Central Asia’s Quiet Rise

January 29, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Eurasia Blog Brand: Silk Road Rivalries Tags: Central AsiaRussiaChinaMiddle CorridorKazakhstan

Central Asia’s Quiet Rise

Though long considered a part of Russia’s sphere of influence, Central Asia has become a crucial battleground for great power competition in the twenty-first century. Washington ought to pay attention.


Central Asia has long been considered a geopolitical backwater in the minds of many Western geopolitical thinkers and foreign policy strategists, earning it the name "Russia's backyard." Most Americans know nothing about the region except that it is home to many weak post-Soviet states. However, these perceptions are gradually changing as the current geopolitical landscape undergoes tectonic shifts toward multipolarity. Central Asia—and the countries within it—is gaining newfound importance. As a bridge between Europe and Asia, its burgeoning economic potential is drawing international attention. 

The Heartland Declares Independence


Despite American neglect of the region, the significance of Central Asia has long been acknowledged in international affairs. Early twentieth-century geopolitical theorists like Halford Mackinder paid close attention to the Eurasian continent, arguing that the fate of the world would be decided by the nation that controlled "the Heartland" or "Pivot Area"—an extensive region stretching from Eastern Europe to Eastern Siberia.

Mackinder's argument was simple: major Western conflicts until the early twentieth century were often between a maritime empire on the margins of Eurasia (like Spain and Great Britain) and a land power further inland. Maritime powers had utilized the resources of the margins of Eurasia and beyond (i.e., the New World) to defeat the land powers. However, if a Eurasian land power could fully harness the resource base of the Heartland/Pivot Area, it might achieve global hegemonic control. Mackinder famously summarized his prescription: "Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World‑Island; who rules the World‑Island commands the World."

Though somewhat simplistic, this argument found much purchase among Western geopolitical thinkers and strategists. It didn't hurt that by the 1940s, the Soviet Union had effectively matched Mackinder's description of a Eurasian land power. 

Mackinder's theory, however, suffered from two significant flaws. First, Mackinder and his colleagues did not consider that a maritime power—namely the United States—would be able to successfully and eventually defeat a Eurasian land power by geographically containing it (i.e., containment strategy), utilizing the rest of the world as its base. Second, and more notably, Mackinder failed to consider that the nations within the Heartland might have individual agendas and interests, putting them at odds with the region's imperially-inclined land power. 

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the states of Central Asia—the core of Mackinder's Heartland—have embarked on a path towards greater geopolitical independence and sovereignty. These nations, emerging from the shadows of Soviet rule, have been navigating a complex landscape to establish their unique identities and assert their presence on the global stage.

Initially, the post-Soviet era posed significant challenges. All post-Soviet states had to construct independent national identities and political systems practically from the ground up. The collapse of the Soviet Union left a void, requiring post-Soviet leaders—from Kazakhstan's first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to Georgia's Eduard Shevardnadze—to oversee the creation of new governing structures and the fostering of a sense of national unity amid diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Similarly, these nations also inherited economic systems deeply integrated with the Soviet economy, requiring a significant transformation to adapt to a globalized world.

Moving away from Soviet-style centralized planning to increasingly market-oriented models, most post-Soviet states experienced an economic and ideological shift. However, this process has been uneven across the region, with some countries embracing new reforms more readily than others. Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev, for instance, was known to say "the economy first, then politics," instituting judicial reforms to address corruption, implementing various programs such as the "Kazakhstan 2050" strategy (which aims to have the country take a place among the world's thirty-most developed states by 2050), and so on. By contrast, Turkmenistan, under the country's first president, Saparmyrat Niyazov, was the slowest and last of the post-Soviet republics to transition to a free market economy. Today, the Turkmen government still owns and controls most of the country's land, has a monopoly over various industries, and sports a largely unreformed judicial system.

