful routes across Pakistan
to China may work, and America's Persian Gulf allies want land routes
to China too.
- Agriculture: The breadbasket
potential is enormous. China, India, and the Arab world are all hungry
customers. And in this, American know-how and industry -- from John Deere
to Cargill -- are critical.
- International standards: With Turkey, South Korea,
and other actors, the United States should push transparency, anti-corruption,
and corporate responsibility as a basis for investment and trade, not
Russian or Chinese sleaze. European standards, Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development practices, and World Trade Organization (WTO)
rules would put trade and investment on a sounder footing.
- WTO: Can't we finally,
after some 15 years, finish the negotiation
with Kazakhstan for it to join the World Trade Organization? Kyrgyzstan
and Tajikistan are already members, but Kazakhstan would provide a
- Water: This vital resource is in constant
dispute in the region; upstream countries want to regulate hydroelectric
output while downstream countries want consistent irrigation. The U.N.
Economic Commission for Europe has been trying to mediate,
but Washington could get behind the effort to resolve water allocations among
- Democracy: One downside for the United States
is that Beijing and Moscow are an anti-model. They reinforce dictators, promote
corruption, and countenance crackdowns. Kyrgyzstan is making a go of real
democracy again; the country deserves the Obama administration's every
support: money, attention, visits, and increased aid.
In the end,
independent countries with real choices, here as elsewhere, are better for the
United States. Washington has helped and can help them further by providing options
and standards that create new opportunities. The lines to the future, however,
must flow in many directions, not just to Moscow or Beijing, but to Dubai,
Delhi, and Des Moines too. If no one country dominates, it's a win for the
LINTAO ZHANG/AFP/Getty Images