The new Great Game

Faced with a resurgent Russia and highly assertive China, the US is redefining its interests in Central Asia

By Author Martand Jha   |   Published: 28th Apr 2018   12:06 am Updated: 27th Apr 2018   8:09 pm

The United States did not put Central Asia in its strategic priorities for around a decade post-Cold war. Due to its isolation, the region was not a part of the mainstream world politics and, therefore, most of the countries, including major powers, had little formal knowledge about Central Asia.

After 1991, the US became the sole superpower. It wanted to extend its hegemony far from it mainland territory. Central Asia was one such region. However, low awareness about the region and the US itself being pre-occupied in other areas such as the Middle East, making strategic relations with the newly-independent Central Asian republics was relatively a low-key affair.

US oil companies were, however, quite interested in the Central Asian oil reserves around the Caspian basin. American involvement in the region grew significantly after the 9/11 attacks and understandably so because, for the first time, its national interests were at stake. The US came down heavily in the region with a huge military presence in Afghanistan, supported by the Nato member-states.

Post 9/11

Central Asia became a region of both ‘growing importance’ and ‘growing challenge’ for the US. Other actors like Russia and China saw the presence of the US in the region as a challenge against their own interests. But, the biggest plus point that came out of the US presence here post 9/11 was the focused attention the region received.

United States

This was unimaginable during the Soviet rule and even during the 1990s. Documentaries were made by the American media on the region, reports were filed, essays were written and research papers were presented. Critics, however, argued that the US used the media to spread a false propaganda about the region’s backwardness.

Nevertheless, the American presence brought a certain degree of ‘openness’ and American policymakers are now much more familiar with the region than they were at any point in time earlier. New vectors of geo-political development were defined in the region. The US started maintaining its military bases in Central Asia post 9/11 for post-war operations in Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan too gained prominence. Karshi-Khanabad Air Base is located in southern Uzbekistan not far from Tajikistan; Manas Air Base is just north of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. America began leasing both Soviet-era bases during the run-up to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. They are used primarily to station soldiers, refuelling jets, and cargo planes.

Beyond Terrorism

The official stand of the US administration for this highly militarised presence in the region was to eliminate Taliban and other terrorist organisations. But, the US saw the opportunity to satisfy other ends as well in the garb of fighting terrorism.

Like other major powers, it got interested in getting its hands onto the region’s oil. “A fundamental objective of the US government is to prevent any neo-imperial revival in Eurasia,” says Stephen J Blank, an expert on Central Asia at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute.

Central Asian leaders in the past have accused the US of seeking a permanent presence in the region for reasons unrelated to its war on terrorism. At the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation summit in 2005, Uzbek President Islam Karimov said, Washington has “far-reaching geopolitical plans, the final aim of which is to change the balance of power and dominate the Central Asian region.”

Russia also accused the US of inducing ‘colour revolutions’ in former Soviet States, for instance, the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. In the first decade of the 20th century, the US presence in the region drew varied reactions from Central Asian leaders.

But, it also received huge support from everyone, including Russia. Over a period of time, when the US continued its military presence in the territory, serious questions were raised on the intentions of Bush administration.

Power Competition

Today, the US is facing a great power competition with a resurgent Russia and a highly assertive China. Even after more than a quarter of the century since the independence of Central Asian republics, the democratisation in the region as a whole is lacking. This means that the US’ ambitions of pushing democratic processes at the ground took a major setback.

It has also been criticised for using ‘democracy’ as an excuse to push forward its own agenda. On a brighter side, the US has had very good relations with countries like Uzbekistan. The March 2002 declaration of a strategic partnership between the two countries was a high point in US-Uzbek relations. However, critics attribute it to Uzbekistan’s pendulum foreign policy — tilting towards Russia and US from time to time like a pendulum.

In recent times, the US has made efforts to redefine its interests in the region. The inception of C5+1 is one such effort. The US Department of State describes C5+1 as “a format for dialogue and a platform for joint efforts to address common challenges faced by the United States and the five Central Asian states. It complements bilateral relationships in the region, particularly in issue areas where regional approaches may provide a comparative advantage”.

The first meeting of C5+1 was held at Samarkand in November 2015. There the six foreign ministers agreed to focus on three sectors of common interest – security, with focus on terrorist threats; economics, with focus on improving regional trade flows and prospects for US trade and investment; and environmental challenges. They also agreed to form working groups for each sector and to focus on achieving practical results.

To sum up, the US is currently a very active player in Central Asia. In a multipolar world, it is definitely giving an ‘alternative’ and an ‘option’ to the Central Asian states to increase and strengthen the relations with itself. Also, the US knows the geo-strategic importance of this region, which is closer to China, Russia, South Asia as well the Middle East. Therefore, its efforts to build relations with the five states in the region are only expected to increase.

(The author is a Research Fellow at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University)