A Kazakh court is set to put to the test China’s ability to impose its will and strongarm Muslim nations into remaining silent about its brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the north-western province of Xinjiang.
The court will hear an appeal by a former worker in one of Xinjiang’s multiple re-education camps against the rejection of her request for asylum. The appeal illustrates the political quagmire faced by Central Asian nations and Turkey given their ethnic, cultural and linguistic ties to China’s estimated 11 million Turkic Muslims that include 1.5 million people of Kazakh descent.
It also highlights China’s risky bet on being able to leverage its economic power to ensure the Muslim world’s silence about what amounts to the most concerted effort in recent history to reshape Muslim religious practice.
Up to one million Turkic Muslims have, according to the United Nations, been detained in a network of re-education camps in which they are being forced to accept the superiority of Chinese Communist Party beliefs and the leadership of President Xi Jinping above the precepts of Islam.
Beyond the camps, Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, a strategic minerals-rich province bordering on eight Central and South Asian nations that China has turned into a 21st century Orwellian surveillance state, are forced to refrain from religious practice and custom in public.
After denying the existing of the camps for the longest period of time, China last month felt obliged to acknowledge them and give them legal cover.
Authorities in Xinjiang amended their anti-extremism regulations “to allow local governments to set up institutions to provide people affected by extremist thoughts with vocational skills training and psychological counselling.” China asserts that the crackdown is intended to counter extremism, separatism and terrorism.
China’s acknowledgement was designed to counter the UN report, threats of US sanctions against officials and companies involved in the Xinjiang crackdown, and revelations by 41-year-old Sayragul Sauytbay, a Chinese national of Kazakh descent.
Ms. Sauytbay testified in an open Kazakh court that she had been employed in a Chinese re-education camp for Kazakhs only that had 2,500 inmates. She said she was aware of two more such camps reserved for Kazakhs.
Ms. Sauytbay was standing trial for entering Kazakhstan illegally after having been detained at China’s request.
She told the court that she had escaped to Kazakhstan after being advised by Chinese authorities that she would never be allowed to join her family because of her knowledge of the camps. Ms. Sauytbay was given a six-month suspended sentence and released from prison to join her recently naturalized husband and children.
Since then, Ms. Sauytbay’s application for asylum has been rejected and she has until the end of October to leave Kazakhstan. She hopes that an appeal court will reverse the rejection.
Ms. Sauytbay’s case puts the Kazakh government between a rock and a hard place and is but one of a string of recent cracks in the Muslim wall of silence.
Kazakh authorities have to balance a desire to kowtow to Chinese demands with a growing anti-Chinese sentiment that demands that the government stand up for its nationals as well as Chinese nationals of Kazakh descent.
Ms. Sauytbay’s revelations that ethnic Kazakhs were also targeted in the Chinese crackdown sparked angry denunciations in Kazakhstan’s parliament.
“There should be talks taking place with the Chinese delegates. Every delegation that goes there should be bringing this topic up… The key issue is that of the human rights of ethnic Kazakhs in any country of the world being respected,” said Kunaysh Sultanov, a member of parliament and former deputy prime minister and ambassador to China.
In a further crack, Malaysia this week released 11 Uyghurs who were detained after having escaped detention in Thailand.
The Uyghurs were allowed to leave the country for Turkey. The move, coming in the wake of a decision by Germany and Sweden to suspend deportations of Uyghurs to China, puts on the spot countries like Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, where Uyghurs risk extradition.
Malaysia’s release of the Uyghurs occurred days before Anwar Ibrahim took the first hurdle in becoming the country’s next prime minister by this weekend winning a parliamentary by election.
Mr. Ibrahim last month became the Muslim world’s most prominent politician to speak out about the crackdown in Xinjiang.
Earlier, Rais Hussin, a supreme council member of Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) party and head of its Policy and Strategy Bureau, cautioned that “that geographical proximity cannot be taken advantage by China to ride roughshod over everything that Malaysia holds dear, such as Islam, democracy, freedom of worship and deep respect for every country’s sovereignty… On its mistreatment of Muslims in Xinjiang almost en masse, Malaysia must speak up, and defend the most basic human rights of all.”
Pakistan’s Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony minister, Noorul Haq Qadri, was forced to raise the issue of Turkic Muslims with Chinese ambassador Yao Xing under pressure from Pakistanis whose spouses and relatives had been detained in the Xinjiang crackdown.
Ms. Sauytbay’s appeal for asylum is likely to refocus public opinion in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian nations on the plight of their Turkic brethren.
“She will not be deported, we will not allow it,” said Ms. Sauytbay’s lawyer, Abzal Kuspanov.
Mr. Kuspanov’s defense of Ms. Sauytbay is about far more than the fate of a former Chinese re-education camp employee. It will serve as a barometer of China’s ability to impose its will. If China succeeds, it will raise the question at what price. The answer to that is likely to only become apparent over time.
The Effectiveness of Confucius Institutes in Promoting Chinese Soft Power in Kazakhstan
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. 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.”  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. 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. Kazakhstan, meanwhile, recognizes the capacity of Chinese investment to bolster its economic growth, as well as to fund new infrastructure and industries.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.  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. 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.
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.”  CIs are established when they partner up with universities in host countries and provide Mandarin Chinese language classes, exchange programs, and cultural activities. Since the foundation of the first CI in 2004, the number has climbed to approximately 540 CIs throughout 161 countries as of 2020. Given the sheer scale and scope of the CIs’ activities, they serve as China’s most prominent resource in promoting its soft power agenda.
- 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) 
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. Furthermore, Beijing has constrained non-government affiliated efforts to promote Chinese language and culture to foreign audiences. 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.  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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
 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.
 Jack Farchy. “Kazakh Language Schools Shift from English to Chinese.” Financial Times, May 9, 2016, www.ft.com/content/6ce4a6ac-0c85-11e6-9456-444ab5211a2f.
 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/.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Joseph S. Nye. Understanding International Conflicts: An Introduction to Theory and History (5th Edition). (New York: Pearson/Longman, 2005), 61.
 Nye, Understanding International Conflicts, 61.
 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.
 “Confucius Institutes Aim for Sustainable Development,” China Daily, accessed May 20, 2021, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2015-06/24/content_21090794.htm.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 “Confucius Institutes All Over the World.” DigMandarin, accessed May 20, 2021, https://www.digmandarin.com/confucius-institutes-around-the-world.html.
 Gurbanmyradova, “The Sources of China’s Soft Power in Central Asia,” 29.
 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.
 Nursha, “Chapter 13: Chinese Soft Power in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan,” 139.
 Nursha, “Chapter 13: Chinese Soft Power in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan,” 139.
 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
 Gurbanmyradova, “The Sources of China’s Soft Power in Central Asia,” 39, 43.
 Nye, Understanding International Conflicts, 61.
 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.
 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/
 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
 Maizland, “China’s Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang.”
 Umarov, “What’s Behind Protests Against China in Kazakhstan?”
 Paradise, “China and International Harmony,” 649.
Russia and Central Asian countries in the aftermath of the Taliban victory
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.
Competing for Resource: India-China Rivalry in Central Asia
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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