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Prospects for the Development of RF’s Policy in Central Asia

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The results of the official visit of RF President V.Putin to Tajikistan that took place on October 4-5 suggest there is a probability of increased tension in the Central Asian region within the nearest 9-12 months.

Moscow’s attention to Tajikistan should be discussed in the context of building up its presence in Central Asia (CA) within the framework of the attempt to create Eurasian geopolitical project. This project is expected to restore Kremlin’s geopolitical influence on the post-Soviet space under new political and economic conditions.

Availability of sufficient energy resources in the region allows some countries to claim to attempt conducting their own foreign policy. Russia’s loss of control over these countries will pose direct threat to both RF’s geopolitical model in the region and its monopoly/control over regular energy carriers transportation routes.

Today, Russia has opportunities for exercising full-scale influence only in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. However, one may say that Kazakhstan falls under the same influence because pro-Russia moods among local elites and their favouring preservation of Nazarbayev’s regime allows Moscow to overcome the country’s energy independence not least of all by means of involving Astana in the Customs Union. However, due to geographical location, economic potential and political regime Dushanbe still remains the most controlled Russia’s partner in the region helping to efficiently achieve its foreign policy objectives.

Regional Tactical Standpoint. Today, Moscow has faced the issues of developing its geopolitical projects on the territory of Central Asia. Key problems come from official Tashkent (Uzbekistan) which had already suspended its membership in EurAsEu, as well as in CSTO – in 1999 and 2012. As for the latter, Tashkent has not ratified a single significant document. According to our estimations, Uzbekistan’s distancing from CSTO is first of all related to expectations of profitable proposals regarding hosting US military bases on the country’s territory, as well as to the attempts to avoid entering Russia’s geopolitical arena and preserve opportunities for foreign policy manoeuvres. Moreover, Karimov’s regime has been lately under pressure, in particular in respect to businesses related to his daughter Gulnara, and opposition forces in exile declare their plans to organize civil disobedience in Uzbekistan aimed at overthrowing the antidemocratic regime. Similar situation forces Karimov to manoeuvre between Washington and Moscow and remain neutral, at the same time staying interesting and promising for both parties.

Probability of republicans rising to power after the next presidential election in the US will enhance American present in the region in future – especially in the context of conflict with Iran. Moreover, Uzbekistan is the most favourable base for the localization of a part of military forces removed from the territory of Afghanistan in case immediate return and deployment in this country is needed. The US is also expected to relocate to Uzbekistan a part of the armed forces remaining after withdrawing the coalition’s forces in Afghanistan in 2014.

Thus, Russia may face enhanced competition in CA on the part of the US and China within a short-term period. Such changes in the foreign policy situation require more drastic actions from Kremlin aimed at strengthening its influence in the region.

Military and Political Standpoint. According to the signed agreements, Russia has prolonged its military presence in Tajikistan for 30 years. Ministers of Defence signed a treaty replacing the previous one that came into force in May of 1993 and is going to terminate in 2014. Duration of the new treaty is 49 years.

The treaty is of great military and political importance since it stipulates that Russia will keep under control one of the largest exterritorial military groups in Central Asia. Firstly, this will allow Moscow to control security within the region after complete withdrawal of coalition’s military forces from Afghanistan. We believe that withdrawal of ISAF troops from Afghanistan will trigger rise of radical forces on the borders of Central Asian republics and will pose a threat to stability of these countries’ regimes. This process will be probably accompanied by increasing drug trafficking from this country. Therefore, Kremlin in its strategic model sees Tajikistan first of all as a border containing radical Islamic forces from the territory of Afghanistan. Secondly, 2013 will see presidential election in the country participation in which of the current president E.Rachmon may raise a question about legitimacy of the procedure and destabilize the situation in the country according to the “colour revolution” scenario. Thirdly, this will give Moscow a chance to achieve parity under conditions of probable deployment of American military bases on the territory of Uzbekistan.

Moreover, 201 Russian Military Base (RMB) and financial aid in the amount of USD 5 million will allow more effective prevention of drug trafficking towards Russia in which – as of today – some representatives of Tajikistan army and border troops are involved which is proved by recent event in Gorno-Badakhshan (GBAR). The same events showed that Tadjik authorities in fact have no control over about 45% of their territory, and there is a probability of another round of separatism and extremism in Gorno-Badakhshan. Back in 2010, confrontation tendencies here were enhanced after the breach of agreement between official Dushanbe and the groups controlling the Rasht Valley which the authorities failed to take under control. According to the operational report prepared by Da Vinci AG analytic group in February 2011, Tajikistan is the most vulnerable state in Central Asia for the implementation of “Arab spring” scenario. Therefore, Russian military presence will guarantee security to E.Rachmon’s regime and enhance stability of the regime and domestic policy situation in the country. This is also important considering the personal conflict between E.Rachmon and I.Karimov which, in our opinion, may turn into a military conflict in case of implementation of water and energy supply projects by Tajikistan which may cause water deficiency within the republic. Therefore, RMB 201 may influence the decision-making process in Uzbekistan regarding planning of acts of violence against Dushanbe.

