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US Central Asia Diplomacy in the Post-Afghanistan War Era

CIIS Time: Jun 25, 2014 Writer: Zhao Huasheng Editor: Li Xiaoyu

  

by Zhao Huasheng

 

The United States is supposed to complete its withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan before the end of 2014(mainly the combat forces, not necessarily all its forces). With the time drawing near, a range of issues regarding the ties between the US and Central Asia loom. Just as the Afghanistan War has greatly changed American policy towards Central Asia, its ending will equally alter America’s Central Asia policy. What are the American interests in Central Asia once it is out of Afghanistan? Is American strategic presence in this region going to be strengthened or weakened? How will America adjust its Central Asia policy accordingly? Will the so-called “Big Game” last? How will the relations between China, Russia and America evolve in this region? These are just as important questions for big powers as they are for Central Asian countries.

 

I. The Dual Declining of Central Asia and America in Each Other’s Diplomatic Status

 

After the end of the Afghanistan war, US interests in Central Asia will drop. Although the US reaffirms that its commitment to Central Asia is long-lasting, and it will continue to view Central Asia as a priority, the actual factors determine that American attention to this region is eroding instead of mounting. After withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan, America’s need of Central Asia decreases substantially, the role of Central Asia as an artery of transport is now less significant. Therefore, American commitment is of more kind of political posturing and it does not imply that American attention to Central Asia will remain unchanged. Inasmuch as American policy in Central Asia is concerned, some American scholars assert that there is a great discrepancy between the American government’s rhetoric and its innermost heart feelings.

The dynamics of American strategic adjustments are not helpful for America to hold on to Central Asia. The US is carrying out the strategies of “returning to Asia” and “rebalancing to Asia-Pacific”, in which American attention and resources are moving towards Asia-Pacific, whereas Central Asia borders on the margin of the strategies. What is worth noting is that American resources and ability are shrinking because of the internal economic problems, so this to certain extent limits the possibility of it balancing all the areas. Meanwhile, some of the new hotspots are courting America’s attention, especially West Asian and North African issues.

The ties between America and Central Asia will not be that close like the past. Without the Afghanistan war topic, American ties with Central Asia will lose bearing for some time to come, with no important topics to deal with at hand. So blank agendas will be filled by the general regional interests and geopolitics, but they are neither urgent nor easy to be resolved. Without relevant topics, American officials’ frequent visits to this region will not be a commonplace, the bond between the US and Central Asian countries will not be just as tight as before. A scrutiny of the activities of the State Department lays bare the fact that the US is no longer proactive in Central Asia. Among the agendas of the State Department’s South Asia and Central Asia Bureau, South Asia occupies a lion’s share, which mirrors that South Asia in general and India in particular are gaining a prominent status in the US regional diplomacy.

With American interest in Central Asia keeping on dropping, its aid to Central Asia is also plummeting. In 2013 fiscal year, American assistance to Central Asia dropped by 13%. Meanwhile, America-aided research projects were dec-reasing, with a cut of 4.6% in 2012 and no more projects increased in 2013. Though this happened in the midst of general cuts of American foreign aid, with the importance of Central Asia going down, a drop of aid to Central Asia is a necessity.

A fall-off of Central Asia’s status in American diplomacy is synchronized with a drop of American clout in Central Asia. This was the case in relation to its past status as well as its relative status vis-à-vis Russia and China. Nevertheless, the US is still a “big player” in Central Asia.

The US strategic presence in this region is on the decrease since its withdrawal of forces. US strategic presence in this region is exemplified by a large scale of military presence; its disappearance reflects American strategic presence is reducing. Moreover, whether or not America will keep its military base in Central Asia is a problem. Manas Air base is going to expire in July 2014. Should the US and Kirghizstan fail to renew the contract, Manas base is going to be shut down. America, Kirgizstan and Russia have been engaged in a long-drawn-out behind-the-scene rivalry for Manas base. Though it is still premature to predict the aftermath, the prospects are unfavorable to the US. Once closed, America has no military base in Central Asia. Whether or not America will switch this military base to another Central Asian country is not clear and it is by no means an easy task. Maintaining a military presence is being regarded as the core objective of America. Some Russian scholars presume that, America is secretly instigating terrorists to infiltrate into Central Asia via north of Afghanistan to make chaos, thus propelling Central Asian countries to seek more American help. This said, the prospect of American presence in Central Asia is not optimistic. Even if America could maintain military presence there in certain manner, its scale and nature would be degraded.

