In international politics, interstate rivalry involves conflicting relations between two international rivalries that are nation states. A fundamental feature of rivalry involves the willingness of the states involved to harm their opponents’ prosperity and progress only to deny a gain of the rival state. There is no public good in a rivalry. The only good during a rivalry is to hinder the progress of the rival despite the negative consequences of these efforts on internal progress. (Brandon, 2013)
Rivalry in the international system does not mean a sudden change of the dominant state (hegemon) and does not (always) lead to war. The fact that there were no direct armed conflicts between the USSR / Russia and the US and, more recently, China, indicates that the nations cooperated on time and had common global goals, such as fighting against terrorism, drug trafficking or the COVID-19 pandemic. Obviously, the bilateral relations between these great powers can (should) be improved, but until then, the great power politics seems happening with, the old game, but new strategies in Central Asian region.
In the study of international relations, gaining influence over a given region assumes an asymmetric relation in which a powerful nation is able to exclusively extend its “hard”’ or “soft” power to that region. In a narrower interpretation, the exercise of military or political power, but in a wider context, economic dependence or the tightness of cultural and historical connections combined with institutions and ties of alliance and partnership can also be an essential source of controlling a given region.(Nye Jr, 2004; Armitage and Nye Jr, 2007)
The struggle for supremacy and rivalry in Central Asia
Russia has a huge surface, which for centuries, has ensured its continuity and status of great power, despite an increasingly fragile economy; and like any great power, Russia also has a space considered its own, namely – the former Soviet space and, above all, the territory of Central Asia. From Russia’s perspective, its status as a great power implies rights in its immediate region, a special role in resolving international disputes, cooperation with other great powers and a higher level of autonomy or sovereignty. Medvedev justified Russia’s sphere of influence based on its status as a great power, arguing that: Russia, like other countries in the world, has regions in which it has privileged interests. In these regions, there are countries with which we have traditionally had cordial friendly relations, and historically, special relations. (Clint and Andrew, 2017). In fact, Russia exerts this influence out of pride and prestige, and, as Mearsheimer points out, Washington does not seem to agree with Moscow’s position, but it must understand the logic behind the decision. This is geopolitics: the great powers are always sensitive to potential threats, close to their own territory. (Mearsheimer, 2014)
Central Asia is the highest risk geopolitical region, becoming a place of interest for the great powers, as we have already mentioned: Russia, US, China, but also emerging powers such as India, Turkey, even the European Union. Energy resources are the main advantage of the area, with about 10% of the world’s oil reserves and about 30-40% of global gas reserves. This is not the first time the region has played an important global role as historically it has always been at the intersection of roads, both commercial and as a meeting point for the great civilizations of the world.
It is not a novelty that in Central Asia there are two types of states: the first category of those developed from an economic and military point of view, with the advantage of population and territory: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan; the second category is that of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which are less developed due to ongoing disputes over natural resources. An extremely interesting and important aspect to note as only Kazakhstan has a direct border with the Russian Federation, it acted during the three decades of independence as a buffer state, thus protecting other states from possible aggression by Russia; on the other hand, this common border also provided Kazakhstan with advantages, such as economic and political ones.
Moreover, being authoritarian regimes, the bilateral relations between all the five republics are far from being good due to several issues like border disputes(particularly between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan/Kyrgyzstan neighbors), for example. So, the following question naturally arises:
Why, nonetheless, is Central Asia important?
During the Cold War, Central Asia was characterized as a forgotten region but, after the collapse of the Soviet Union the geopolitics of this area has changed and the role of the Central Asian region in inter-national affairs has increased considerably (Zabortseva, 2012). In the last decades, Central Asia region became a geostrategic and geopolitical area of competition between old and new great powers such as Russia, European Union, United States and China.
Furthermore, these several nations have tried to exploit the power vacuum created after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Unites States, for instance, is increasingly present in the region, whose primary goal is to increase its military presence in Central Asia. Its strategic goals include the neutralization of Central Asia and offsetting the Russian and Chinese influence as well as preventing the region from religious radicalization and decreasing Iran’s influence. Other players in the race for power include Turkey, Iran and India. It is, however, undeniable that Russia and China have the greatest influence over the region and, the political and economic future will be determined by these two powerful nations (Bendarzsevszkij, 2021).
