Today, the world is one of great power competition: An unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by a revanchist Russia in Europe; Hamas, a proxy of Iran, is set on the elimination of Israel in the Middle East and Asia; the People’s Republic of China is threatening Taiwan. This occurs while U.S. federal spending is under strain, given a ballooning budget deficit and urgent domestic security concerns along our southern border.
The retrenchment that has characterized the foreign policy of recent administrations has contributed to this instability, and we must address it by supporting Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. However, necessity dictates that we marshal our resources, directing them toward vital interests and engaging in effective statecraft.
As we work to strengthen our alliances in Europe and Asia, we should also look for opportunities to plant seeds of division between Moscow and Beijing—a relationship that had been described as “one without limits” before Russia invaded Ukraine.
The former Soviet Republics in Central Asia, bordering both China and Russia, may be such a place. Historic precedence exists of great powers’ interests clashing in Central Asia. Victorian Britain and Czarist Russia battled over the Khanates in the Great Game in the late 1800s. Clashes between the Soviet Red Army and the People’s Liberation Army in the 1960s along the border that today runs along Central Asia first alerted the West to the Sino-Soviet split.
A rising China views the five Central Asian Republics—Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan—as key to the Belt and Road Initiative’s rebirth of the ancient Silk Road. Connecting China to European markets by land would alleviate Beijing’s concerns about maritime choke points and being harassed by the power of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Moscow, who never accepted a junior role to Washington following the break-up of the Soviet Union, has been thrust into such a dependent role with Beijing. The Kremlin may consider this largely unavoidable, but in Central Asia, unacceptable.
Moscow and Beijing see the region developing in two very different directions. China promotes its Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Belt Road Initiative, and its own national investments in energy and mining. Beijing sees Central Asia as a source of minerals, hydrocarbons, agriculture, and links to markets to its west. It prioritizes stability in Central Asia, its majority Muslim neighbor to the west of Xinjiang, whose populations share religious and ethnic similarities with China’s Uighur population.
Moscow sees the region as its privileged sphere of influence. It utilizes the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a European Union wannabe, to link its markets to EEU members Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, and Armenia. The lack of controls within the EEU and Russia’s long border with Kazakhstan has enabled Moscow to evade U.S. and European sanctions. Trade to EEU members has increased with the larger volume simply shipped to Russia. It was the EEU that Russian president Vladimir Putin forced former Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych, now in exile in Russia, to choose over a partnership agreement with the European Union, leading to the Euro-Maidan Revolution in 2014.
Moscow also leads the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), whose membership mirrors the EEU plus Tajikistan. Like the USSR’s Warsaw Pact, which sent troops into Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968, the CSTO has only sent troops into member states, doing so in January 2022 in Kazakhstan just prior to Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. Concern over Moscow’s respect for Kazakh sovereignty and territorial integrity so alarmed Chinese president Xi Jinping that his first post-COVID trip was to Kazakhstan’s capital, where he stated, “Regardless of changes in the international situation, we will continue to resolutely support Kazakhstan in defending independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, firmly uphold the reforms that you are conducting on ensuring stability and development and strongly oppose the interference by any forces in the domestic affairs of your country.” Xi then traveled to Samarkand, the historic caravanserai along the Silk Road, which was selected to host the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit.
Beijing is considered the region’s future, while Moscow holds historic and personal ties. Yet, preventing Washington from gaining influence has led Russia and China to paper over their differences and align their interests in Central Asia. Without Washington at the table, Russia and China would be facing each other rather than joining together.
But what interests do we have in Central Asia, and does today’s geopolitical climate make achieving our policy objectives more or less likely? What would we give up to plant the seeds of future division between China and Russia in Central Asia?
Regarding democratic reform—except Uzbekistan, which The Economist named its country of the year in 2019—democracy has not shown signs of improvement. The model of authoritarian leadership appeals to the presidents in Central Asia and is reinforced by Xi and Putin. Despite world-class energy reserves in the Caspian Basin, those enjoyed by Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan do not have pipelines running to European markets, as with Azerbaijan. Notwithstanding years of lobbying by Republican and Democratic administrations, Turkmenistan’s gas runs east to China. Kazakhstan’s oil travels north through Russia rather than across the Caspian Sea toward European markets. This leaves them distressingly outside sources independent of Moscow or Beijing’s leverage that can replace sanctioned supplies from Iran and Russia. As the demand for hydrocarbons grows in China, and renewables replace Europe’s energy supply, these reserves will never find the markets, capital, and political leadership required for a trans-Caspian pipeline from the eastern shore to Baku on the Caspian’s west.
Recent efforts by the Biden administration include a meeting on the margins of last September’s UN General Assembly with President Joe Biden and all five Central Asian Republic presidents, Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit in February 2023 to the region, and that of U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Samantha Power to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in October 2023. The administration’s assessment is that the countries of the region share renewed concern over their aggressive neighbor to the north, weaker and distracted by the war in Ukraine, which may provide an opening. But if Moscow’s focus on Ukraine has created a vacuum, today’s vacuum—to the extent one exists—is more likely to be filled by China, Central Asia’s neighbor to the east.
While Biden’s meeting was a first, Putin meets individually or collectively with the leaders almost monthly. Xi held his own meeting with the five presidents in Beijing with large government and business delegations and great pageantry designed to please, as well as recent summits of the Belt and Road Initiative and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. When asked about the meeting with Biden in New York, government officials from the region were uninspired by the event and only regretted the coming demarches and blowback that would result from Moscow and Beijing. The spectacle of the shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan by the Biden administration left a deep impression on the people and leaders in the region—one that will not be easily erased.
In Europe, NATO has strengthened and enlarged in the face of Putin’s actions. Europe has joined together with the United States and other allies to sanction Moscow and support Ukraine through weapons transfers, intelligence sharing, and political and financial support. NATO will celebrate seventy-five years at its summit next year in Washington, DC, with a revitalized commitment and vision. The gathering of the Euro-Atlantic alliance will include new members, Finland and presumably Sweden, along with partners from the Indo-Pacific.
In Asia, greater cooperation with our allies and partners is recognized as essential to enhancing deterrence in the face of a more aggressive Beijing. Tokyo and Seoul are working together with Washington to balance the threat from China. Australia and the Philippines have a closer defense relationship with the United States through, respectively, AUKUS and a revitalized U.S.-Filippino Mutual Defense Treaty. Even India, historically a nonaligned state, and Vietnam, a former adversary, are accelerating relations with Washington over concerns about Beijing in South and Southeast Asia.
Efforts to build partnerships in Europe and Asia to counter Russia, China, and Iran’s malign influence are required to compete in today’s era of great power competition. We should also seek opportunities where divisions between Moscow and Beijing exist and can be exploited.
Russia and China compete in Central Asia, where Washington is trying to seek influence after wasting thirty years not doing so during more advantageous times. This has resulted in Putin and Xi aligning their interests. Alternatively, we could recognize that our absence advanced our interests, thereby illuminating Moscow and Beijing’s policy divergence. The seeds of division between Moscow and Beijing may be found in Central Asia. We should give them some sun.
David A. Merkel is the Managing Director of Summit International Advisors. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and Director for South and Central Asia on the National Security Council.