With America’s military forces out of this region, the US’ role of providing security to Central Asia is descending. In the past, America and the NATO had several tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan, which entrusted to America a role of guarantor of regional security. After US military troops left Afghanistan, Central Asian countries could no longer take America as its security screen but to resort to other mechanisms, particularly Collective Security Treaty Organization(CSTO). Among big powers, America’s advantage lies in its military capabilities. When it comes to political and economic areas, America has no edge compared with others. Withdrawing its forces means that America is losing its most effective lever.

Along with America’s attention and capability decreasing, this has impacted the confidence Central Asian countries have in America, they will then move more towards Russia and China. This fact illustrates the reality of descending American influence and further weakening American status in Central Asia. And America knows this well. Some Central Asian scholars have made a list of US “performances” in Central Asia, which are not encouraging. On the list include its failure to win the Afghanistan war; its failure to defeat the Taliban, which proves the US is unable to provide security to this region; its failure to make a success of democratic reforms in Central Asia -- there are no Central Asian countries embarking on a pro-West path, nor have strong pro-West elites appeared in Central Asian countries; the stagnation of major projects of the New Silk Road Strategy pushed by America, implying that America failed to draw Central Asia countries away from Russia and China tracks geoeconomically. Central Asia is experiencing the biggest geopolitical change over the past ten years, which represents descending US strength and mounting Russia and China’s influence.

 

II. How Will America Continue the “Gig Game”?

 

How will America’s Central Asia policy hold after its withdrawal of forces form Afghanistan?

With the alteration of US interests in Central Asia, US objectives in Central Asia need to be reset, agendas and topics between America and Central Asia changed and America’s policy priorities adjusted. On the bilateral front, with no more essential need of Central Asia, the US has less scruples and more freedom in policy choice and therefore would like to play a proactive role. Generally speaking, this will make America more active to carry out its regional arrangements, infusing its regional policy with more concepts and standards, including America’s values as well as its ideas about the democratic reforms in Central Asia.

Politically, America’s discontentment with Central Asian countries will grow, the US political will for Central Asian countries to undertake political reforms is to be strengthened. In the past, though US interaction with Central Asian countries was intensive, it was mainly confined in dealing with concrete issues, without substantive progress in political ties and thus a solid basis. America asserts that Central Asian regimes are autocratic and corrupted, so it is unwilling to deal with them (Kazakhstan is an exception).

During the Afghanistan war, Afghan factor was serving as a stabilizer for American relations with Central Asia. America would not like to disrupt good balance between its various policy objectives, nor would it wish to pursue security interests at the expense of its values. Realistically, this was hardly possible. America’s democracy and human rights were not welcome in Central Asia. The more America promoted democratic reforms, the more distant America’s ties with Central Asian countries became, the more damages it would bring to America’s actual interests. US State Department admitted that there was a competition among different interest objectives. Thus, conflicts and crises between America and Central Asian countries occurred frequently herein from. However, with Afghan factor being there; it helped prevent America’s ties with these countries from free-falling. America could not afford to disregard the Afghanistan war. To make it go smoothly, it had to trade its values for the support of Central Asian countries. When the turbulence was at its peak in the West Asia and North Africa, America seemed quite easy in Central Asia, which was partly attributed to the role of Afghan factor.