For the Russian Federation, this region is the sphere of traditional influence, and for many Russians, Central Asia is around Russia, hence it shows a special interest in the development of this region. Vladimir Putin tried to reconfirm the influence, but especially the Russian authority in the region, thus reducing the influence of the United States. However, China’s ambitions for the area’s economic potential, but especially the lack of clarity of Russia’s foreign policy in anticipating the region’s future development, make the Russian president’s efforts difficult.
These are not the only causes that prevent Russia from achieving its goals; Moscow’s effort for hegemony in Central Asia is complicated by the desire of some of the region’s leaders to gain special status as secondary leaders under Russian general rule. Indeed, almost all the leaders of the region, no matter how subordinate to Moscow, strive to gain some influence against Russia. One factor that offers, for some regimes, this opportunity, is the oil and gas from the Caspian Sea. The main beneficiaries are Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan (Donaldson, Vidya 2014). This desire of local leaders to get out (but not totally) of the sphere of influence of Moscow, is one of a personal nature, because they were not consulted about the dissolution of the USSR; the reason seems somewhat bizarre, but pride in this region is an extremely sensitive issue.
For the achieving their interests Russia is attempting to combine both defense presence and economic suzerainty through selective integration, boosting ties among a core group of states (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan) while pursuing a more limited set of aims elsewhere (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) (Mankoff, 2012).
But, despite its ‘return’ to Central Asia in the 2000s, Moscow no longer has a monopolistic hold over the region. The Kremlin has not tried to reintegrate with the Central Asian states politically. Though Moscow wishes to remain Central Asia’s ‘number one’ partner, it no longer imagines that its presence can be exclusive (Emerson and Boonstra, 2010).
On the other hand, western scholars recognize that for the United States, Central Asia is both strategically and commercially important. During President Clinton’s tenure, the first diplomatic, political, and economic ties were established. But after almost 30 years, the United States is perceived as a distant power (in international terms), even if it has invested billions, for example, only in the education of thousands of students in the region.
As a result, for both Russia and the United States, Central Asia is a sphere of strategic influence from a commercial, economic and political point of view. In this competition both states have common interests such as security, economic and energy development, the fight against terrorism and arms and drug trafficking; but, as expected, they also disagree on the promotion of liberal and democratic principles, different definitions of terrorism, and the duration of the existence of US military bases.
The surprise element (?) China
Central Asia has always been important to China’s imagination of and action toward its neighbors and the larger world beyond. As the vast middle section of the ancient Silk Road dating back to the Han Dynasty (207 BCE–220 CE), Central Asia connected and bridged China’s long-distance overland trade with Europe and the Middle East for many centuries (Chen and Fazilov, 2018). As a historical consequence, China was the second country to recognize the independence of the post-Soviet Central Asian states in early January 1992, following the United States. China’s eagerness was mainly attributable to its desire to ensure a stable periphery and maximize its influence with its new and nascent neighbors (Thornton, 2020).
Therefore, with Western powers unable to make sufficiently attractive proposals, given the political and geographical uncertainty of operating in Central Asia, many leaders in the region saw China as a potential alternative to growing Russian influence (Mankoff, 2012: 255). Like Russia, with a common border, China has grown in the trust of regional leaders, thus becoming the most important pole of attractiveness. In addition to economic, energy and trade interests, China will also have its own military bases, somewhere around 2024. This is an interesting fact, because China is Russia’s main economic partner and the most important ally in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Indeed, China does not want the United States to be able to bring its western borders closer. Moreover, Russia appreciates the fact that, so far, China’s expansion into the Central Asian region has been limited to the economic and cultural spheres – those that Moscow believes, either because of its geography or history, can counter them. Moscow has paid very little attention to the possibility of China relying on its soft power in Central Asia to establish security relations or even bases and thus accelerate the decline of Russian influence there. (Goble, 2019) Precisely this strategy of using power soft brought China’s influence, but nevertheless the conclusion and the opinion of specialists is that in the issue of security of the region, the leaders of the Central Asian states feel more secure in the responsibility of Moscow.
Is there an European Union influence in Central Asia?
The European Union must apprehend the security related issues as a geographic and conceptual continuum. From geographic point of view, this is applied from the closest frontier from Balkans up to the Caucasians, all along Central Asia and until the Middle East. From conceptual point of view, it includes issues related to political corruption, criminality, ethnic conflicts, local terrorist attacks within the Union and at the outskirts of the Union, up to the global terrorism. (Pogacian, 2015).
