How the US Can Assist Central Asia Reclaim the Silk Highway

Everybody likes a handy guide a rough pop-cultural title with which to strategy worldwide politics and technique as a result of it makes relatable what is usually considered as an opaque strategy of the elites. Rudyard Kipling’s “Nice Recreation” was a chessboard and initially referred to the assorted schemes and posturing of the British and Russian empires all through Central Asia, with each events making an attempt to maintain their opponent out of fragile imperial holdings. This dynamic was reformulated after the autumn of the Soviet Union, with regional consultants now utilizing it to confer with the jockeying of bigger regional neighbors — Russia, China, India, Iran, Turkey — for geostrategic and financial benefits.

Then there may be the Silk Highway. It’s an thrilling time period, invoking adventurous long-distance treks between the prosperous Chinese language Empire and voracious European markets. It looks like everybody needs to connect themselves to the title, with each China and the US articulating their very own Silk Highway tasks. Tellingly, when some Central Asian policymakers proposed a brand new visa plan, they known as it the Silk Highway Visa. Much more telling, nevertheless, the visa is designed to draw vacationers and make life simpler for guests.

Is China’s Belt and Highway Initiative Strategic Genius, Boastful Overreach or One thing Else?


We’re thus offered with two phrases that, for all their pedigree, have by now come to imply the identical factor. For China, a brand new Silk Highway means a collection of subservient vassal states working as markets in addition to a method to get items extra cheaply to Europe whereas supporting the expansion of Xinjiang — a strategic imaginative and prescient that fits sure European shoppers completely whereas ruffling the feathers of different powers who concern some form of risk to their pursuits within the space.

This sounds similar to a Nice Recreation competitors for entry and sources. The Silk Highway, as articulated by policymakers on either side of Eurasia, involves imply the clearing of area for commerce, linking Chinese language and Western markets whereas successful over the hearts and loyalty of the stressed tribes inhabiting the wilderness in between.

Coronary heart of Eurasia

However what of the stressed tribesmen themselves? Their very own histories inform a vastly totally different story of the area and paint an image of a Silk Highway that was one thing altogether totally different from what policymakers in Beijing or Brussels would articulate now. Reasonably than a imaginative and prescient of long-distance journey, the Silk Highway must be approached as a community of overlapping and thriving societies and buying and selling economies, every exchanging ideas and including worth as items rippled backwards and forwards throughout them.

Central Asia itself has all the time possessed items that neighbors had been keen to realize entry to, whether or not they be the legendary blood-sweating horses of antiquity or the considerable gasoline and mineral sources of right now. New religions, applied sciences and items raced up and down commerce networks whereas the good steppe empires would typically produce visionary rulers that based nice royal dynasties in what’s now India and China. Clearly, no person is anticipating a return to militarily-dominant Central Asian states with cutting-edge know-how, and there may be so solely a lot that harkening again to a golden age will do for us in analyzing the current. Nevertheless, referencing historical past is a useful software for increasing our mindset with regards to taking a look at long-term prospects for the area.

It’s in US pursuits to assist the area seize the true spirit of the Silk Highway as soon as once more. At its strongest, the Silk Highway was a collaborative course of pushed by provide and demand, a bodily area outlined by a dynamic interplay between communities relatively than the overseas retailers that needed to traverse it. Nearly each economist or improvement knowledgeable would let you know that connections are factor, making you stronger as a rustic and as a community. It’s the way you handle these connections that makes or breaks a state, one thing that worries Eurasian and American strategists alike.

Central Asia stays of strategic significance to the US. Its 5 international locations — Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — occupy the guts of Eurasia, performing as a geopolitical buffer in opposition to revisionist powers like Iran, Russia and China with pretensions to regional hegemony. Central Asian involvement shall be essential in serving to Afghanistan to rebuild, whereas the area additionally figures prominently in plans for large transportation networks primarily benefitting China (greatest recognized by the One Belt One Highway Initiative that has been so debated by Western observers) and, to a lesser extent, Russia. The power of borders and governance kinds of the 5 states additionally play a job in controlling the unfold of narcotics and worldwide terror, each as overflow from Afghanistan and in response to oppressive home insurance policies.

On the face of it, there are in fact vital limitations to a significant American function in Central Asia. A US drawdown in Afghanistan implies that there isn’t a longer demand for the logistical help that facilitated cooperation between authoritarian nationwide leaders and US navy planners, whereas each economically-dominant China and militarily-embedded Russia are higher capable of exert political and financial strain with the intention to obtain favorable outcomes. Insular Central Asian elites have proven an inclination over the previous 30 years to squabble each amongst themselves and with neighboring states, with a Soviet legacy of divide-and-conquer border creation in addition to acute pure useful resource administration points encouraging competitors relatively than collaboration. Weak economies are depending on power gross sales and remittances, that means that Central Asian international locations are closely depending on Russia and China.

