Central Asia is the core region of the Asian continent and stretches from the Caspian Sea in the west to China in the east and from Afghanistan in the south to Russia in the north. Central Asia includes five republics of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan (pop. 17 million), Kyrgyzstan (5.7 million), Tajikistan (8.0 million), Turkmenistan (5.2 million), and Uzbekistan (30 million), for a total population of about 66 million as of 2013–2014. Afghanistan (pop. 31.1 million) is also sometimes included.
Central Asia is rapidly changing after the world started taking more notice of this energy-rich region. Already the flow of capital and expansion of trade is triggering large-scale infrastructure, shipment of goods and flow of people across the region.
Owing to its energy resources and economic potential coupled with radicalism, great powers rivalry in the region has also increased. The major powers have responded in many ways to benefit from region’s strategic and energy resources. Russia is the traditional player and wishes to exert political influence. Moscow has strengthened the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and now it is aggressively pushing the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) to keep Central Asia under its stiff economic control.
The main contestant in the region is China, which has been waiting in the wings, since the Soviet collapse, for fully entering into the region with multiple motives. China considers this region as a source of energy and a critical partner for stabilizing its restive Xinjiang province. China has fully used its geographical proximity to the region and while pursuing an ingenious soft-power policy, it has successfully converted every challenge in Central Asia into an opportunity. China has pursued its interest while using the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a multilateral vehicle for promoting multiple interlocking of economic, security and even cultural ties. In fact, China has rapidly challenged Russian monopoly over Central Asia’s energy exports. Massive infrastructure development including building of pipelines, roads, and railways completed in the recent years are facilitating transport of oil, gas, uranium and other minerals to the Chinese towns. Beijing’s latest Silk Road Economic Belt scheme envisages $40 billion fund for promoting infrastructure, industrial and financial co-operation from Asia to Europe through Central Asia. The countries have quickly pledged support to the ‘Silk Route Belt’ idea for deepening their ancient ties with China. Chinese-led multilateral development institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Shanghai-based BRICS New Development Bank can also be helpful to China.
During an October 2013 visit to Kazakhstan, Chinese President Xi Jinping outlined his vision of a Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB).SREB will encourage economic development in China’s restive Xinjiang region, and will boost Chinese exports to Central Asia. In addition, expanded land transit allows China to diversify its import and export channels, diffusing risk from maritime lanes still controlled by the U.S. The investment in new infrastructure also cements Chinese economic and, some fear, political influence. Part of the SREB vision is the creation of new institutions with a strong Chinese voice, like the AIIB, that could challenge existing U.S.-led alternatives. China has deployed massive diplomatic, military, academic, and business resources to support the realization of the SREB and this synergy of resources gives its vision the best likelihood of success. While the initial focus is economic, over the long term these developments could even pave the way for increased Chinese-led Asian security cooperation.
The US and its allies remained deeply engaged in the region and used it as a valuable supply hub for the Afghanistan war effort. However, against the backdrop of the crisis in Ukraine, the United States is likely to review its Central Asia strategy. Washington, it seems, is getting concerned about the situation in Central Asia. Russia’s standoff with the West, declining oil prices and overall Western sanctions is already having ripple effects on Central Asian economies, especially on the remittances from millions of migrants from the region working in Russia
The West is also worried about uncertainty looming in Central Asia stemming from the succession issue of regional leaders.
Europe is also taking a renewed interest in Central Asia following the crisis in Ukraine. The European Union is now trying to import energy directly from the source to offset fears of disruption by Russia. The EU is considering for the 3,300-kilometer Nabucco pipeline project to import gas directly from Azerbaijan and Central Asian nations to the heart of Europe. The EU has unveiled recently a new “Southern Corridor-New Silk Route” strategy for a multiple road, rail and pipeline links between the Caspian area and Europe.
Central Asia and regional and global security
The region is the northern frontier of the Islamic world hitherto unaffected by fundamentalist wave. There is a major shift to, religious pattern of society, underway in the region. Central Asia is now emerging as the next radical Islamic region. A series of serious explosions and terrorist acts by Islamists have been taking place in Kazakhstan since 2011. The area extending from Chechnya, Ferghana to Xinjiang, comprising 100 million people could form new arc of instability. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is more entrenched not only in Af-Pak region but in Central Asia as well. The IMU has strong links with al Qaeda and is now expected to get stronger in Afghanistan after the NATO’s withdrawal. Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has heavily recruited more and more Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz. China’s concerns in Xinjiang underscore the gravity of extremist threat including from ISIS.
India’s interests also center around energy,uranium,trade,investment,national security. India “Connect central asia policy 2012” sumps up all these. Our entry into Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in July at Ufa will enable us to some extent to realize these goals.