Should revolution sweep Central Asia in a “Silk Road Awakening” next decade, its republics, rich in resources but impoverished in terms of infrastructure and institutions, could find themselves at the mercy of neighboring great powers descending upon the region like four “hungry hippos.”
This is the premise explored by a team of Georgetown University students participating in a grand strategy competition with the geopolitical analysis community Wikistrat. Their worst-case scenario? Continental Asia as a ticking time bomb.
Neighboring powers have been vying for influence in Central Asia since the demise of Soviet power there, inspiring some analysts to forecast a “New Great Game” in reminiscence of the Anglo-Russian power struggle during the nineteenth century.
As both the British and the Russians found out, Central Asia is a tar pit filled with confusing micro-nationalities, borders arbitrarily drawn without regard for ethnic divides and a geography that is bound to frustrate any attempt at military intervention. But it’s also rich in natural resources and could propel whichever country dominates it to the status of global power. China, Iran, Russia and Turkey each have a strong motive for building leverage in the region should an opportunity to do so present itself.
Such an opportunity could be a wave of popular uprisings come 2027. The Georgetown students warn that the situation could be very similar to that in Libya today where the fall of a strongman heralds chaos and disorder. “Few political leaders emerged among the republics,” Georgetown’s David Rosenblum predicts, “and those who did found the attempt to make the different ethnic, linguistic and religious groups happy nearly impossible.”
Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, Tajiks, Pamiris, Kara-kalpaks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Uigurs and Uzbeks created plenty of personal interest problems. Unifying these groups also proved difficult due to the sparse population density typifying much of the vast region.
Of the gravest concern for the region would be a sudden and significant drop in oil and gas production.
China, Iran, Russia and Turkey were quick to observe that state-owned companies responsible for pumping gas or oil and guarding energy infrastructure do not function nearly as well when that state is failing. The responses from Ankara, Beijing, Moscow and Tehran were swift now that their national interests were threatened by Central Asia’s collapse.
China could see unrest spreading into Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia where ethnic minorities have long been ambivalent about Communist rule. Moreover, China’s high dependence on imported oil and gas could ignite a crisis and spark riots if the energy flow from Central Asia were suddenly interrupted. Thus China dispatches peacekeepers and UAVs to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to protect the natural gas pipeline that traverses these countries. “A number of geologists were also spotted throughout Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, prospecting for rare earth elements.”
In Tehran, the immediate concern would be the risk of an Azeri uprising proclaiming allegiance to Azerbaijan. Having just weaponized its nuclear potential, Iran would still be heavily outgunned by Israel. “With abundant supplies of oil and a population thrilled to be free of burdensome economic sanctions, Tehran had only two objectives in Central Asia,” according to Harry Bethke.
Stop the protest movements from spreading as it threatened the Islamic Republic’s territorial integrity and acquire the infrastructure needed to become an official global power — a space launch site.
Ayatollahs in space? It would put Iran’s nuclear capabilities in a spot even harder to reach than the holy bunkers at Qom. Iranian advisors would soon be on the ground in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
Turkey, still not a member of the European Union, would finally take matters into its own hands and seek to unify the Turkic people from the Golden Horn to Urumqi, China. “Leading a revitalized Grand Turkestan would certainly put Turkey on the map,” the Georgetown students observe. “But acquiring nuclear weapons wouldn’t hurt either.”
While leading the charge to link Grand Turkestan to its rightful place, Turkey would begin acquiring the necessary material to begin a nuclear weapons program. Fortunately, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan had plenty of uranium and mines already constructed.
As for Russia, the situation playing out in its backyard could not represent more of a disaster. With terrorists and weapons flowing freely from Central Asia to its troubled North Caucasus and nearby great powers encroaching upon its traditional zone of influence, Moscow would suddenly experience the all too familiar feeling of other countries knocking on its doorstep. As Maria Vassilieva observes,
Russia now faced the EU and NATO to its west, China on its southeast, the possibility of a Turkish led amalgamation, Iran, or China on its south and the United States and Canada moving in close over the top with the melting ice caps.
Having properly cited their moral obligations and cultural ties with the Central Asian people, the four interested powers would be “somewhat surprised to see others there with them.”
Unlike the original Great Game, the competition for influence and control would not rely on troops physically acquiring territory alone, notes Alfredo Montufar-Helu Jimenez. “Select energy infrastructure and weapons materiel will be the main prize that China, Iran, Russia and Turkey all covet.” Controlling them could still demand military action however.
It’s possible for coalitions to emerge among the four powers with China and Russia developing a partnership to keep the upstarts, Iran and Turkey, from making any moves of strategic significance in Central Asia.
Russia and China would have largely similar interests in protecting energy infrastructure and eliminating the protest movements and air of revolution to keep things quiet in their respective provinces. Furthermore, their energy interests and energy infrastructure do not overlap. They have access to uranium and other minerals and have access to space stations to launch satellites and other weapons.
Iran and Turkey could upset these assets but an alliance between them is unlikely, allowing the others to “divide and conquer.”
The United States would have little reason to interfere. It has only to sit back and let the four competitors sort things out among themselves unless one threatens to emerge as a clear winner. In the meantime, the Americans would be busy leading an international effort of safeguarding Soviet era weapons of mass destructions that could easily fall in the hands of some terrorist organization amid the chaos.