It’s thus tempting for US overseas policymakers to write down off the area as doomed to domination by bigger neighbors, however it will be a mistake to not think about all potential futures and alternatives for involvement. It could even be a relatively historically American mistake to imagine that what we wish issues, significantly to native governments and societies grappling with their very own challenges and pursuits.

Final outcomes will come solely from the selections and actions of the Central Asians themselves, however the US could be greatest served by foregoing the transactional, bilateral boardgame maneuvers of different Eurasian regional powers in favor of serving to to revive a dynamic, unified Silk Highway system that advantages development and reform throughout the 5 states. There are three potential futures for Central Asian international locations that take note of how US involvement within the area might look.  


The simplest of the outcomes to foresee, a stagnation state of affairs envisages a brutal close to future the place the financial strain of the COVID-19 pandemic would depart nationwide economies in such shambles that already gradual financial development grinds to a halt. If this occurs, financial and political reforms not too long ago instituted in Uzbekistan beneath President Shavkat Mirziyoyev are more likely to fall by the wayside, ensuing within the nation chopping down on its latest regional outreach and aspirations to be a transportation and tourism hub. Momentum on the latest thaw in relations between Uzbekistan and the remainder of the area might dissipate, main states to desert cooperative initiatives within the face of the unprecedented pandemic.

Tajikistan would stay within the grips of the authoritarian Emomali household, which has managed it because the finish of the Tajik Civil Battle in 1997, and losses stemming from the outbreak will solely worsen dwelling situations in what is taken into account the poorest nation within the Commonwealth of Impartial States. The political gridlock of Kyrgyzstan’s fledgling democracy is more likely to proceed, alongside the buildup of wealth and energy by a small variety of households.

The collapse of oil costs will hit Turkmenistan significantly onerous, rising inside elite infighting whereas protecting the nation in what’s already virtually complete isolation and financial disfunction. Kazakhstan’s relative financial improvement and success in modernizing its infrastructure and oil {industry} during the last decade are more likely to be erased as its dependence on reeling oil export costs leaves different underdeveloped sectors extra weak than ever.

In all of those conditions, uncomfortably massive quantities of debt and reliance on Chinese language infrastructure funding would solely intensify, leaving governments longer-term as little greater than vassal states firmly in China’s political orbit, with lip-service paid to Russia’s historic navy function within the area and the Collective Safety Treaty Group (CSTO). Russia’s Eurasian Financial Union (EEU) would live on so long as the Central Asian states see worth in its financial help, but it surely may very well be dealt a deadly blow by international locations defecting for extra favorable phrases with China. Lengthy-standing competitors over borders and water sources between the 5 states might flare up as they see alternatives or must current an exterior enemy for his or her populace to rally in opposition to.

On this state of affairs, america has largely continued to remain on the sidelines amidst its personal coronavirus-related struggles. Involvement nonetheless would revolve round verbal urgings to keep away from Chinese language funding and a technique that consists of making an attempt to persuade states to attach with Afghanistan because it goes by a painful peace course of following a long time of battle. Efforts to rile up anger at Chinese language therapy of Uighurs and different Turkic nationalities within the province of Xinjiang would proceed to be ignored by Central Asian elites and leaders who don’t wish to threat confrontation with their massive neighbor, whereas China would proceed to develop its affect over a lot of the Eurasian heartland.

Combined Development

On this state of affairs, the disruption brought on by COVID-19 to visitor employees and the value of pure sources would nonetheless keenly be felt by all the states, however a possible world vaccine effort might imply that normalcy is kind of restored inside a brief time period. Kazakhstan’s financial development might slowly be eclipsed by a revitalized and extra populous Uzbekistan, however each international locations would grow to be standout performers within the space. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would proceed to be depending on remittances from their residents overseas, with political energy comparatively secure however ossified in each international locations.

Isolationist Turkmenistan would thus stay viable primarily based on the sale of its considerable pure sources however turning into ever extra depending on the power commerce with regional companions, particularly China, which, as of 2019, already accounted for nearly  80% of Turkmen exports. In the meantime, Uzbekistan might resolve to enter into the EEU in an try and synchronize with its close by markets however preserve a robust navy outdoors of the CSTO. In a area with immense strain coming from outdoors, Kazakhstan might develop nearer to Russia in an try to face up to rising Uzbek and Chinese language collaboration whereas different regional powers get entangled with rebuilding Afghanistan.

US political and financial involvement with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan might scale up from its present relationships — primarily oil-industry infrastructure funding and safety collaboration with Afghanistan, respectively — and in recognition of their rising significance, with emphasis on offering alternate options to Chinese language funding within the growing international locations. The US Worldwide Improvement Finance Company (DFC, created in 2019) might herald the beginning of main American funding on tasks associated to infrastructure and improvement, and the multi-stakeholder Blue Dot Community Initiative (additionally launched in 2019) might start to bear outcomes as particular person tasks are licensed as non-exploitative and sustainable.