All this strengthens RF’s position in the region, ensures stable implementation of integration projects for it, as well as enhances the role of CSTO as regional security organization.

Situation Forecast. We believe that Moscow’s medium-term tactics lies in the use of contradictions of Dushanbe for the purpose of strengthening its position in the region. Moscow will seek to keep influence on Tajikistan by means of providing military assistance, security guarantees and economic support in the form of liberalization of labour migration for Tadjiks and abolition of export duties on light oils. Plans to increase labour migration flow from Tajikistan aimed at reducing tension in this country caused by unemployment will probably be accompanied by tightening of migration policy in relation to migrant workers – including from Ukraine and Moldova. Introduction of new migration rules is quite advantageous for RF. 75% of migrants from Central Asia have families on their native land and send them money. Thus, by employing foreigners on its own territory Moscow reduces tension in Central Asian countries where male unemployment can stimulate growth of extremism. Moreover, 99% of them go to Russia seeking some earnings and do not plan on staying on its territory unlike representatives of European post-Soviet republics.

According to our estimations, Kremlin is interested in the creation of confrontation between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (and possibly Kyrgyzstan). For this purpose, Moscow takes measures to support implementation of infrastructure projects which pose threat to Uzbekistan’s security. It concerns construction of Rogun HPS and Kambar-Atin HPS-1. In case construction of dams on these two sites is completed Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will get an opportunity to regulate flows of trans-border rivers Naryn in Kirgizia and Vahksh in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, thus creating water deficiency there. Receiving control over water resources by means of investment projects with the participation of Russian companies RusHydro and RAO UES will allow Kremlin to get bargaining chips in the process of negotiations with Uzbekistan and offset its regional influence as a supplier of energy resources.

We suppose that there is quite little probability of implementation of this project by Moscow. Such implementation is rather risky considering the fact that the dam which is going to become the world’s largest is situated at the point of tectonic fault and high seismic activity. In view of the aforesaid, investments in the amount of about USD 3 billion managed by Russian companies are imposed to high financial and reputation risks and seem to be unreasoned from the economic point of view. However, results of V.Putin’s visit in October show that Russia for the first time got involved in Tadjik-Kyrgyz water-energy project in which it had been persistently staying neutral for several years. We believe that this is a part of a multi-move game in which Moscow provokes escalation of tension between Dushanbe and Tashkent and between Tashkent and Bishkek, and then will become mediator in the regulation process taking up issues of peaceful regulation of regional conflicts.

Moreover, as 2014 is approaching I.Karimov’s regime will seek foreign support and security guarantees on its southern borders. Despite the fact that the length of borders with Afghanistan for Uzbekistan is significantly less than for Tajikistan, infiltration of radical Islam into its territory, intrusion of armed troops into its territory from Afghanistan aimed at destabilization of the situation within the country and spread of influence of Uzbek sub-ethnic groups and clans of Afghanistan on Uzbekistan are quite likely. At the same time, Tashkent has no resources to maintain its positions on the southern border with Afghanistan and 100% of control over its own part of Ferghana Valley where chances are high that the activity will revive, nor to prevent revitalization of opposition forces. In view of the above, Moscow probably hopes that under such conditions Tashkent will not be able to show active resistance to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and will agree to trade-off alternatives of settling the issues, including within the framework of pro-Russian geopolitical projects.

However, we believe that the situation is not likely to take such turn. Moscow has 9-12 more months until the situation with the construction of hydro-energy sites brings Dushanbe to understanding of the fact that Kremlin uses it in its geopolitical strategy. There was a similar situation in the past when Russian companies refused to complete the construction of the very same Rogun HPS which caused cooling down of relations with Tajikistan. This may result in significant strengthening of China’s positions due to investment infusion in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and construction of transport communications in Ferghana Valley.

In our opinion, Russia’s policy in the region will result in the fact that Tashkent will use a manoeuvre aimed at imitation of return under Russia’s wing. In such case, Kremlin will face an issue of fulfilling obligations to Dushanbe because the strategic plan suggests that the importance of Uzbekistan for Kremlin is more significant. Such games will hardly bring a happy end to Moscow because weakness of national economies of most Central Asian countries facilitates growth of radicalism and reduction of stability, and variety of tribes and clans complicates consolidation of power and implementation of efficient domestic policy which allows to predict further development of the situation in some of them according to Libyan scenario. Moreover, RF uses contradictions of CA countries under conditions of non-conflict infiltration of PRC into this region. Therefore, Russia’s influence in the region may be significantly reduced in case of change of power in one of the countries: Uzbekistan or Tajikistan which will strengthen positions of China and the US.

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The Effectiveness of Confucius Institutes in Promoting Chinese Soft Power in Kazakhstan

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In February 2016, Dariga Nazerbayeva, the then-deputy prime minister of Kazakhstan, declared that Kazakh children should learn Chinese in addition to Kazakh, Russian and English.[1] She further claimed, “China is our friend, our trading partner and the biggest investor in the economy of our country… in the near future, we will all need to know Chinese.” [2] Her statement not only emphasized the economic relationship between China and Kazakhstan, but also appealed to the promotion of stronger cultural bonds between the two countries—namely, through the medium of language learning.