Along these lines, from the European Union point of view, the situation in the Central Asian region is viewed with some concern because it is not a politically and economically homogeneous region. While Turkmenistan remains one of the most authoritarian states in the world, with a terrible human right records, Kyrgyzstan stands out for its more advanced democracy. Moreover, all Central Asian states have multidimensional foreign policies, aiming in particular to balance relations with Russia, China, the EU and the US. Relations with Turkey and Iran are also important.
These efforts to strengthen the EU-Central Asia partnership have resulted in what has become the new EU Strategy for Central Asia – Connectivity in Support of Sustainable Development. An ambitious initiative and approach, in which the EU recognizes the strategic role of the Central Asian region in global efforts to promote connectivity between Europe and Asia and stressing that these efforts should benefit the region, the Council states that it looks forward to intensifying cooperation with Central Asia to promote sustainable, comprehensive and rules-based connectivity.
Despite the geopolitical rivalry between the great powers, the EU should continue to expand educational, cultural and research linkages with the Central Asian stakeholders. These areas of cooperation are most likely to have a long-term impact and they do not risk turning into politically sensitive challenges.
Instead of conclusions – Central Asia where to?
The Americans are not loved, the Russians are not believed, and the growing influence of China scares declaring an international observer of the area. At the same time, it must be said that the political elites in Central Asia seem to benefit the most from the growing interest of the great powers in the region, which is not only determined by energy reserves.
In this context, the recent events in Kazakhstan highly disturbed the delicate regional security context. There are more lessons that have to be learned from this reality:
Firstly, as I mentioned before, the Central Asia countries played the score of balancing within the great powers influence and this is something naturally; but this approach is irritating for the great powers strategies and forecast on the medium and long time period.
Secondly, Russian Federation has a problem to deal with. The events took part on its area of influence and affected that so called belt of security and Kremlin doesn’t want and need a new context like in the case of the former Eastern Europe.
Thirdly, it is very interesting that NATO and not US are the first to support the interest of the citizens both in Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Nevertheless, NATO means US interests in the sphere of security issues, for majority of Russian political experts, but dealing with NATO instead is something new and Moscow has to adapt its strategy to regional realities and perceptions.
From our partner RIAC
- Donaldson H. Robert, Nadkarni Vidya, The foreign policy of Russia. Changing systems, enduring interests, fifth edition, M.E. Sharpe, New York, 2014, 215
- Emerson, M. and Boonstra, J., 2010, Into Eurasia monitoring the EU’s Central Asia strategy. Brussels: Centre for European policy studies (CEPS)
- Goble, Paul, China Will Have Military Bases in Central Asia Within Five Years, https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2019/04/09/china_will_have_military_bases_in_central_asia_within_five_years_114317.html
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- Kortunov, Andrey, How to stop NATO, https://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/how-to-stop-nato/
- Mankoff Jeffrey, Russian Foreign Policy. The return of great power politics, Rowman&Littlefield Publishers, 2012, 255
- Mankoff, Jeffrey, The United States and Central Asia after 2014, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C, 2012, 1-31
- Mearsheimer, J. John, Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault. The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin, Foreign Affairs, Septemer/October 2014, available https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2014-08-18/why-ukraine-crisis-west-s-fault
- NYE, Joseph. S., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, New York, Public Affairs, 2004
- Pogacian, Adrian, European Union’s uncertain future. The state of Romanian – Russian relations and the importance of a bilateral dialogue, paper presented at the RAPN Congress, Moscow, 2015
- Reach Clint, Radin Andrew, Russian views of the international order, RAND Report 2017, 17
- Thornton, S., 2021. China in Central Asia: Is China winning the “new great game”?. Brookings. Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/research/china-in-central-asia-is-china-winning-the-new-great-game accessed 14 February 2021
- Valeriano, Brandon, Becoming rivals : the process of interstate rivalry development, Taylor&Francis, 2013, 5
- Zabortseva, Yelena Nikolayevna, From the“forgotten region”to the“great game”region: On thedevelopment of geopolitics in Central Asia, in Journal of Eurasian Studies, no. 3, 2012, 168-176
From Disintegration to Cooperation: Kazakhstan’s perspective in Central Asian Integration
The Russia-Ukraine war has underscored the significance of regional integration among the Central Asian states. A cohesive Central Asia could serve as a counterweight to the assertive policies of Russia and the growing influence of China, which regards the region as its sphere of influence. The future of the region hinges on the roles and relations of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan has undergone a remarkable transformation in its foreign policy, shifting from isolationism and authoritarianism to openness and constructive engagement in Central Asia integration. Kazakhstan, on the other hand, has demonstrated a relative indifference towards integration initiatives. Yet, the unity of Central Asia is vital important for the national security of Kazakhstan.
Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian nations made numerous attempts to establish a cohesive and integrated framework within the region. However, these endeavors proved to be unsuccessful, yielding no tangible outcomes. The failure of Central Asian integration can be attributed to the allure of external actors, most notably Russia, whose involvement has resulted in regional fragmentation. Russia has always opposed the emergence of a centralized and integrated Central Asia. Whenever the Central Asian countries attempted to form an association, Russia either tried to join it or proposed an alternative organization to undermine it. For instance, The Central Asian Economic Community (CAEC) was established in 1993 with the participation of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, and expanded to include Tajikistan in 1998. In 2002, the CAEC transformed into the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO), which admitted Russia as an extra-regional member in 2004, altering the balance of power in the organization. During that period, the member states of the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO) concurrently held membership in the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC), which was under the leadership of Moscow. Subsequently, in 2005, the integration efforts among the Central Asian countries, independent from Russia, were terminated under the pretext of duplicated tasks between the two organizations. This development not only paved the way for future challenges but also contributed to disunity within the region. Furthermore, Russia’s strategic maneuvering presented Kazakhstan with irresistible economic and political incentives that overshadowed the potential advantages of intra-regional collaboration. Consequently, Kazakhstan opted to align itself more closely with Russia rather than its neighboring states within Central Asia. As a result of this decision, the other countries in Central Asia gave up their own plans for regional cooperation.
The implementation of this particular policy by Russia has yielded significant outcomes. It is evident that all nations within Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, have become increasingly dependent on Russia. The most critical aspect of this dependence is the import of food products. After Western countries imposed sanctions against Russia, import has dropped slightly: certain goods will now have to be imported from elsewhere. But there are categories of supplies that simply cannot be replaced. On the other hand, Kazakhstan is highly reliant on Russia for its export sector, with 80 per cent of its oil exports passing through the Russian pipeline network. Furthermore, according to experts from Caravan, a Kazakhstani news agency, Russia is the main transit country for the cargo that reaches Kazakhstan. They estimate that more than 70 percent of all cargo that goes to Kazakhstan passes through the territory of Russia. Another 20 percent comes from China. In addition, reliance Kazakhstan’s tenge on Russian ruble is very high. In the first two weeks of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Kazakhstan’s tenge lost 20 percent of its value as the ruble fell against the dollar. In 2022, inflation increased mainly in Kazakhstan. In February 2023, it reached 21.3%.
Indeed, the war in Ukraine has had a significant impact on the perception of Russia in neighboring countries, including Kazakhstan. As Kazakhstan shares a long border with Russia, the deteriorating perception of Russia has raised concerns among the political elite. Additionally, the expanding influence of China in the region poses a serious challenge to the security of Central Asia.
In light of these challenges, Kazakhstan should prioritize the integration of Central Asia in its foreign policy. By forming a united front, Central Asian countries can act as a coherent actor in international relations. The following outlines the upcoming trends in the integration process.
Firstly, the establishment of a robust and autonomous institution, free from the influence of Russia and China, is of utmost importance. This institution should serve as a platform for fostering consistent communication and facilitating cooperation between interstate, intergovernmental, NGOs and SMEs. The current state of mutual collaboration on security issues among Central Asian countries is remarkably limited, resulting in divergent positions on regional security matters, or even an absence of any definitive position. For instance, the countries’ perspectives on the Ukrainian conflict displayed slight variances. Additionally, during the May 2023 summit between China and Central Asian nations held in Xian, China explicitly expressed its desire to improve law enforcement, security and defense capability construction and act as a guarantor against potential threats in the region, yet no official response was conveyed by any of the Central Asian countries. Consequently, it is imperative for Central Asian nations to develop a unified strategy in challenging external pressures posed by Russia, China, and other potential adversaries while asserting their individual sovereignties. By adopting a mutually collective approach, Central Asia can effectively balance and mitigate the risks originating from external sources.