Amid this transformation, Central Asia became an arena for major powers to exert influence. Russia, historically the dominant force in the region, continues to hold much sway. However, its power is diminishing, especially as the war in Ukraine grinds on. China has also emerged as a critical player, expanding its economic and strategic footprint through initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative. Middle powers have also become increasingly involved. Turkey, for instance, has deepened its ties with Central Asian states, driven by historical, ethnic, and linguistic connections. Its investments in sectors like construction, infrastructure, and telecommunications are substantial. With its cultural and geographical proximity, Iran is also keeping an eye on the region, as is India, motivated by its own historical ties and strategic concerns over China's presence.

To avoid becoming mere objects of power relations—that is to say, a battleground of great power competition—Central Asian states have been maneuvering among these different powers, leveraging their strategic positions to gain maximum advantage. They have avoided aligning too closely with any single power, instead seeking balanced relations to preserve their independence and autonomy. This particular brand of diplomatic engagement has been called "multivector foreign policy." Its leading exponent is Kazakhstan's former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who described it as "the development of friendly and predictable relations with all states that play a significant role in world affairs and are of practical interest to the country."

While pursuing these policies, the Central Asian states have begun working together to accelerate economic growth and ensure regional peace and stability. Damjan Krnjević, a researcher at ADA University, observes that there is "[An] ongoing text‑based process of economic connectivity and regionalization […] Indeed, the strategic logic informing the admittedly embryonic plans now being laid call to mind older arrangements in other geographies: ASEAN, the Nordic Council, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the original European Economic Community."

As a result of this process, and as a consequence of numerous other geopolitical trends—particularly the still-ongoing war in Ukraine, which forced Russia to redirect political and diplomatic attention away from the region—Central Asia is experiencing a transformation, in which "regionally‑driven economic connectivity is on the way in; outside power agenda‑setting is on the way out; and although some outsiders are seeing their relative power decline while others are seeing an increase, in the aggregate, the power of outsiders is likely to be reduced overall over the next decade or so." Central Asian states' multivector foreign policy approach, in other words, has succeeded in preventing the outright capture of the region by major foreign powers.

The Middle Corridor and the New Great Game

Aside from forcing Moscow to redirect its attention away from Central Asia, the Russo-Ukrainian War has had another major effect: it highlighted the budding importance of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, more often known as "the Middle Corridor."

The term refers to a significant transcontinental transportation route that traverses Central Asia, facilitating trade and connectivity between Asia and Europe, offering an alternative to the more traditional sea routes. Until the war in Ukraine, interest in this corridor was limited for practical reasons. The rival Northern Corridor, which passes through Russia, was cheaper and more efficient. A recent study from the World Bank lays out some of the issues in stark terms. Simply put, transporting containers via the Norther Corridor is consistently cheaper, and shipping times are much shorter due to better and more modern existing infrastructure, more robust rail capacity, fewer border crossings (and thus less paperwork), and so forth.

The war in Ukraine, however, has changed the geopolitical calculus.

European countries experienced the repercussions of depending too heavily on Moscow for energy and trade, leading to concerns among Western officials about Russia's ability to use its position as a key transit country to its advantage. This situation led to sanctions by Western nations against Russia and many of its business enterprises, rendering the Northern Corridor increasingly impractical. China—which has been attempting to cut down on trade transit times by supporting railways—has also been affected by this shift. Beijing is increasingly eyeing the Middle Corridor as an alternative route. Central Asian countries also became aware of the dangers of relying on Russia for trade and transport, particularly in light of the sanctions regime, prompting them to explore ways to broaden their international connections. The Middle Corridor fits perfectly into this schema.

As a result, the Middle Corridor—and the countries along it, especially Central Asian states—are now receiving special attention. 2023 saw much discussion around the corridor, with high-level hora and summits covering the topic, including the first-ever C5+1 Presidential Summit, the inaugural China-Central Asia Summit, the Forty-Ninth G7 Summit, the Trans-Caspian Forum, the Astana International Forum, and more.

The World Bank's study elaborates on the corridor's potential, estimating that increased infrastructure funding will halve travel times and result in a threefold increase in freight volume by 2030. This, along with broader investments, will yield benefits "in terms of economic welfare, trade and transport system resilience, social inclusion, environmental effects, agglomeration effects, and equity. The impacts of corridor development can be observed through various channels, such as changes in land values and utilization, movement of people, firm locations, investment levels, productivity, and trade."