Modern Sino-Kazakh relations are primarily based on the two countries’ strong trade ties with one another. China, as a rising global power, needs to secure substantial natural resource reserves to fuel its ever-growing consumption needs.[3] Given that Kazakhstan is a geographic neighbor with vast amounts of oil, gas, and other extractive resources, China considers it as an enticing candidate for supplying its energy demands.[4] Kazakhstan, meanwhile, recognizes the capacity of Chinese investment to bolster its economic growth, as well as to fund new infrastructure and industries.[5]

The economic partnership between the two countries took on an additional level of significance after China launched the New Silk Road Economic Belt (part of the Belt and Road Initiative) in 2013. Chinese policymakers viewed Kazakhstan as an integral component of carrying out this infrastructural investment project due to its natural resources and its geographic positioning as a bridge between Europe and Asia. Therefore, they sought out Kazakhstan’s full commitment towards supporting the enterprise.

 Despite the massive economic gains promised by the New Silk Road Economic Belt, Kazakh society at large held reservations about becoming too closely linked to China. Many groups in Kazakhstan feared that China intended to exploit Kazakhstan’s resources and reap the benefits for itself.[6] Allegations of the Chinese government’s mistreatment towards the Uyghurs, an ethnic group that shares Turkic Muslim roots with Kazakhs, raised negative perceptions of China in Kazakhstan.[7] These factors, coupled with fears that an overdependence on China could grant Beijing the opportunity to impede on Kazakh sovereignty, contributed to a general atmosphere of wariness towards cozying up too closely to China.[8]

The climate of opinion in Kazakhstan signaled to China that the economic and material dimensions of the Sino-Kazakh relationship were not enough to buy Kazakhstan’s loyalty. Officials in Beijing realized that in order to ensure Kazakhstan’s support for the New Silk Road Economic Belt, China needed to present itself as an ally that would collaborate with Kazakhstan to achieve mutual interests. From Beijing’s perspective, China needed to “win the hearts and minds” of the Kazakh people, and thus the government commenced an ongoing soft power campaign to fulfill that mission.[9] A core component of the Chinese soft power campaign in Kazakhstan have been the Confucius Institutes, organizations that offer Mandarin Chinese language courses. Although the Confucius Institutes have helped boost Mandarin Chinese language study throughout Kazakhstan, increased enrollment rates at these centers do not mean they have reshaped perceptions of China in Kazakh society. In spite of China’s attempt to utilize Confucius Institutes to promote Mandarin Chinese language learning and increase China’s cultural appeal in Kazakhstan, the success of the organizations has been limited. The Confucius Institutes’ effectiveness has been hindered by Kazakh students’ general lack of interest in comprehensive culture and language classes, suspicion stemming from the Chinese government’s direct control over the Confucius Institutes, and damage to China’s reputation following the mass detainment of its Uyghur population into “re-education camps.”   

Soft Power Initiatives in China: The Role of the Confucius Institutes

               The prominent American political scientist Joseph Nye defined soft power as a country’s ability to influence other countries to “do it what wants” because they admire and legitimize the image and values of the soft power holder. [10] Nye claimed that soft power was generated from intangible factors, including culture, ideology, and institutions. He believed that soft power creation was a bottom-up process and stated that the involvement of civil society and non-governmental institutions, rather than the state, made soft power effective.[11] In turn, high levels of soft power allowed countries to build alliances with other countries and secure their objectives on the world stage. Given how China is increasingly pursuing its great power ambitions via the New Silk Road Economic Belt/ Belt and Road Initiative, it has recognized the critical role that soft power can play in achieving its goals. Chinese officials have therefore attempted to portray the rise of China as a peaceful one that will seek out harmonious and cooperative ties with other countries.[12]  

One of the main tools that China has used to spread its soft power are the Confucius Institutes (CIs), which are educational organizations that offer Chinese language-learning programs to students from all over the world. The Chinese Ministry of Education founded the CIs in 2004 to “provide Chinese language and cultural teaching resources and services worldwide… and contribute to the development of multiculturalism and the building of a harmonious world.” [13] CIs are established when they partner up with universities in host countries and provide Mandarin Chinese language classes, exchange programs, and cultural activities.[14] Since the foundation of the first CI in 2004, the number has climbed to approximately 540 CIs throughout 161 countries as of 2020.[15] Given the sheer scale and scope of the CIs’ activities, they serve as China’s most prominent resource in promoting its soft power agenda.

