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Russia’s ‘Great Game’ in Central Asia Amid the US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

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The post-Soviet Central Asian nations are gravely concerned about the Taliban’s rapid offensive in non-Pashtun northern provinces of Afghanistan seizing border crossings with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The region, which is considered Russia’s backyard, is not ready to cope on its own with the aftermath of the Afghan conflict after the US withdrawal on August 31 and to confront new challenges posed by the jihadist threat. This further forces the authoritarian and corrupt Central Asian political regimes to seek outside support rather than relying on their strength.

Central Asia’s economic and military vulnerability to growing security challenges amid a nationwide Taliban advance has once again turned the region into an arena of geopolitical rivalry between world powers, the US, Russia and China.

By exploiting the Afghan crisis, Moscow is trying to increase its military influence in the wider Central Asian region, also known as Russia’s ‘southern underbelly,’ a term that underscores the sense of vulnerability it feels along its southern border. Putin’s primary goal at this stage is to prevent the US armed forces from gaining a foothold in Central Asia again after their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Because for Moscow any forays by Washington in its ‘southern underbelly’, especially in the military field, represent a potential threat that could reduce its influence in the post-Soviet space.

Therefore, Russian officials are now carefully eyeing the next US moves and scrutinizing each of their contacts with the Central Asian governments. The military escalation near the border areas of its ‘southern underbelly’ is playing into Russia’s hands, as the “Five Stans” have high hopes for the Kremlin security umbrella to prevent possible threats from Afghanistan. Russia, in turn, seeing the dependence of Central Asian nations on it for support and defense, and is mounting speculation over the potential destabilization of the region.

It is noteworthy that Russia views the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as its hard power outposts in the region, which members are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In early July, Tajikistan called on CSTO to help it deal with security challenges emerging from Afghanistan, as its military forces could not handle the instability at the border without external assistance.

Moreover, President Vladimir Putin personally called his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rakhmon and confirmed his readiness to provide Tajikistan with the necessary support, both bilaterally and within the framework of the CSTO. For this purpose, Moscow wants to use its 201st military base in Tajikistan, one of its biggest abroad, to ensure the security of its allies.

The two authoritarian leaders agreed to jointly counter international terrorist threats at the time when some 1,600 Afghan government troops were fled north into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan following a Taliban onslaught in June.

Despite the amorphousness and ineffectiveness of the Russia-led military bloc, Moscow likes to emphasize the mutual defense commitments of CSTO members on the principle that “an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.” Another tool of Russian military influence in the region is its military base in Kyrgyz Kant, which strengthened its air and missile defense systems, deployed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and modern Mi-8MTV5-1 helicopters last year. Moscow is also strengthening military cooperation with non-CSTO members, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, in bilateral framework, by arms sales and joint military exercises. Russia has long viewed Central Asia as part of its privileged sphere of influence, and any military-political activity of external actors here arouses its envy and suspicion. The recent intensification of Russian military activity in the region is aimed at hindering the US military presence in Central Asia following its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

US foreign policy strategies towards Central Asia

Recently the Biden administration has cautiously probed a foothold in Central Asia to redeployment of US troops and to temporarily house about 9,000 Afghan interpreters who assisted with the American military’s invasion and occupation of the country. On April 15, the US officials had been in contact with Kazakh, Uzbek, and Tajik authorities about the possibility of reposition some of its troops in the region.

Further, on July 1 in Washington, US top diplomat Antony Blinken met with his Uzbek and Tajik counterparts, during which the parties discussed regional security and the situation in Afghanistan. After the meeting, Blinken tweeted words of gratitude to Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov and described Uzbekistan as an essential partner for regional security. “We have strong shared interests when it comes to security in the region, particularly with regard to Afghanistan,” Blinken said. Separately, in his meeting with Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin, Blinken discussed the military-political situation in Afghanistan and affirmed the US commitment to Tajikistan’s security, stability, and territorial integrity.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan, visited Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in May-June, where he held talks with the leaders of the countries on regional security issues. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the Homeland Security Adviser to the US President, attended the C5+1 meeting in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent on July 15, where she assured that the US will continue to solicit strong regionally and internationally support for the Afghan peace process. Details of US requests for bases in Central Asia have not been disclosed to the press, but the State Department’s increased activity towards the ‘Five Stans’ indicates that Washington is looking for regional partners.

However, their attempts to collect over-the-horizon counterterrorism capacity in Central Asia to support the current Afghan government apparently to have not resulted. It appears that Central Asian governments are playing it cool. Uzbekistan referred to its national defense doctrine, according to which no foreign military base could be permitted on Uzbek soil. Tajikistan recalled that as a member of the Moscow-led CSTO, it has no right to host foreign military bases on its territory without the consent of other members of the bloc. Kazakhstan silently bypassed the Afghan issues. Perhaps the US did not take into account the new Kyrgyz government due to its strong pro-Russian position. Apparently, Central Asian governments also have not replied positively to Washington’s request for temporarily housing some of Afghans who worked alongside US troops and who may be at risk from the Taliban. That was the result of Russia’s undisguised and heavy political pressure on its Central Asian allies.