Secondly, intra-regional trade plays a pivotal role in the integration process. Central Asia may not present significant economic attractiveness for Kazakhstan at the moment comparing to EUEA, but in the long term, the region may offer valuable opportunities for Kazakhstan’s development. The development of a common customs tariff among countries can enable them to engage more actively in trade activities. Mutual trade between Central Asian countries has shown positive changes in recent years. Between 2018 and 2022, intra-regional trade grew by 73.4%, rising from $5.8 billion to $10 billion. Kazakhstan is still the leading country in Central Asia in terms of trade, accounting for 80% of the region’s total volume of mutual trade.
Thirdly, the relations between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are crucial for the region’s long-term growth prospects as they shape the regional climate. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have complementary economies. Kazakhstan, with its well-developed industrial sectors, can provide technological expertise and investment opportunities for Uzbekistan, which has a strong agricultural base. On the other hand, Kazakhstan has the opportunity to serve as the primary export market for growing Uzbekistan’s manufacturing products, thereby fostering mutual complementarity in terms of labor supply and demand. By sharing knowledge, resources, and technology, they can promote economic diversification and reduce reliance on a single sector, ensuring sustainable growth for the region. Moreover, the cooperation between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan sets a precedent for other countries in the region. Their ability to work together and find common ground serves as an example for neighboring nations, encouraging them to engage in cooperative efforts as well. Further, this collaboration holds the potential to address regional challenges like water and energy security jointly, establish shared foreign policy positions, particularly towards China and Russia.
Finally, the integration process is significantly influenced by the advancement of transportation and communication systems. Without addressing these problems and establishing mutual access between Central Asian states, efforts for collaboration will prove ineffective. Hence, the countries in the Central Asian region must focus on modernizing their existing transportation infrastructure, including roads and railways. Moreover, they should also prioritize the establishment of new transportation branches such as roadside services, container systems for transportation, and air and rail transport. Additionally, it is essential to develop common points of access to the sea for the Central Asian countries, along with the creation of electronic access infrastructure to facilitate the movement of people and goods.
In summary, the war between Ukraine and Russia has highlighted the need for a shift in the stance of Central Asian countries, particularly Kazakhstan. The deteriorating perception of Russia and the expanding influence of China have raised concerns about the region’s security. Therefore, prioritizing the unity and interests of Central Asia itself is crucial in order to have a stronger presence in international relations and resist assimilation by external powers.
Navigating Kazakhstan’s New Economic Landscape for Foreign Investment
In his recent state-of-the-nation address, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan unveiled a comprehensive plan focused on economic reforms and the new economic course for the country. These reforms have vast implications for foreign investment and Kazakhstan’s economic relations with other countries. Among the key points were industrialization, diversification, a move toward green energy, simplification of tax codes, and a focus on transparency and fairness in governance. Collectively, these reform measures signal a proactive approach by Kazakhstan to attract foreign investment and enhance economic ties globally.
The President has wisely understood the necessity of diversification and self-sufficiency. By setting an ambitious task of developing areas like deep processing of metals, oil, gas and coal chemistry, and heavy engineering, Kazakhstan is setting itself up as a lucrative destination for sector-specific investments. At the same time, the stress on accelerating development in the manufacturing sector augments well with global trends where manufacturing is making a strong comeback in the post-COVID period.
Another significant reform targeted at ease of doing business is the simplification of the state procurement process. The focus on the principle of the quality of goods over price and the push toward full automation of procedures will likely reduce red tape and increase transparency, thereby encouraging foreign businesses to participate in state tenders. Simplifying these bureaucratic processes makes Kazakhstan more investor-friendly, a factor often considered by foreign enterprises before venturing into new markets.
The President’s focus on stable economic growth of 6-7 percent with the aim to double the volume of the national economy to $450 billion by 2029 is ambitious but signals a strong commitment to macroeconomic stability, another key indicator scrutinized by foreign investors. Moreover, the proposal to solve the problem of insufficient corporate lending and to unfreeze approximately $5 billion in bank assets for economic turnover indicates a positive move toward increasing the liquidity in the market, which is often a green flag for investors.
Tax reforms aimed at digitalization and simplification, coupled with a reduction in the number of tax types, offer a more straightforward and less cumbersome tax environment. The transition to a service model of interaction between fiscal authorities and taxpayers and the progressive taxation model are steps that align well with the international norms. These adjustments are crucial in creating a conducive environment for foreign investors, who often seek regulatory simplicity and clarity.
