By William Tucker
With the Taliban retaking Afghanistan after the U.S. pullout, Central Asia is on edge. Central Asia’s nations are not always the most stable countries and have had their struggles following the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Previously U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan provided some stability and security, allowing Central Asia’s nations to undergo some political and economic changes. The U.S. presence also benefited Russia and China – two American adversaries that are pleased with the potential psychological effect of the withdrawal in Washington on the one hand, but also weary of the deterioration of security in the region on the other.
For instance, Chinese interests in Pakistan and Afghanistan have already come under attack from militants, while Russia has engaged in military exercises with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Central Asia has never been an area where power was all that concentrated; instead, it was a region that drew in outside powers as they sought to expand and protect valuable trade routes. In other words, Central Asia is a place one must cross to get somewhere else, and it is always best to maintain outright control of trade routes.
Central Asia Remains Vulnerable to Outside Influence
This need for external powers to maintain control of trade routes makes Central Asia vulnerable to outside influence, and it will likely attract outside powers in search of protecting their respective interests once again. Consequently, Central Asia will be a region to watch over the next few decades as regional and international powers such as the U.S. seek to reshape Central Asia’s nations to meet their political and economic needs.
However, this doesn’t mean that Central Asian states will be without a vote in their own destiny. The nations of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan will use their shared space to pit other nations against each other, though such an undertaking is fraught with risk.
Russia Has a Vested Interest in Central Asia’s Stability
Russia has a vested interest in Central Asia’s stability. Moscow will go to great lengths to ensure that a hostile government does not emerge in any of the capitals of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
Moscow clearly demonstrated this self-interest in 2010 when it covertly intervened in the Kyrgyzstan uprising; in fact, it may even have sparked the protests. Russia has the most recent history of occupying the region and still has deep ties to Central Asia.
Moscow also heavily relies on Central Asia to act as a buffer between it and the often-chaotic South Asian nations of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Similarly, Turkey and Iran have a vested interest in Central Asian stability and have significant ties to the region. Though Turkey and Iran are smaller powers at the moment, their potential involvement in the future of Central Asia is something to monitor.
China Seeks to Shore Up Its Economy and Energy Supplies
China is another matter entirely. Beijing’s goal was – and in many ways still is – to establish a road system for exporting Chinese products and importing raw materials from nations that have certain resources – oil comes to mind – that the Chinese economy desperately needs.
The loans that China has provided to Central Asian states are coming due, and the economic exchange has not come to much. The Central Asian states are likely incapable of repaying the loans, and anti-Chinese sentiment in the region is running high.
China needs energy and is at the mercy of several hostile powers that could interrupt fuel transport via the Pacific Ocean. China may look for ways to improve its image in Central Asia – the Xinjiang genocide certainly hasn’t helped – to ensure it can meet its needs. Failing that, a military invasion is not impossible.
A modern economy and a modern military require fuel, and Beijing may feel the need to go to greater lengths to ensure that China has access to reliable energy sources. China’s willingness to take great risks in military adventures is still unknown (China hasn’t fought a war in over 40 years), but a desperate nation of China’s size is not something to ignore.
Washington Still Has Interests in Central Asia and Can Help Defend the Region
The U.S. may have left Afghanistan, but Washington still has some interests in Central Asia, namely preventing any one regional power from achieving outright domination of the entire region. The advantage that the U.S. has in Central Asia is that it is not a nation with any common borders with the nations in the region.
Essentially, the U.S. can assist other countries in pushing back against a hostile power without feeling the need to occupy any Central Asian nation, and U.S. military forces will eventually go home. However, that will certainly be not the case if a Central Asian nation becomes too firmly involved with Moscow or Beijing.
Those two powers live nearby and can manage an invasion if they feel the need, which leaves the U.S. as the only potential roadblock against Russia and China. Central Asia’s nations may not be powerful in their own right, but their location is one that will play a prominent role in any great power competition.