Russia’s ‘heavy hand’ over Central Asia

The alarming situation along the Central Asian-Afghan border and the return’s threat of Taliban-backed Uzbek and Tajik Jihadists to Fergana Valley have forced the region’s authoritarian leaders to seek protection under Putin’s heavy hand. In May, he received the Tajik president Emomali Rahmon and the Kyrgyz leader Sadyr Japarov in Russia. Over the past three months, Putin has regularly spoken on the phone with his Kazakh, Uzbek and Turkmen counterparts, during which they discussed the security situation in the region. However, it can be assessed as political pressure considering Putin’s sharp anti-Western stance and his regular contact with the Central Asian leaders during the period when the US authorities were actively looking for a new place to redeploy their troops.

Russia’s top diplomat Sergey Lavrov has long cautioned Central Asia’s governments against deploying US troops in their countries. Otherwise, the Russian authorities openly warned that such actions would have far-reaching negative economic and political consequences. Moscow fears that Washington intends to use Central Asia as a foothold to simultaneously challenge its two principal competitors: Russia and China. According to Putin’s geostrategists, the US can exploit Russia’s ‘southern underbelly’ as fulcrums to strike at the core of the Kremlin.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, another heavyweight of Putin’s anti-Western team, toured Central Asia, attending a meeting of the Council of Defense Ministers of the member states of the CSTO in April. In his speech, he mainly criticized the West, stressing that “the actions of the US and NATO in the European region contribute to the growth of the military danger.” While in Dushanbe, Shoigu and his Tajik counterpart Sherali Mirzo announced the creation of a unified air defense system between Russia and Tajikistan. As part of his tour, Sergei Shoigu also visited Tashkent where together with the Uzbek counterpart Bahodir Kurbanov presented the strategic partnership program between Russia and Uzbekistan in the military field for 2021-2025. Notably, the main goal of his tour was to reassert Russian military influence in Central Asia and to counter deploying the US troops in the former Soviet Central Asian nations following their withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Zamir Kabulov, the Kremlin envoy on Afghanistan, stands out against the general background of Russia’s anti-American chorus, who recently stressed that “the US withdrawal cannot and must not turn into a redeployment of US and NATO military infrastructure facilities to countries neighboring Afghanistan, especially in Central Asia.”

Previously, the Central Asia states in their foreign policy tried to maintain neutrality in the Russia-China-USA triangle, consistently participating in all regional projects proposed by the superpowers: Moscow’s ‘Eurasian Economic Union’, the Beijing’s ‘Belt and Road’ and the Washington’s ‘C5+1’. However, the Central Asian governments were unable to maintain a balance of neutrality when the interests of global players over the US military presence in the region came into contradiction.

As a result, the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan provided the opportunity for Moscow to strengthen its political and military influence not only over its soft “southern underbelly”, but also beyond the Eurasian space. Geopolitical competition of global powers for the post-war future of Afghanistan has shown that the Central Asian nations, despite their 30-year experience of independence, still remain dependent on the Kremlin position.

Can Moscow step into the same Afghan river twice?

Notably, Afghanistan was a “geopolitical arena” between Moscow and Washington since the Soviet military intervention in 1979, where two world powers competed for geopolitical, military, economic and ideological superiority. It seems that now Russia’s leader, who greatly regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union after its shameful defeat in the Afghan war, has decided to pay the US in their own coin. Putin, whose anti-Western firm beliefs were shaped by the Soviet KGB, is imposing his will upon Central Asian weak leaders to side with Moscow rather than Washington in the “Great Geopolitical Competition.”

Over the past twenty years, the Russian GRU repeatedly attempted to undermine the US counterterrorism activity in Afghanistan guiding by the principle “what is bad for Washington is good for Moscow.” In June 2020, the US accused Russia of offering the Taliban bounties to kill American troops in Afghanistan. Moscow, then, as usual, denied the accusation.

Now Russian officials and experts gloated over the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Particularly, pro-Kremlin media automatically credited any of Washington’s failures in favor of Moscow. According to Russia’s chief diplomat, the US mission in Afghanistan had “failed”, and its hasty withdrawal from the country destabilized the region, which in turn exacerbated the terrorist threat in the region. Putin’s special envoy on Afghanistan made another accusation that Afghan government forces are losing the war to the Taliban because the US and NATO failed to create a combat-ready army during their twenty years of occupation of the country. Thus, the pro-Kremlin media, which still have a strong influence in the post-Soviet region, are fueling anti-American sentiments on the Afghan problem.

In conclusion, the “Great Game” around Central Asia over Afghanistan indicated the lack of foreign policy independent of the five post-Soviet nations. They are still highly vulnerable before Russian political and military influence even after 30 years of their sovereignty.

Outright US adversaries such as Iran and China have also made efforts to counter the deployment of US forward operating bases in Central Asia. Beijing’s tremendous economic pressure on its western neighbors forced them to react coldly to US proposals. In addition, the Afghan Taliban, whose influence began to spread outside the country, made several statements warning Central Asia’s neighbors not to provide its territories to US forces.

The coldshoulder of the Central Asian nations to US requests was the result of Washington’s passive foreign policy over the past two decades. While U.S. foreign policy was strategically adrift, Putin’s Russia regained its posture in the heart of the Eurasian landmass. Today, both Moscow and Beijing are aggressively challenging US interests in Central Asia on multiple fronts.

Thus, the Central Asian states have provided Russia moral satisfaction by supporting it in Putin’s “Great Game” in rivalry with the West. However, having sided with Russia, they have not fully achieved an improving of their geopolitical positions, strengthening of defense capability and ensuring regional security. Because, despite its global ambitions, Moscow has very limited political, financial and military resources to protect its Central Asian allies from the post-American Afghanistan security challenges.

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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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