In Kazakhstan, the first CI was established at the L.N. Gunilyov Eurasian University in Nur-Sultan in 2007.[16] That number has grown to five CIs in Kazakhstan as of 2021.[17] The other CIs are:

  •  Al-Farabi National Kazakh University (Almaty)
  •  K. Zhubanov Aktobe Regional State University (Aktobe)
  • Karaganda State Technical University (Karaganda)
  • Kazakh Ablai Khan University of International Relations and World Languages (Almaty) [18]

Nur-Sultan is the capital of Kazakhstan, while Almaty is the country’s most populous city; thus, the choice to establish CIs in these cities is not surprising. Aktobe and Karaganda house large oil and coal reserves, respectively, and several Chinese businesses operate in those cities. The Kazakh students who study at these universities have more direct business incentives to study Mandarin Chinese, as the companies frequently hire graduates with strong language skills.[19] In statistical terms, the CIs have expanded Mandarin Chinese language study within Kazakhstan. As of 2020, an estimated 14,000 Kazakh students are studying Mandarin Chinese at the country’s five Confucius Institutes, while 12,000 Kazakh students study in China every year.[20] That being said, quantity does not always translate into quality, as evaluative assessments of the CIs suggest they have not been very successful in altering China’s image in Kazakhstan.

The Effectiveness of the Confucius Institutes in Kazakhstan

Evidence suggests that the CIs have been relatively ineffective in terms of reshaping popular perceptions of China in Kazakhstan. Firstly, most Kazakh students study Mandarin Chinese to obtain a practical skill for their future career interests, as opposed to cultivating a genuine interest in China. Gaukhar Nursha, a researcher affiliated with Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, conducted a survey across all of the CIs in Kazakhstan to assess why students decided to take part in these programs. According to her data, enrollment in non-language CI courses was low, which suggested that most students were not very interested in learning about Chinese culture and history.[21] As for language classes, many students tended to drop out after a few weeks of classes or after they receive certain certifications for their language levels.[22] Given that the majority of Kazakh students with Mandarin language skills end up working for companies in Kazakhstan, they do not see the urgency of gaining in-depth cultural knowledge of China.[23] Nursha’s study demonstrates that language study does not necessarily correlate with an interest in culture.

Secondly, Beijing’s direct involvement in the institutes limits their efficacy as a soft power tool. The CIs have faced criticism for their alleged state censorship, as they tend to paint an idealized portrait of China while limiting discussions on political issues.[24] Furthermore, Beijing has constrained non-government affiliated efforts to promote Chinese language and culture to foreign audiences.[25] These actions go against Nye’s theory of soft power acquisition, as he argues that civil society and non-state institutions—rather than the government—play an instrumental role in bolstering soft power. [26] Non-state soft power initiatives appear more open and genuine in their motivations, whereas state-dominated soft-power efforts can risk coming across as overly politicized propaganda.[27] The role that the Chinese government plays in the operation of the CIs undermines the organization’s sincerity and instead portrays it as a Trojan horse of Beijing’s political agenda.

Lastly, China’s image as a “peaceful” power contradicts its actual behavior, especially with regard to Beijing’s recent policies towards the Uyghur population in Xinjiang.[28] In 2017, China began a mass campaign that has placed over one million Uyghurs in detention camps. Beijing has stated that the facilities are actually “re-education camps” that have dissuaded Uyghurs from joining radical Islamist groups and have provided them with vocational skills.[29] However, former detainees have claimed that the camps are prison-like environments where Uyghurs are coerced into giving up their cultural identities and adopt to hegemonic Han Chinese cultural expectations.[30] Ethnic Kazakhs living in Xinjiang have also been targeted in this campaign. The Xinjiang detainment camps issue have sparked a series of anti-Chinese protests throughout Kazakhstan, and this blow to China’s image may discourage future Kazakh students from studying Mandarin Chinese at the CIs.[31] In short, despite the rising popularity of studying Mandarin Chinese in Kazakhstan, the CIs have not influenced Kazakh students to view China in a more positive light: in other words, they have won over the “minds”, but not the “hearts”, of people in Kazakhstan.[32]


[1] Bhavna Dave. “Chapter 10. Silk Road Economic Belt: Effects of China’s Soft Power Diplomacy in Kazakhstan,” in China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its Impact in Central Asia, ed.Marlene Laruelle (Washington D.C.: The George Washington University, Central Asia Program, 2018), 106. 

[2] Jack Farchy. “Kazakh Language Schools Shift from English to Chinese.” Financial Times, May 9, 2016, www.ft.com/content/6ce4a6ac-0c85-11e6-9456-444ab5211a2f.

[3] Daniela Zuvela. “China-Kazakhstan Relations: Setting a Standard for Central Asian States.” Future Directions International, Feb. 10, 2021,   https://www.futuredirections.org.au/publication/china-kazakhstan-relations-setting-a-standard-for-central-asian-states/.

[4] Daniela Zuvela. “China-Kazakhstan Relations”; World Bank, “Kazakhstan Reversing Productivity Stagnation: Country Economic Memorandum,” The World Bank Group, accessed May 20, 2021, https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/31348, ii.

[5] Nargis Kassenova, “China’s Silk Road and Kazakhstan’s Bright Path: Linking Dreams of Prosperity.” Asia Policy 24, no.1 (2017): 113. doi:10.1353/asp.2017.0028.  