When the “stabilizer” role of Afghanistan weakens, the relations between the US and Central Asian countries will turn fragile. Nevertheless, tactically America will continue to maintain restraint. America has learned that it cannot reshape the political landscapes of this region, not to say realize its goals in light of the reduced diplomatic resources. This has somewhat held back America’s political impulse. Meanwhile, America has scruples of undermining its realistic interests were it to press ahead with democratic reforms. America knows very well that all American interests would be hardly guaranteed when its ties with Central Asian countries were in a stalemate and it failed to replace them with pro-West regimes. The peaceful transition in Afghanistan and regional cooperation are in need of Central Asian countries. Without the political support and economic participation of Central Asian countries, America’s regional plan could not be implemented. This said, on the premise of political stability of Central Asian countries, America, based on its past experience and realistic possibility, will not push forward rashly the regime changes from outside. But in case Central Asian countries political changes occur, America will intervene. To some extent, America views the present regimes in Central Asian countries as transitional ones. Considering that presidents of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are already in their advanced ages, successions may take place at any time and the results are rather unpredictable. Under present circumstances, America will take a wait-and-see attitude instead of increasing political input. America is inclined to exert influence in a soft way, including economic cooperation, cultural and people-to-people exchange as well as NGO activity.

America will keep on going ahead with the New Silk Road Stra-tegy. This strategy is not only an economic arrangement by America for Afghanistan, but also a geopolitical strategy of America in the region, the purpose of which is to lessen Central Asian countries’ reliance on Russia and China. In the post-Afghanistan war era, New Silk Road Strategy may probably become the main channel and framework for America to deal with Central Asia. The vision of New Silk Road Strategy is being expanded to link Central Asia with Afghanistan and South Asia, and to cover East Asia, the Middle East and Europe. This alteration not only constitutes a geographical enlargement, but also implies the orientation of America. Some believe that there exist two views in America academia when it goes to the orientation of America in this region. One view is to expand Central Asia westward and link it with Caucasus and Europe; the other view is to expand Central Asia southward and link it with South Asia and the Indian Ocean. The southward orientation used to take an upper hand. The two opinions are now being given the equal importance, that is, expanding in both directions simultaneously. Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) is the main vehicle for America to implement the New Silk Road Strategy. CASA-1000 and TAPI Pipe Agreement are the major projects of America in the region. The former involves transmission of electric power from Tajikistan and Kirgizstan to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the latter involves the building of natural gas pipes from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The operation of CASA-1000 project secretariat was mainly funded by America. In December 2013, America offered another $15 million to the project. Though the project CASA-1000 and TAPI pipe are moving forward with difficulties, America seems optimistic about these projects. In January 2014, assistant Secretary of State in charge of the South Asian and Central Asian Affairs Biswal made her first visit to Central Asia. The trip took her only to Turkmenistan, the gas supplier of the TAPI pipe. Biswal’s visit to Turkmenistan was mainly to advance the TAPI project.

US policy adjustments towards big powers, especially towards Russia and China, are worth particular attention. Some scholars are of the view that America’s interests in Central Asia focus neither on corruption, human rights, nor on ethnic conflicts, drugs and terrorism, but on the contest with Russia and China. This viewpoint might be too absolute, but it is not far wrong if we say the major power relations are the particular focus of America. After the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, China and Russia have expanded their clouts in the region by virtue of their geographic advantages. With the absence of US advantage acquired after 9.11, the balance of power between the three powers will present new dynamics.

In the new “Big Game” in Central Asia, who will become the major rival of America is a big issue. It is worth noting that the opinion that China will become America’s major rival pops up from time to time, disrupting the conventional wisdom that Russia is America’s major rival in the region. Migranyan, a well-known Russian scholar, asserts that, given the rapid rise of China in the region, America will take China, rather than Russia, as its long-term main threat and it probably joins hands with Russia to weigh down China. Russian International Affairs Council, in its research report on America’s future policy in Central Asia, forecasts that America will contain China’s geopolitical expansion and may enter into an alignment with Russia over fighting terrorism and anti-narcotics. The National Committee on American Foreign Policy echoed this proposition in its report “The Central Asia/ Caspian Sea Basin Region after the Withdrawal of US and NATO Troops from Afghanistan”, saying that America should support Russia in containing China’s ambitions.

