Vying for Influence in Central Asia

The United States appear to be scheduling a greater involvement in Central Asia. They should think twice before immersing themselves in this unfortunate quagmire however, boxed in between the conflicting interests of two former Cold War rivals.

EurasiaNet reports that the Pentagon is preparing to embark on a small building boom in Central Asia. The military is seeking a role in strategic construction projects throughout Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, the latter three of which all border on Afghanistan.

The largest project entails the construction of an anti-terrorism training facility in southern Kyrgyzstan. The US Army Corps of Engineers is anticipating two different projects in the small Central Asian state recently wrecked with ethnic violence, both estimated to be in the $5 to $10 million dollar range. The American embassy in Kyrgyzstan indicated that the facilities would be used for border security and counternarcotics operations.

The five former Soviet republics comprising the heart of Central Asia are caught between two great powers, each attempting to expand their spheres of influence in the region. In spite of Russia’s obsession with recapturing lost prestige, its foreign policy is not entirely focused on the West. Some Russian governors in the Far East occasionally raise the specter of the “yellow menace” and talk about the danger posed to the underpopulated region by unregulated Chinese migration. As Dmitri Gorenburg noted last February though, “this kind of talk rarely emanates from Moscow and certainly does not affect troop positioning.”

China is interested in this part of the world because it contains vast reserves of natural gas, oil, timber and gold. As Robert Kaplan warned in April, “Beijing is poised to conquer Mongolia again, albeit indirectly,” by buying up its resources.

The two powers may clash in the years ahead over influence and interests but violent confrontations are unlikely to occur. For one thing, both remain committed to promoting the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an alternative to what they perceive to be a disproportionate Western stake in international affairs. Within the informal BRIC, they have the support of Brazil and India in this regard, two other prominent rising powers. Political infighting makes no sense for either country. They would only stand to lose from an all too obvious split.

What’s more, China is mainly concerned with ensuring its economic growth, not with territorial expansion. Russia maintains a strong position in Central Asia and has most of its military might turned southward. There is no reason for China to deny Moscow the illusion of still being a great power.

That illusion is powerful however and still has former satellite states worrying about Russian designs upon their newfound independence. For America to establish a permanent military presence in all of Central Asia sends a clear signal to Moscow that it won’t allow a repetition of the 2008 invasion of Georgia. Whether, if worst comes to worst, the United States will actually be willing to risk American lives to curb Russian expansionism is another matter.

It’s not so much because of the danger of great power conflict in Central Asia that the United States should take care not to thrust themselves all too powerfully into this seemingly irrelevant part of the world. Central Asia is like the Balkans, with a confusing array of micro-nationalities, borders arbitrarily drawn without regard for ethnic divides, and a geography that is bound to frustrate any attempt at military intervention.

Up to the early twentieth century, Central Asia had no real borders. Rather the region was one large frontier separating the Russian Empire from British colonial interests to the south. With the emergence of the Soviet Union however and its aggressive attempts at spreading communism worldwide, the former khanates of Central Asia were quickly absorbed and divided into neat little socialist republics. Neat, except that their borders were drawn with the express purpose of keeping the populations there divided lest they rise up against the Soviet usurpation.

The borders were redrawn several times during the 1920s and 30s, prompting violent demarcation disputes after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Separating the five newly independent states are Soviet borders; linking them are Soviet roads, pipelines and electricity grids.

Unlike its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan has experimented with democracy in the recent past and the interim government that took control after President Kurmanbek Bakiyev fled the capital last April has announced a referendum to determine the country’s political future. Kyrgyzstan however is desperately divided, with an Uzbek minority living in the west near the Uzbekistan border fearing oppression and north and south appearing like different countries altogether. The north, around the capital of Bishkek, is more developed, with some industry and a semblance of Russian culture. The south, largely agrarian and more Islamic, is separated from the north by a mountain range through which just two usable roads traverse.

Resources and a wish for stability so near the Middle East will lure the three interested powers — China, Russia and the United States — to Central Asia. Add to that the threat of Islamic extremism. America and Russia have both felt the effects of that while Beijing dreads nationalist uprisings in what was once East Turkestan and is now China’s volatile Xinjiang province. They will inevitably clash over influence and natural riches and possibly attempt to exploit ethnic disputes to serve their own interests. In the end, that would leave everyone worse off.