[6] Roman Vakulchuk and Indra Overland. “China’s Belt and Road Initiative through the Lens of Central Asia,” in Regional Connection under the Belt and Road Initiative. The prospects for Economic and               Financial Cooperation, eds. Fanny M. Cheung and Ying-yi Hong (London: Routledge, 2019), p.120.

[7] Temur Umarov. “What’s Behind Protests Against China in Kazakhstan?” Carnegie Moscow Center, Oct. 30, 2019,  https://carnegie.ru/commentary/80229.

[8] Philippe Le Corre. “Kazakhs Wary of Chinese Embrace as BRI Gathers Steam.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Feb. 28, 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/02/28/kazakhs-wary-of-chinese-embrace-as-bri-gathers-steam-pub-78545.

[9] James F. Paradise.  “China and International Harmony: The Role of Confucius Institutes in Bolstering Beijing’s Soft Power.” Asian Survey 49, no. 4 (2009): 649. www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/as.2009.49.4.647.

[10] Joseph S. Nye. Understanding International Conflicts: An Introduction to Theory and History (5th Edition). (New York: Pearson/Longman, 2005), 61.

[11] Nye, Understanding International Conflicts, 61.

[12] Diana Chariyevna Gurbanmyradova, “The Sources of China’s Soft Power in Central Asia: Cultural Diplomacy,” (Master’s thesis, Central European University, 2015), 14, 15. http://scholar.google.hu/scholar_url?url=http://www.etd.ceu.hu/2015/gurbanmyradova_diana.pdf&hl=en&sa=X&ei=frekYJTGD8vhmQHWwoTYDg&scisig=AAGBfm3sx-X0BrEpXZA28IANM5nLZ5Y2kA&nossl=1&oi=scholarr.

[13] “Confucius Institutes Aim for Sustainable Development,” China Daily, accessed May 20, 2021, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2015-06/24/content_21090794.htm.

[14] Jeffrey Gil. “The Promotion of Chinese Language Learning and China’s Soft Power.” Asian Social Science 4, no. 10 (2009): 118. doi:10.5539/ass.v4n10p116; Gurbanmyradova, “The Sources of China’s Soft Power in Central Asia,” 29.

[15] Xi Chen. “New NGO to operate China’s Confucius Institutes, ‘disperse misinterpretation,’” Global Times, July 5, 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1193584.shtml.

[16] Daniyar Koznazarov. “Dragon’s Tender Hug: Prosperity Discourse and China’s Soft Power in Kazakhstan.” Voices on Central Asia, Jan. 15, 2019, https://voicesoncentralasia.org/dragons-tender-hug-prosperity-discourse-and-chinas-soft-power-in-kazakhstan.

[17] Nurlan Aliyev. “China’s Soft Power in Central Asia”. The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, Dec.19, 2019, https://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13599-chinas-soft-power-incentralasia.html#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20Hanban%2FConfucius,Uzbekistan%20and%202%20in%20Tajikistan.

[18] “Confucius Institutes All Over the World.” DigMandarin, accessed May 20, 2021,  https://www.digmandarin.com/confucius-institutes-around-the-world.html.

[19] Gurbanmyradova, “The Sources of China’s Soft Power in Central Asia,” 29.

[20] Temur Umarov. “China Looms Large in Central Asia.” Carnegie Moscow Center, March 30, 2020, https://carnegie.ru/commentary/81402; Dave, “Chapter 10. Silk Road Economic Belt,” 105.

[21] Gaukhar Nursha. “Chapter 13. Chinese Soft Power in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan: A Confucius Institutes Case Study”, in China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its Impact in Central Asia, ed. Marlene Laruelle. (Washington D.C.: The George Washington University, Central Asia Program, 2018), 139.

[22] Nursha, “Chapter 13: Chinese Soft Power in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan,” 139.

[23] Nursha, “Chapter 13: Chinese Soft Power in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan,” 139.

[24] Wesley Rahn. “Why is the US targeting China’s Confucius Institute?” Deutsche Welle, April 16, 2018, https://www.dw.com/en/why-is-the-us-targeting-chinas-confucius-institute/a-43403188;  Linmin Zheng. “What is Wrong with the Confucius Institute?”Diggit Magazine, Oct. 9, 2019, https://www.diggitmagazine.com/papers/wrong-confucius-institute

[25] Gurbanmyradova, “The Sources of China’s Soft Power in Central Asia,” 39, 43.

[26] Nye, Understanding International Conflicts, 61.

[27] Ainur Nogayeva. “Limitations of Chinese ‘Soft Power’ in Its Population and Language Policies in Central Asia.” Geopolitics 20, no. 3 (2015): 600. doi:10.1080/14650045.2015.1034272.

[28] Peter Mattis. “Yes, the Atrocities in Xinjiang Constitute a Genocide.” Foreign Policy, April 15, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/04/15/xinjiang-uyghurs-intentional-genocide-china/

[29] Lindsay Maizland. “China’s Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang.” Council on Foreign Relations, Nov. 25, 2019, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-repression-uyghurs-xinjiang

[30] Maizland, “China’s Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang.”

[31] Umarov, “What’s Behind Protests Against China in Kazakhstan?”

