Washington’s Challenge in Central Asia

Given the wars in the Middle East, the muscle-flexing of China towards its neighbors, the strategic challenges to NATO and its allies posed by Russia, and the serious drug wars on the southern border of the United States, attention in Washington is clearly—and understandably—divided. However, a significant challenge to U.S. national security is looming in Eurasia and appears to be receiving limited attention from the U.S. government: Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative and its plan to connect China with Western Europe through overland routes across Central Asia.

The U.S. government’s national interests in Central Asia (encompassing Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan) are significant. They include improvement of human rights in some of the world’s most abusive states; avoidance of Muslim citizens fighting for the Islamic State, using terror tactics at home, and supporting terrorism in the Caucasus and Xinjiang province; improved living standards through modern education and health care; avoidance of environmental degradation; encouraging the development of a more open and impartial business environment; enhancing access to the region’s natural resources; and “balancing” the competition for influence in the region between China and Russia.

The Landscape in Central Asia

Looked at as a whole, Central Asia is a cauldron of issues waiting to explode. Standards of living across the region are miserable. On a purchasing power parity basis, Tajikistan’s per capita is around $2,800, Kyrgyzstan’s is $3,400, Uzbekistan’s is $6,100, Turkmenistan’s is $16,500 and Kazakhstan’s is $25,900. Given the extent of inequality in these countries, even these figures significantly overstate the income of the average citizen.

Corruption is rampant, and political repression is widely practiced. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index places all five states in the bottom quartile of 167 countries surveyed. Freedom House ranks four out of the five as “Not Free,” with only Kyrgyzstan earning a “Partly Free” rating—and both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan appear the “Ten Worst of the Worst” list. These rankings imply significant latent risks: as we have seen in the Arab Spring and elsewhere, widespread perceptions of corruption and heavy repression can create the conditions for sudden and explosive political conflict.

Even as Central Asia is relatively secular in terms of religion, the extremist threat in the region appears to be growing. The International Crisis Group estimates that 2,000 citizens have gone to support the Islamic State, while Russian estimates put the figure at around 4,000. While these numbers are small in absolute terms, experience in Iraq and Syria has shown they can easily multiply, especially given socioeconomic and political conditions in Central Asia.

This is especially true given the region’s weak governance. All five governments are consistently weak in terms of their ability to deliver basic social services. Their security services, while advanced relative to their levels of development, are generally both under-funded and poorly trained. This combination has the effect of reducing loyalty to the state among the citizenry and the security forces alike, and thereby creating the potential for large, ungoverned spaces to quietly exist or emerge largely unnoticed.

Competition on the Steppe

These conditions provide the backdrop for ongoing Sino-Russian competition for regional influence—a contest somewhat masked by efforts in Moscow and Beijing to present a united front to the West—and highlight the dangers posed by Washington’s inattention.

In recent years, Russia has made major efforts to maintain, if not grow, its influence through various economic alliances, such as the Eurasian Economic Union, as well as its military presence. Given the region’s history, geographic proximity, and strong linguistic ties to Russia, not to mention their sharing of political and economic models, Moscow will continue to consider Central Asia of prime importance to its national security (as it does Europe).

OBOR represents a vehicle for expanding Chinese influence through this traditional zone of Russian influence. Central Asia is geographically vast, but only sparsely populated. Kazakhstan’s territory is the size of Western Europe, but its population is around that of Romania. Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan together are physically almost as large as Europe’s three largest countries, but the population of Italy is larger than their combined citizenry. The combination of vast tracts of land with small, scattered populations generates enormous need for roads, bridges, railroads, and other means of communication, but little means of funding.

This makes infrastructure construction an appealing strategy for buying influence as well as access. Investment in Central Asia’s infrastructure under the umbrella of OBOR will help strengthen Beijing’s position in the region and, theoretically, pave the way for further investment from China and elsewhere. Given China’s economic heft, boosting Central Asia’s overall connectivity will naturally deepen its connection with China and help to gradually dilute Russian influence—including by reducing the region’s reliance on Russia’s rail and road network.

Given U.S. interests in the region, as described above, all of this has significant implications for Washington. Should the natural contest for influence between Moscow and Beijing escalate, it could escalate conflict in an already fragile region. Even should Russia accept greater Chinese influence, Beijing’s enhanced presence on the steppe could help to spread norms and policies that are inconsistent with the interests of the United States. In short, whether successful or unsuccessful, OBOR’s effort to expand Beijing’s influence westward looks set to create new challenges for Washington—and looks especially concerning at a time when China is already behaving aggressively to its east and south.

The United States is not yet prepared to deal with these challenges. Washington’s engagement remains fitful and complicated by legitimate concerns over issues such as human rights that Central Asian capitals are ill-disposed to entertain. The shifting balance of Russian and Chinese influence in the region will continue to complicated U.S. engagement. As OBOR continues to develop and the region’s connectivity grows, strengthening Washington’s awareness of Central Asia and identifying a credible strategy for tending U.S. national interests in the region should be a priority for the next administration.

Amb. Shelton-Colby is Diplomat in Residence at American University’s School of International Service. She has held a number of senior positions in the public, corporate and non-profit sectors and in international organizations.