These tasks could be considered inside the context of offering a substitute for Chinese language Belt and Highway tasks and will give leaders the leeway to pursue multi-vector overseas coverage. The C5+1 format would stay a benign however unobtrusive discussion board for US officers to speak with Central Asian officers on enhancements to safety, the promotion of financial connectivity and rising resilience in opposition to the impacts of local weather change.

Sadly, the scope of funding wouldn’t have the ability to straight supplant Chinese language help, with the DFC’s $60-billion portfolio anticipated to do the work of the almost $1 trillion anticipated to be spent on One Belt One Highway investments. Canny leaders might merely play provides of help in opposition to one another in makes an attempt to extend political and private dividends, with the strings hooked up to Blue Dot and DFC funding proving to be too demanding for constant utilization. Comparable particular person makes an attempt to persuade leaders to reject Chinese language financing or applied sciences could also be pursued in a transactional, advert hoc method, however would do nothing to halt the general development. The US would stay too bodily, financially and ideologically distant to matter, whereas native governments could be wooed by gamers like Russia, India, Turkey, Iran or Pakistan.

Regional Collaboration

In probably the most unlikely of all situations, Central Asian states might band collectively increasingly more till they current a formidable regional bloc. That is onerous to envisage, as relations between the 5 international locations have traditionally been marred by intense saber-rattling and makes an attempt to isolate one another. Former Uzbek President Islam Karimov was one of the best instance of a strongman chief working to sabotage his neighbors, however relations between the states have not too long ago seen an uptick with the ascendance of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan.

On this state of affairs, Uzbekistan’s outreach would act as a catalyst that begins resolving long-running useful resource consumption disagreements whereas additionally breaking the ice on larger regional infrastructure and inside transportation networks. Chinese language curiosity may slowly cool amidst a backlash in opposition to the Belt and Highway Initiative in addition to a altering Chinese language home market rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic, however the financial crucial of connecting the area could be taken up by the international locations themselves. Roads and railroads are used to maneuver items between Europe and China, however the elevated connectivity and mingling of Central Asians themselves might lead to mutual financial beneficial properties between companions.

On the one hand, this dynamic might mark the restrict of optimistic beneficial properties, with authoritarian leaders empowered by financial beneficial properties nonetheless capable of exert inflexible management over their populations. Then again, financial development and elevated ease of motion between international locations might additionally propel the expansion of cross-border organizations and government-level cooperation. Whereas nationwide identification stays paramount, a shared Central Asian identification might step by step coalesce, belying the ethnic range of the area.

This sense of group could be primarily based on shared historic experiences beneath Russian and Soviet rule, with Islam a element of identification and cultural expression that has lengthy been separate from the state and political processes. Leaders may start to seek the advice of with one another, and elevated regional financial beneficial properties imply that states could be higher capable of determine and pursue their very own strategic aims. With much less cause to compete over sources, states might pursue win-win preparations that would result in a casual or formal bloc of governments capable of current a extra united entrance to Russia and China.

Right here, American policymakers would have moved away from the single-tone assaults on China to embrace extra nimble involvement within the area. Financial agreements and infrastructural funding may very well be offered on phrases which are each palatable for native leaders whereas additionally constructing towards cooperative and organically-driven native wants. A two-pronged strategy would develop help for strengthening civil establishments and growing non-public entrepreneurship, mixed with a government-level deal with coordination and cooperation between states that doesn’t threaten sovereignty. The C5+1 group could be strengthened and foregrounded as help for states trying to pursue multi-vector overseas insurance policies, offering alternate options that may give native decision-makers methods to rally collectively to withstand debt entrapment or the sale of strategic belongings to China. The US-backed TAPI pipeline challenge and different comparable infrastructure initiatives might assist widen potential companions for Central Asian sources and economies, giving entry to Western markets whereas lessening dependence on China and Russia.

It’s in US pursuits to assist the area develop its personal inside infrastructure and collaborative networks, permitting for the rise of resiliency and dynamism of Central Asian expression and reform. Whereas enhancing economies actually doesn’t assure political reform, a extra cooperative relationship between the 5 international locations permits for the creation of an setting that would enable for, and even encourage, optimistic change.

Equally, there isn’t a assure {that a} pleasant bloc of small nations could be a steadfast ally of the US or change the stability of energy in Eurasia. It’s extra the case {that a} robust Silk Highway stands to profit each Central Asian and American pursuits. America nonetheless has a job to play within the area, and it’s one that may assist the individuals of Central Asia seize the true spirit of the Silk Highway as soon as once more.

The views expressed on this article are the writer’s personal and don’t essentially mirror Truthful Observer’s editorial coverage.

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