[32] Paradise, “China and International Harmony,” 649.

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Russia and Central Asian countries in the aftermath of the Taliban victory

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image source: TASS

While the States concerned are paying attention to the situation in Afghanistan, they are also constantly adjusting their policies towards this country. A new round of “games” on the Afghan issue has just begun.

The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 was not only a turning point in Afghan and Soviet-Russian history, but also had a profound impact on geopolitics and the international situation.

The abrupt political developments and the situation in Afghanistan are catalysing regional geopolitical changes.

From the viewpoint of policy orientation, the most important factor in the eyes of the United States currently lies in national and international strategic directions, rather than in issues such as regional counterterrorism. After the elimination of Bin Laden, counterterrorism was no longer considered the most important and priority issue. Both former President Trump and current President Biden have emphasised that the White House no longer has any obligation to help Afghanistan build a democratic nation, whatever the European specialists of whining may say.

President Biden believes that the main tasks are to restore the morale and public trust of the government agencies that have been affected by his turnaround and maintain the US status as the world’s hegemonic power. In his speech delivered on August 16, President Biden said again: “Our true strategic competitors – the People’s Republic of China and Russia – are most hopeful that the USA will continue to invest billions of dollars in resources and attention each year indefinitely to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan”.

Therefore, Ghani government’s swift defeat in the country not only did not change Biden’s understanding of Afghanistan’s policies, but instead reinforced his belief that he was right to withdraw troops: “Developments over the past week have further demonstrated that the USA has made the right decision to end military intervention in Afghanistan”.

While withdrawing troops and reducing investment, the Biden Administration has expressed the hope that the People’s Republic of China and Russia will take more responsibility for maintaining Afghan stability, somehow saving US face by “leaving” a pacified country. By doing so, the USA cherishes the illusion that it will retain a minimum of political presence by not ceding all regional power to China, Russia, etc. Therefore, the USA is eager to reach a peace agreement within Afghanistan and has even induced the semblance of the former Afghan government to compromise with the Taliban on many occasions. However, the policies of the Biden Administration have not really promoted peace talks in Afghanistan and the Taliban have not only achieved their goals through military force, but also by converging on third party players.

While the return of the Taliban and the swift defeat of the puppet government have shown a complete failure of US policy, the USA will still be a key player in Afghan foreign affairs in the future.

Since the US 20-year military action has never shown any evident results, Russia has gradually changed its attitude towards the Afghan Taliban and their policy, shifting from token support for NATO’s military operations to a call for using political means to solve the century-old Afghan problem. Russia is willing to act as an intermediary to actively promote political negotiations between the USA and the Taliban: hence President Biden’s cautious openings to its former Enemy Number One are hardly surprising.

Since the beginning of the internal negotiations in Afghanistan, Russia has been in contact with various parties concerned to ensure that it will play its role in the future. Although Russia has always opposed extremist organisations (including the Taliban), as realities have changed, it has begun to provide partial support to the Taliban in recent years. And in July – when Russia’s intelligence had sensed US collapse and withdrawal – the two former enemies further strengthened their political ties. Hence from Brezhnev’s interventionist mistakes, we have shifted to the cunning and acumen of President Putin, a former KGB Colonel.

Russia could play a decisive role in Afghanistan. On the one hand, the US withdrawal offers Russia opportunities and leeway to deepen its regional influence; on the other, for national security considerations, Russia does not want the US withdrawal to cause a relapse of terrorism and extremism on a territory bordering on the Muslim republics that, in turn, share a common border with Russia – not forgetting the ash that covers the Chechen fire.

The return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan seems a foregone conclusion based on the analysis of the current and past situation, considering their military strength and determination. This return, however, has raised the concerns of the Central Asian countries’ establishment (of Soviet heritage), for which Russia has seized the opportunity to strengthen its military presence and political influence in Central Asia. Let us not forget that on August 5, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan held joint military exercises in the area bordering on Afghanistan to ensure control of the Tajik border.

The security and stability of a key country like Afghanistan have always been an important part of regional security in South Asia as well. India – a nuclear power and a major player in international relations, with its long-standing friendship with Russia as an anti-Pakistan pro-China partner – has always positioned itself as a leading power in South Asia and sees its peacekeeping intervention in Afghanistan as a channel to strengthen its traditional international influence.

Considering national security and the inextricable links between the Afghan Taliban and the aforementioned Pakistan, India did not want Afghanistan to fall into the hands of the Taliban at all, which is the reason why India has long supported the Afghan government, rectius the Kabul municipality. Since the beginning of the US military withdrawal, India has been paying close attention to Afghan developments and has gradually relaxed its hostile attitude towards the Taliban. When, under the onslaught of the new rulers, the flimsy government forces retreated steadily, India remained silent in the face of the Kabul municipality’s plea for help, but at least did its utmost to host and accommodate Afghan people seeking refuge.

At the moment, the overall situation in Afghanistan is determined, and the Indian government is facing double pressure from Afghanistan and Pakistan. On the one hand, India is worried that once the Taliban control Afghanistan, terrorists will spread to Kashmir (the area disputed with Pakistan since 1946); on the other hand, the special relationship between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan makes India deeply concerned, not to say threatened.

