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The Paradoxes of Social and Economic Development in Central Asia

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Central Asia is a region with very uneven social and economic dynamics. It is rapidly breaking down into areas with different quality of life, economic growth, environmental health, quality of social services and infrastructure access. This makes it hard to find common socio-economic problems that would be of equal concern to those living in big cities and small villages.

At the same time, Central Asia is riddled with many paradoxes that pose serious challenges to the region’s socio-economic development, so it is worth examining the situation as an interplay of contradictory processes.

First, the Central Asian population is still growing, and high unemployment is compounded by a lack of skilled workforce and low quality of human capital. Despite significant migration outflow over the last 30 years, the population of the region has increased by 47 per cent or more than 23 million people. Considering the youthful population (the average age in Central Asia, as of 2015, ranged from 22 in Tajikistan to 29 in Kazakhstan) and the large number of children in families (for example, in Tajikistan the average number of children per woman is 3.8), it is evident that the growth will continue, albeit at a slower pace.

Unemployment continues to be an issue in all the countries of the region, affecting young people the most. According to official statistics, the unemployment rate ranges from 2.3 per cent in Tajikistan to 9.3 per cent in Uzbekistan, while the total number of jobless tops two million.

Experts say the problem is much bigger, though, since a large share of unemployed people is unregistered, being classified as seasonal workers or self-employed, as well as migrating to find work abroad. Hundreds of thousands in Central Asia do not register as unemployed for several reasons: the complicated and lengthy bureaucratic procedure, a lack of legal literacy and the very low labour productivity.

The share of unemployment is estimated to be 10–15 per cent in cities and 40–60 per cent in rural areas. This makes mardikor bazaars, or day labourer markets, a universal phenomenon in labour-surplus parts of Central Asia and more than five million people are pushed to travel abroad to find work.

At the same time, there is a severe shortage of skilled professionals in the healthcare, education, industry, transport and utility sectors. This is why Central Asian economies annually attract several dozen thousand foreign blue- and white-collar workers from China, Turkey, Russia, India and other countries for implementing new industrial and construction projects.

One of the main reasons for this paradox is most people’s persistently low standard of education and skills in the region. The share of the able-bodied population with secondary and higher vocational education in Central Asia is significantly lower than in Russia or Europe. National education systems cannot provide the region’s economies with the required amount of adequately skilled workforce. A high level of corruption, low teacher qualifications and weak infrastructure do not allow for training students properly.

This is why a large proportion of young people in Central Asia study abroad, in Europe, North America, China and other East Asian countries. Russia has a strong position as the leading supplier of skills for the region, with it currently providing education to more than 100,000 people from Central Asia, which is over a half all the international students in Russia. Even though half of these stay in Russia to work after graduating, people with Russian degrees play a crucial role in Central Asia’s economic development. I am confident that their numbers should and will grow.

Second, Central Asia is characterised by rapid economic growth, which has been accompanied by a significant increase in the quality of life and success in combatting poverty in the last 20 years. At the same time, the poorly diversified local economies are dependent on the external economic situation. The small domestic market, weakened by a wave of currency devaluations in 2014–2019, cannot produce the required demand and new projects are entirely dependent on foreign companies in terms of technology.

In the last 15 years, the Central Asian economies have been growing faster than those of many of their neighbours, such as the EU, Russia, Iran and Turkey. The poorest country of the region, Tajikistan, has seen a drop in poverty from 73 per cent in 2003 to 31 in 2015. Significant changes have also been observed in GDP composition, with a significant fall in the share of agriculture. Yet the region’s economies are still dependent either on mineral exports (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) or on workforce exports (Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan).

Considering the small middle class – its absolute size is difficult to ascertain, but it includes about 30 per cent of the population (from 35 per cent in Kazakhstan to 5 per cent in Tajikistan) – and the small domestic market, the countries of the region are bound to go down the path of export-orientated economic development. Even so, the low level of localisation of high-tech manufacturing, the lack of skilled workers, and the dependence on imported equipment and technology in the key economic sectors all create obstacles to developing value-added exports. Despite the obvious successes of individual sectors, such as light industry (textiles, clothing and food), non-ferrous metals, construction materials and transport, Central Asian countries are increasingly reaching the objective limits of their growth.

A colossal shadow economy characterises the region. For example, according to Minister of Employment and Labour Relations of the Republic of Uzbekistan Sherzod Qudbiyev, only 40 per cent of the country’s economically active population is officially employed, while the rest are engaged in the shadow sector. Widespread corruption and the active role of the state in the economy hinder the development of private business. Most big business owners either have connections to the state or accumulated their capital abroad.

Third, being located in the heart of Eurasia, the region has a unique geographical advantage. Still, its transit potential is poorly realised owing to underdeveloped infrastructure, customs and technical restrictions, as well as a high level of corruption. For example, railway freight transit across Kazakhstan in 2018 only slightly exceeded 17 million tonnes, which is a fraction of the volume carried along the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Underdevelopment of the infrastructure is the result of a variety of factors. For instance, Kazakhstan was the only country formed after the fall of the USSR that had a relatively well-developed railway network connecting all its regions. In other Central Asian states, transport between regions relied on transit through neighbouring countries. In Uzbekistan, the only railway connection from Tashkent to Termez was through Turkmenistan.

In the almost 30 years since the collapse of the USSR, Central Asian countries have built several thousand kilometres of domestic and international railway lines. Yet serious problems remain. Turkmenistan completed the consolidation of its national railway network into a single system in 2006, Uzbekistan only did so in 2018, while Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan still do not have a fully-fledged national railway network. Road transit capacity also remains an open issue in the region.

In addition to the underdeveloped transport network, many parts of Central Asia suffer from an acute lack of other kinds of infrastructure, such as power and domestic gas supply. Systematic power supply restrictions are the norm in many areas of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and challenges related to grid access are among the most critical barriers to developing large-scale industrial production.

The housing and utilities infrastructure is also heavily stressed in Central Asian countries. For instance, according to the World Bank, central heating and small boilers are available to only 8 per cent of the population in Tajikistan, with most of those 8 per cent living in the capital Dushanbe. Heating services are also characterised by poor service quality and low supply reliability. As a result of the declining reliability of heat supply, radiators and the domestic heating infrastructure have been dismantled in almost 80 per cent of urban buildings previously connected to the centralised heating system. The severe energy crisis in the winter of 2007–2008 in Tajikistan and the accident at Bishkek Thermal Power Plant, Kyrgyzstan, in January 2018 highlight the fact that the utility gap remains.

To summarise, resolving the paradoxes outlined above will be the strategic goal for all Central Asian countries over the coming 15 to 20 years. This is precisely the key to the “big transformation” of the region that is currently underway.

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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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