The said assertions have one common argument: the rising clout of China explains why it becomes the major opponent of America. This argument seems logical, but it has a lot of loopholes. First and foremost, it should be clear what America is trying to prevent in Central Asia? To impede the rising influence of Russia or China in the region is certainly not America’s objective; in fact America is unable to achieve this objective. The US target is to prevent the loss of sovereignty of Central Asian countries. Some believe that the matter of sovereignty of Central Asian countries is already outdated as it is a matter of the 1990s. However, judging from the on-going discussions of American academia over the American interests in Central Asia, it is still a major focus for the US to guarantee the sovereignty of Central Asian countries. China’s rising influence does not threaten the sovereignty of these countries, therefore the argument that China is turning into America’s major rival is groundless. China’s influence is largely confined to economic area. As a huge economy and a neighbor of Central Asia, it is natural and reasonable for China to expand influence in Central Asia. From the rhetoric of the American official statements, America does not believe this is abnormal and therefore should be prevented.

To prevent any big power from controlling Central Asia is also an important target set by America. This is another argument that America will see China as a main rival. The argument claims that China will dominate Central Asia, and thus it will become America’s main rival. There is no denying that China’s influence is growing steadily, particularly in economic area, but China is incapable of excluding other powers from this region, nor it wishes to do so. Russia is well entrenched in Central Asia with an increasing clout. The role of Russia and CSTO in regional security is increasing. Russia extended its lease of Kirgizstan’s Kant Military Base to the year 2032, and will increase its military forces in this base. Russia has renewed an agreement with Tajikistan that prolongs Russia’s lease of No. 201 Military Base until 2042. The Customs Union is now in the course of expansion and development, with Kirgizstan completing relevant procedures for membership and Tajikistan preparing to join. According to Russia’s plan, the legal documents regarding the establishment of Eurasia Economic Union is about to complete in mid 2014, and this Union is expected to take shape by January 2015. In view of this, China is surely unable to dominate Central Asia. American hypothesis of China being the possible main rival in the region does not hold water. As a matter of fact, were the talk of China dominating Central Asia not a political clamor purposefully, it is a baseless exaggeration. Interestingly, quite a few Russian and Central Asian scholars hold this view.

So, on the premise of guaranteeing the sovereignty of Central Asian countries and preventing any big power from controlling the region, America should from this logic focus its containment more on Russia instead of China. As Central Asian countries obtained their independence from the Soviet Union, their sovereignty and independent status have relevance to Russia, not China. Even if the sovereignty of these countries is no longer a problem and if America’s geopolitical goal is to stop a new “empire” appearing anew in this region, the main target of American containment should be directed towards Russia. Again, if America’s goal is to make Central Asia walk out of the geopolitical hedges, Russia should be its main worry, because Russia sees Central Asia as its sphere of influence while China has no such intentions whatsoever.

However, it does not mean that American policy has no dimension of containing China, but only to say that the possibility of America taking China as its main rival is low. We can say there is the least possibility. Were China and America plunged in a state of all-out confrontation and contest, just like the US and the Soviet Union in the Cold War period, the confrontation between China and the US could also spread to Central Asia. It can be said that US intention of keeping China in check is to grow, as the US is coming to see China as a global competitor. Guided by this line of thinking, America’s curbing of China might go from the part to the whole. On the other hand, with China’s growing sway in Central Asia, America’s vigilance against China will rise accordingly.

All in all, both Russia and China are the geopolitical rivals of America. In the foreseeable mid-term, the US is more likely to take Russia as its main rival, while the US’s feelings towards China are mixed. China’s development in Central Asia is conducive to the multi-polarization of Central Asian geopolitics, which serves America’s strategic goals; on the other, America is concerned that Central Asia is falling into hands of China. America prudently welcomes (or, not opposes) China’s development in Central Asia, on condition that this will not prejudice the existing strategic balance in this region as a bottom line.