Because of its close relationship with the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan will play a greater role in the relations of this country, but it shall also face greater challenges and pressures. In view of successfully completing the withdrawal of military forces, the Biden Administration – to strengthen appearances – has started to loosen relations with Pakistan, but has confirmed it as a long-term US partner. Rumours gathered by various intelligence agencies that the USA is trying to establish military bases in Pakistan also indicate that Pakistan’s position in US geostrategy has been restored, to the detriment of India.

There have always been many conflicts between Pakistan and India over issues such as territorial disputes, ethnic and religious matters and, not least, the Taliban problem in Afghanistan. The US withdrawal could give Pakistan opportunities for strategic expansion and increase its cards on the table vis-à-vis India. Not for nothing, in response to the various political changes that could take place in Afghanistan, Pakistan has been actively participating in the peace process in Afghanistan since the USA withdrew. What disturbs Pakistan is that the Taliban leaders have shown a tendency to get rid of Pakistan’s influence and have sought greater political autonomy. The current situation in Afghanistan seems clear, but the movements and moves of Afghan leaders, after successfully taking power, are also fraught with uncertainty for Pakistan. Moreover, the successful rise of the new leadership has challenging and demonstrative effects on the Taliban residing in Pakistan (the Taliban’s sanctuary), as well as on the Balochistan Liberation Army and other terrorist and separatist organisations in Pakistan – a problem realistically facing Pakistan. For national security reasons, Pakistan has now blocked the largest crossing point in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (former North West Frontier Province), which borders on Afghanistan, and has entered into official negotiations with the Taliban.

Turkey, in turn, has always been actively involved in the Afghan issue and hopes to expand its influence in the Islamic world and even manage the Afghan issue. With a small number of troops stationed in Afghanistan, Turkey reached an agreement with the US military to voluntarily assist in the defence of the strategically located Kabul airport, hoping to obtain capital for transactions with the USA, Russia, Pakistan and local parties to strengthen its position in that country.

After the Taliban entered Kabul, Turkish President Erdogan showed willingness for peace talks, hoping to maintain Turkey’s military presence in Afghanistan, particularly in the control of Kabul airport. Although the Taliban are unhappy that Turkey has reached an agreement with the United States to manage Kabul airport, Turkey will still continue to be an important piece on the Afghan chessboard in the future because of the traditional basis of its relations with that ancient country.

In economic terms, Afghanistan is an important channel for Central Asian countries to open up the South Asian market and carry out transport and trade in energy materials. The Taliban’s comeback to power directly affects trade with South Asia.

In terms of security, the possible turmoil in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal will to some extent amplify the spillover effects of terrorism on Afghan territory. It will cause the spread of drugs and the influx of large numbers of refugees into Central Asia. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan border on Afghanistan. The current situation puts enormous security pressure on the three countries. Under such pressure, the three countries can review bilateral and multilateral defence and security agreements and the Central Asian countries can strengthen cooperation within them.

After the US withdrawal, there are signs that the White House and the Kremlin are interested in rebuilding or expanding military bases in Central Asia. Russia has even organised a five-day military expert trip to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, at the Harb Maidun shooting range near the Tajikistan border.

While the United States and other Western countries are hastily withdrawing with their tails between their legs – the Italian Ambassador was the first to do so on the orders of Italy’s Foreign Minister – the Central Asian countries are gradually extending their dependence on Russia for security reasons, should the Taliban fail to send signals of détente to the Central Asian States in the future.

As I wrote a few days ago, the Taliban are now much stronger, respected and internationally recognised than they were in 1996, thanks to the failures of the United States and its European partners.

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Central Asia

Competing for Resource: India-China Rivalry in Central Asia

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After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the independence of the 5 Central Asian Republics (hereby, CARs) of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, both India and China established diplomatic relations with the nations in the Central Asian region, but the latter, due to its geographical proximity and economic strength, has fared much better than the former. With a rise in its neo-colonial practices, China has used economic coercive methods to utilise the resources the CARs have to offer. From laying Belt and Road projects in the region, to providing loans that, upon non-repayment, would lead China to usurp Central Asian resource-bases in return, China’s unchecked influence in the region has led to growing sentiments of opposition among the masses. Historically, the Soviet Union and the post-1991 Russia did have great relations with and a similar undue influence upon the CARs, but now, as Russia’s relations with China have grown closer, it has become more of a backseat power in Central Asia. Moreover, Russia’s fate in the region was sealed for the worse when it faced sanctions from the west on its annexation of Crimea in 2014, and its aggressiveness with Ukraine. The Kremlin did attempt to reassert its dominance amidst its increasing unease at Beijing’s massive influence in the region, especially through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) – an organisation focusing on counterterrorism and military preparedness in the region. But this overall strategic push has not veiled the western resentment and the diminishing economic strength faced by Russia today. It’s now safe to say that there’s not much Russia can do about hegemonic Chinese ambitions in the region.

