Asian monitor Publications

US-Central Asia: Big Game in the 21st Century

The Center for Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Studies presents an article by a political analyst, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Associate Professor Asenbek Binarovich, about Washington and Beijing's strategy in Central Asia, as well as the possible consequences of the recently signed peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban.

Rudyard Kipling wrote in his famous novel "Kim" - "Only when everyone dies - The big game is over». Play for dominance in Asia between empires was an important part of world processes. In the 19th century, the British and Russian empires zealously followed the slightest advance of each other deep into the heart of Asia. The rapidly weakening China could not withstand the great powers, and he himself was subjected to a de facto division into the spheres of influence of Britain, Russia, Germany, and Japan. Afghanistan, as it is now, was divided into zones of influence by tribes under weak central authority. But it did not hurt to deal serious blows to the English army, which was forced to flee the country.

The game continued in the 20th century. On the ruins of the Russian Empire emerged Soviet Russia, which, convinced of the impossibility of direct export of the world revolution to Europe, began a movement to the East. Under the strikes of the Red Army, the Caucasus, Bukhara and Khiva were returned to the future of the USSR, and the revolution in Mongolia won. The leaders of the Soviet government considered exporting the revolution to India and Iran in order to weaken the main empire of the world, Britain. After the Second World War, the British Empire collapsed. India and Pakistan emerge on the site of the former colonial possession. China under Communist rule begins building socialism. The US is becoming a world superpower. The Cold War breaks through a dozen conflicts in different regions of the planet. Finally, the main players in the Big Game - the USSR and the US - clashed in Afghanistan.

The situation has changed again in the 21st century. The USSR collapsed, including because of the hardships of the Afghan war. The Russian Federation is trying to return to its "natural" borders. But former Soviet republics, when formulating their national interests, do not always see Russia as a place in them. The Kremlin is trying to exert political and military pressure on post-Soviet countries. Hence the conflicts in Transnistria, Georgia, Ukraine.

Central Asia, above all Kazakhstan, is involved in various integration associations. But it should be borne in mind that the members of these unions understand their content differently. China became the most important player. President Xi Jinping's initiative "One Belt - One Way" has become an important tool for penetrating Central Asian countries. From here, resources are pumped out, and a diverse transport infrastructure is being created, which already today connects China with numerous routes with the Middle East, Iran, and Europe.

The United States is painfully aware of China's position in Central Asia. Americans believe that the One Belt One Way initiative is burdening the countries of the region with debt loads and reorienting them to the Chinese economy. As in the Cold War, the confrontation between the United States and China has a systemic character and breaks out in the peripheral countries of Asia and Africa.

This is reflected in the US strategy in Central Asia until 2015, which aims to "promote the sovereignty and economic prosperity" of the region. In this way, the United States will prevent Central Asia's unambiguous orientation towards China or Russia. It is even largely about China, since Russia imitates the status of a great power without the corresponding potential. As R. Pipes noted, “Russia is, in fact, a small country, given the population and demographic potential. Five hundred million people live in Western Europe. In China, more than a billion. And in Russia only one hundred and fifty million. Huge territory and beautiful geopolitical position, and nothing else. This is not a great power ... Russia will transfer America as much as possible because it enhances its status as a power. If you say no to America, then you are great. " (New Europe, Winter 2013-2014, No.1, P.85).

Central Asia, in line with the Strategy, should be open to US and European investment, not just focus on China. Another problem is counter-terrorism. As noted in the document, "A stable and secure Central Asia makes a direct contribution to the United States' efforts to combat terrorism, support regional stability, ensure energy security, and enhance economic prosperity in the region and beyond."

For the US, the concepts of stability and democracy are essentially the same. Therefore, the Strategy focuses on implementing recent opportunities for economic and political reform with US support. “In addition, improving interregional relations and a growing understanding of the value of working together as a regional group have expanded opportunities for US participation through the C5 + platform 1. Central Asian countries 'efforts to increase foreign investment and attract US businesses increase Central Asian leaders' readiness to reform rights and respect international norms. "

But the problem is that the reforms announced by the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan do not at all touch on the fundamental foundations of authoritarian regimes and do not aim at the transition to real democracy. They want investment and economic development, but without democracy and political freedom. And China's example for Central Asian regimes is more preferable than any attempt by the United States to bring freedom to the soil of the region. Moreover, the idea of ​​regional integration, in spite of all the assurances of the leaders of the region, remains an urgent wish rather than a real goal. Numerous problems - from the dried up Aral Sea to the border barriers - remain unresolved. There is a need for mutual concessions that are understood by authoritarian regimes as manifestations of weakness. And this is unacceptable in Central Asia.

So far, China's dominance in the region cannot be challenged by anyone. But the situation may change. China cannot develop in a linear fashion, so significant negative changes are likely here that will affect its position. The adopted program of building a middle-class society means not only an increase in the well-being of ordinary Chinese, but also an increase in the consumer basket, wages, and social demands. And this leads to higher prices of production, its relocation to other regions. The process of withdrawal of production outside the Middle Kingdom has already begun. To some extent, this is reminiscent of the history of the United States itself, which relocated its industry to third world countries, including China. Donald Trump owes his victory in the election with a promise to return production to the country, restore industrial enterprises, return thousands of jobs.

