Central Asia Is Crucial—But Nobody Seems to Care

Rest stop in the Kyzylkum Desert in Uzbekistan. Pixabay/Public domain

No great power is skillfully managing its relations with the region.

The death of Islam Karimov sparked discussions, not only on the future of Uzbekistan, but also on the geopolitical meaning of Central Asia. One thing is clear: despite the region’s importance, the major outside powers encounter significant difficulties when attempting to improve their standing there. The West, Russia, China, India, Turkey, the Gulf states and Iran all have reasons to engage with Central Asian republics, and all need to expend a great deal of effort to secure sustainable results for their policies. In this game, Russia might be proving itself to be the strongest player.

The Great Game of the nineteenth century—the competition between the Russian and British empires for dominance in Central Asia—had two main characteristics. First, Russia was a challenger to Great Britain already dominating India and South Asia. The British Empire pushed back against Russia’s efforts to extend its influence to the south from Central Asia, challenging British positions. Second, with the importance of India and the British fear of losing “the brightest jewel in the British crown,” this contest was to a significant degree secondary to European politics, defining the international relations of that age.

Today, while analyzing the modern Great Game in Central Asia, there is no clear dominating power or challenger—or, for that matter, multiple challengers. Several current players in the region have different advantages and shortcomings. Although it is hard to determine the central zone of today’s world politics, with the continued significance of Europe, and the prominence of the Middle East and the Pacific Rim in terms of global security, Central Asia’s importance is hard to underestimate.

In the short run, the Muslim masses of the Central Asian region, which can hardly be considered affluent, present one of the most promising sources of recruits for Islamic extremism. Gulmurod Khalimov, a former Tajik special-operations colonel who became one of ISIS’s senior military leaders, is only the most well known among the thousands of Central Asia–born terrorists. However, the bigger challenge for countries along the borders of Central Asia, whether Russia or China, and for global security in general, lies in the possibility of a wide-scale Islamist insurrection that could transfer the region into to a hotbed of global extremism.

Central Asia’s energy resources are important in the long run. But one can argue that since the demise of Soviet Union they have been overestimated. Moreover, against the background of falling oil prices, these resources are less sought after. But considering the growing global demand for energy, and oil and gas constituting the biggest share for at least the next twenty-five years, countries strategically managing their energy security and energy companies fighting for market dominance in the coming decades cannot help but retain a presence in Central Asia. Even with lowered estimates, the region remains rich in hydrocarbons.

Every major power active in Central Asia is involved for its own particular reasons. But all of them know the extent of the difficulties that need to be overcome to establish a sustainable presence in the region. Despite their geographical proximity and a long history of relations with the region, Iran, Turkey and, to a lesser degree, Saudi Arabia currently have too much on their plates to divert their attention to increasing their influence in Central Asia. The wars in Syria and Yemen, and the struggle for influence in Lebanon, Iraq and other places in the Middle East, coupled with the challenges of domestic development, have pushed Central Asia to the back of Iran’s foreign-policy priorities. Iran’s counterpart in many of these struggles—Saudi Arabia, arguably the most influential Arab power in the Gulf—is also too occupied to become actively involved in the region. Furthermore, the growth of Saudi activities in Central Asia and elsewhere in recent decades has been connected to the involvement of groups considered by many to be extremist. Bearing in mind the current international situation, one could argue that it is not the best time for Riyadh to support these activities.

Ankara is also too busy to raise its profile in Central Asia. The peculiarity of Turkish situation is determined by the fact that the advancement of Turkish “soft power” in Central Asia was connected to Fethullah Gülen’s organization. Today, Gülen’s networks are persecuted by the Turkish state, both domestically and internationally. For India, despite all its interest in foreign energy sources, Central Asia seems still beyond its diplomatic means. Competition with Pakistan for influence in Afghanistan takes up too much of India’s foreign political resources to plan any for further advancements to the north.