India, on the other hand, still endeavours to make the most of its relations with the CARs. The under-utilised potential lies in energy, trade and cultural ties, as well as in India’s performance in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The SCO, of which India became a permanent member in 2017 with support from Russia and the CARs, can be the negotiating table India needs to come together with China and Pakistan and shape the future of the region. Other initiatives that need immediate attention are energy pipelines that are underway – the Turkmenistan– Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline, for instance, connecting Central Asia with India through Pakistan, or a new pipeline endeavour that can provide India a route that doesn’t require it to deal with Pakistan – for example, through the Chabahar port in Iran. Another initiative is the International North-South Transport Corridor, which, although ambitious and a tough competition to China/ BRI-centered trade routes, has progressed unsatisfactorily. While there exists geographical distance, cultural closeness can easily be furthered between India and the CARs through historical ties involving soft-power diplomacy, and much more.

First, we must understand China’s stake in the region, and the responses its involvement has incited. Central Asia is an important resource-centre for China, being naturally rich in oil and gas. China’s alternative sources for energy-producing elements like gas have become increasingly unstable (especially the Middle East, which has been in constant turmoil since the 2011 Arab Spring, and now increasingly due to the ill-effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic). China shares a border with three Central Asian nations – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – and stability in the Central Asian region therefore, becomes important for China so as to avoid spillovers of instability, violence, and refugees into its Xinjiang Province. The Xinjiang province is infamous for Chinese internment camps targeting Uighur muslims, and for China to protect its borders from illegal crossing, which may lead to a diplomatic blunder, becomes essential. For this, Central Asian nations bordering China agreed to ban Uighur groups in 1997. In return, China has offered to them, over the years, huge investments. For example, in Kazakhstan, Chinese investments and contracts today have crossed the US $50 billion mark, and have exceeded US $2-3 billion in the other four CARs. Chinese BRI projects have integrated Central Asia into the nexus of global trade more comprehensively. For example, the New Eurasian Land-Bridge corridor links China to Europe (Poland and Germany) via Russia and Kazakhstan. Chinese is building border military posts, especially in collaboration with Tajikistan, for personnel training and security. Amidst the Pandemic, Central Asian hydrocarbon exports to Central Asia have lowered, but a boost has been created by China, in that it gave Central Asian commodities limited access to its own markets. These especially opens China for imports of Central Asian foodstuffs and agricultural produce.

In recent times, citizens of the CARs have shown growing resentment towards Chinese presence in the region. They feel that their governments need to look beyond politico-economic considerations to take harsher steps in dealing with Chinese neo-imperialism. The inhumane treatment of Uighur muslims, that has sparked worldwide condemnation, has also been a matter of concern for the Central Asians, as various families of Uighur muslims have Kazakh and Kyrgyz origins – people belonging to a land called East Turkestan. While East Turkestan became part of mainland China after it fell into the hands of Chinese warlords in 1911, the current and emerging East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM for short), an Islamic fundamentalist initiative to radicalise the Uighurs, has raised a new diplomatic and security challenge for China. Central Asians also launched protests in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan over issues like Chinese companies giving more pay to their own workers than those from the CARs, or China usurping land and resource-blocs when there was non-repayment of loans by the governments. In this light, India has the opportunity to revive its image and interests, establishing friendly political and trade relations with the CARs.

India’s 2012 ‘Connect Central Asia’ and ‘Eurasia’ Policies highlight the significant stake India holds in the region. Two major projects for enhanced connectivity, in this regard, are the TAPI pipeline and the INSTC, both of which have immense potential in terms of tapping Central Asian energy resources, and establishing a freight corridor free of Pakistani and Chinese interventions respectively, but have been taking too long to develop and operationalise. This must be overcome with greater fervour if India is to take its connectivity with the CARs more seriously. Historically, India and Central Asia have engaged in trade and cultural-diasporic exchanges, by virtue of the Silk Road. Shared religious ideals (especially of Islam and Buddhism), a love for folklore and food culture, and an adoration for Bollywood, are striking soft diplomacy tools at India’s hand. The most important aspect of the religious ties would be a revival of the ‘Naqshbandi’, which is an Indo-Islamic way of life that emerged with the interactions of the Mughal empire in India with the Sufi mysticism of Central Asia.

The Afghanistan issue and the recent de-facto takeover of Taliban over the country is a destabilizing matter for the region, and both India and the CARs are stakeholders in the Afghani peace process. While the new US-guided quad, comprising of the United States, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, has left India out, India can use the SCO to earn favour and support of the CARs in bringing peaceful resolution to Afghani infighting, considering both the parties have supported power-sharing between the Taliban and the government, and are afraid of the violent repercussions and the refugee crisis that the Taliban takeover is causing.        

The India-China rivalry can be the next big thing in Central Asia, when the dust of the Afghani peace process settles – and India must be ready for it. As the world prepares for reforming post-Pandemic supply chains, and in that context, the India-Central Asia relations can either become better, or decline in the presence of alternatives. Hence, the time for India to a hard look into the Central Asia policy mirror is now.

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