Containing Russia regaining its sphere of influence is America’s strategic objective. This thinking is going to be more apparently manifested in America’s future policy, but it is unlikely in form of simple linear reaction. This process is full of variables and possibilities, most likely punctuated by all descriptions of factors. Seen from the Central Asian history of past 20 years, America’s containment of Russia mainly finds expression in sort of strategic ideology and thought, as evidenced in America’s regional planning, regional policies and its role of being a guidance. Different from Afghan factor though, Russian elements in America’s Central Asia diplomacy are not direct, open and pressing, America’s usual way of doing things is indirect and “soft” instead of direct attacks. The containment of Russia by America is mainly by way of strategic arrangements, wooing Central Asian countries over and offering “options” different from those by Russia. These encompass offering Western model politically, new partnership and the economic integration, new security channels, energy avenues and new sea exits so as to reduce or break away their reliance on Russia. American containment of Russia is not of absolute and comprehensive in nature; the rivalry between Russia and the US has not reached a point of life-or-death. While competing with each other, the US and Russia have the dimension of cooperation and they maintain a façade of friendliness. If we only see America’s Central Asia policy as one of targeting Russia, in other words, if we believe American policy is simply centered on containing Russia, it will be a partial perception. The intensity of American containment of Russia varies in different periods, which is largely decided by the general environment of international and regional situations as well as America’s capabilities. Judging from the Bush the junior and Obama administrations, Bush had comparative strong willingness to contain Russia while Obama seems less interested to do so.

During the post-Afghanistan era, the relations between the US and Russia in Central Asia will still be a combination of competition and cooperation, with contest being the mainstay. The reasons are as follows: after the Afghanistan war, geopolitics will regain its centrality of America-Russia ties. Meanwhile, with the Eurasia Union coming to draw Central Asia to Russia, its competition with the New Silk Road Strategy will surly intensify. Given the withdrawal of American forces in the region, Russia is committed to kicking American military presence out of the region, while America is trying to stay on. The overall US-Russia ties are not optimistic, as the regional and international competition intensifies instead of relaxing.

Under general circumstances, the contest between the US and Russia will be in the form of “softness”. By general circumstances, we mean no big unforeseen events happening in Central Asia. At the same time, we should be clear that America has a desire to cooperate or join hands with Russia to contend with China. Central Asian countries themselves have a bigger say over America’s policy towards Russia. Geographically, Central Asia is far from the West, America’s offer to Central Asia is South Asia, but South Asia is not so attractive to Central Asia. Central Asian countries have to live with Russia and China; all Central Asian countries maintain close or normal ties with Russia. Without Central Asian countries opposing Russia, America’s confrontation with Russia stands no chance of success.

 

III. Conclusion

 

By and large, American academia has three viewpoints regarding American policy in Central Asia in the post-Afghanistan war era, or three choices facing America: a comprehensive entry, limited intervention or phasing out. Of these three options, the limited intervention is the most possible one from the perspective of strategic priorities, resources allocations as well as realistic possibility. This involves the breadth and depth of the intervention.

In conclusion, America’s Central Asia policy has a host of uncertainties. Two main factors: one is the developments of the situation in Afghanistan; the other is the internal changes of Central Asia. It is difficult to predict how the situation in Afghanistan will evolve, if phenomenal reversal occurs, or if America is forced to completely withdraw, this will disrupt American arrangements, thus America’s New Silk Road Strategy will also end. If so, it will have a direct bearing on US policy towards Russia and Central Asia.

Situation in Central Asia serves as the yeast for US Central Asia policy. Once major events happen in Central Asia, such as regime changes, riots or suppressions, Russia’s serious conflicts with these countries, appearing of pro-America forces or regimes, extremist forces taking power, etc, America is most likely to change its prevailing policy of “softness” and adopt more radical measures.

 

 

Source: China International Studies March/April 2014 125-138