How will China handle the new challenge? If a competitive economy, democracies allow the United States to take a sharp turn and maintain its leading position, then China still raises more questions than answers. Can a non-democratic society with a regulated economy carry out a radical reform? China, unlike the USSR, was able to do so in the late 20th century, when such preconditions were important for such a policy. Lack of political opposition and private property, social equality of citizens, low social demands and other factors contributed to this policy. But now Chinese society has become too heterogeneous, interests and preferences have taken the widest range from orthodox to liberal. In addition, an example of mass protests is provided by Hong Kong. Therefore, it is hardly necessary to consider China's superiority in the region a long-lasting factor.

USA offer your own alternative in the form of six comprehensive and mutually reinforcing goals in Central Asia. First, "to maintain and strengthen the sovereignty and independence of the Central Asian states, both individually and in the region." Important here is the strengthening of intra-regional ties, including "US support for a unified electricity grid in Central Asia will help facilitate trade in surplus electricity, reduce consumer spending, increase supplier revenue, increase energy security in the region, and reduce dependence on external actors." This is a difficult task, since the ties between the countries of the region are very weak, despite the urgent need to solve common problems, including not only energy supply requests, but also water problems, mutual barriers to moving goods, and moving people up to the border.

The second task is "To reduce terrorist threats in Central Asia." Thanks to the US military operation in Afghanistan, the threat of "terrorism" spreading to Central Asia has passed. But everyone is well aware that the ground for its growth in the region still exists.

These measures are important to address the main task, which is formulated as follows - "Expand and support support for stability in Afghanistan." According to the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, which since 2009 has been reporting the deaths and casualties of 35 civilians killed in the last ten years, another 65 were injured. “The United States recognizes that a secure and stable Afghanistan is a top priority for the governments of Central Asian countries, and they are each called upon to play an important role in supporting the peace process that will end the conflict. The United States will encourage Central Asian states to develop economic and trade ties with Afghanistan and to model sustainable governance of Muslim-majority multi-ethnic countries. "

Hence the fourth task - "Promote communication between Central Asia and Afghanistan. " It is anticipated that "Central Asian states will develop closer ties with Afghanistan through energy, economic, cultural, trade and security lines that directly contribute to regional stability."

On February 29, a very important step was made in this direction. US and Taliban Movement signed a peace agreement in Qatar. The United States will reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan from 12 thousand to 8,6 thousand in 135 days. If the Taliban adheres to the terms of the treaty and shows no violence, the withdrawal of US and NATO troops will continue.

United States Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban Representative Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar Signing the Ceremony

The Taliban and the Afghan government will have a direct dialogue, and this has not been possible all these years of confrontation. Once the inter-Afghan dialogue begins, the Taliban will engage with the UN Security Council to remove its members from the sanctions list. This issue is expected to be resolved by the end of May 2020. A joint declaration was signed between the United States and the Afghan authorities, noting the importance of strong ties between the two countries and continued support for Afghanistan's security forces. Representatives from more than 30 countries attended the ceremony in Qatar.

The signing of the agreement does not at all mean a complete and comprehensive solution to the Afghan problem. The Taliban movement is heterogeneous. Heads of units sometimes take the exact opposite position, including on the issue of establishing peace in the country. In addition, Afghan peasants engaged in large-scale heroin production in the face of ongoing war. An attractive alternative must be created for them. There are 2, 7 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Naturally, not all of them support peace agreements. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said he fully supports the peace process and his country is no longer a refuge for militants. However, Pakistan cannot "fully guarantee" that the Taliban is not in its territory.

Central Asia's involvement in Afghanistan's reconstruction process could be stepped up by projects such as the CASA-1000. It is about exporting electricity from Central Asia to Afghanistan and Pakistan. As a result, it is supposed to create a unified power grid.

The so-called Lazurite Road can be considered as a step against the invasion of the Chinese region. The opening ceremony was held in December 2018 in Herat. The route from the Afghan province of Herat leads to Turkmenistan, then through the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and then to Georgia. From here the route goes to Turkey and further to Europe. In this way, Afghanistan will have the opportunity to import European products. Turkmenistan, actively involved in the construction of the road, gets an opportunity to get out of transport isolation. The Lazurite Way is a long-term project that aims to create a new route bypassing Russia, Iran, China from Europe through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India. It can also compete with China's Xinjiang route to Pakistan's Gwadar port. Naturally, the Lazurite Way is not designed to enable Afghanistan to export $ XNUMX million worth of products. This route will continue to Pakistan and India. Europe will thus be linked to the rapidly developing and densely populated South Asia. European products will compete fiercely with Chinese goods.

The Lazurite Road opens up new opportunities for the activation of the economies of Eastern Europe. Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus can join the process, which will be able to intensify relations with a number of states bypassing Russia.

The big game in Central Asia continues. Russia has lost its economic position in the region, but still retains political influence. But politics without economy is nothing. China is increasing its presence, but is facing increasing Chinaophobia. The US has defined its strategy in the near future and will promote the Greater Eurasia project, the key to which is a stable Afghanistan. And that means weakening the positions of competitors - China and Russia.