Equally crucial is Kazakhstan’s nod toward green and sustainable development. With a focus on renewable energy and even opening up the possibility of a nuclear power plant through a national referendum, Kazakhstan is paving the way for massive investments in sustainable technologies. This is a smart move considering the global trend toward sustainability and the increase in green funds looking for responsible investment opportunities.
Additionally, Kazakhstan’s strategic location as a significant transit hub between Asia and Europe presents an invaluable proposition for foreign investors. The plans to develop the Trans-Caspian route and the North-South Corridor not only help its internal logistics but make it an attractive destination for international companies looking to improve their supply chain efficiencies.
Furthermore, the country’s approach to digitization, with goals to transform into an IT nation, aims to attract high-value foreign investments in technology. The country is looking to increase the export of IT services to $1 billion by 2026 and aims to become a platform for selling computing power to global players. This could attract significant FDI flows into Kazakhstan, especially from countries that are leaders in technology.
To sum up, President Tokayev’s address lays down a blueprint that not only aims for self-sufficiency but also aligns Kazakhstan well with global economic trends. It focuses on making the business environment more straightforward, more transparent, and thereby more attractive to foreign investors. These reforms could very well be a game-changer for Kazakhstan, positioning it as a hotspot for diversified foreign investments and as a key player in regional and global economic alliances.
Navigating Water Conflict in Central Asia: The Amu Darya River and the Qosha Tepa Canal Project
In the post-Soviet era, Central Asia experienced a pronounced upsurge in geopolitical tensions, significantly shifting the focus toward the pressing matter of the water conflict between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. At the crux of this contentious issue lies the Amu Darya River, a pivotal water resource shared by both nations, thereby engendering profound environmental and geopolitical ramifications. The origins of this protracted conflict can be traced back to the historical legacy of centralized water management during the Soviet period, which resulted in disproportionate repercussions for downstream countries. The subsequent emergence of independent nations following the Soviet Union’s dissolution further complicated the situation as each sought to assert sovereignty over water resources, exacerbating existing complexities. The intricate nature of the dispute is compounded by the shrinking of the Aral Sea, divergent irrigation practices, and conflicting plans for hydropower development. These multifaceted factors underscore the urgent imperative to seek a resolution and necessitate heightened international collaboration and diplomatic endeavors between Afghanistan and Central Asian countries.
The Amu Darya, the longest river in Central Asia, originates from the Hindu Kush and Wakhan regions in the Pamir Highlands of Afghanistan. Spanning an impressive 2,540 kilometers, it courses its way to the Aral Sea, traversing through Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan before finally reaching its destination. The section of the Amu Darya Basin above its confluence with the Pamir River is known as Panj. The Panj River meets with the Vakhsh River, which originates in Kyrgyzstan’s Alai region, to form the Amu Darya.
Running along the northern borders of Afghanistan and its neighboring countries, the Amu Darya stretches approximately 1800 kilometers from Zor-Kul to Khamaab. This river serves as a vital water source for agriculture in the region, especially in Afghanistan. It’s estimated that around 6 million hectares of land in total are irrigated by the Amu Darya. Of this, Afghanistan upstream utilizes 1.15 million hectares for agriculture. Downstream, Turkmenistan holds the largest irrigation territory, using the waters of the Amu Darya to irrigate 1.7 million hectares of land, followed by Uzbekistan with 2.3 million hectares. While the Amu Darya plays a crucial role in providing water for agricultural purposes, its drainage varies among the countries it flows through. In Tajikistan, the river drains approximately 0.5 million hectares of land upstream, whereas, in the Kyrgyz Republic, this figure is significantly lower, at just 0.1 million hectares. Overall, the Amu Darya stands as a lifeline for the region, supporting livelihoods and economic activities through its extensive network of irrigation and contributing significantly to the prosperity of Afghanistan and its neighboring nations.
The water distribution from the Amu Darya River, stemming from regulations during the Soviet era, primarily focuses on meeting agricultural demands. A crucial development in this regard was the ratification of Protocol 566 by the former USSR, which outlined the allocation of water among the four Central Asian Republics (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and the Kyrgyz Republic). Following their independence in 1991, these republics signed a subsequent agreement known as the Almaty Agreement, which retained the water allocation quotas specified in Protocol 566. To manage the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers, the Central Asian Republics (CARs) established several organizations and institutions.
However, it’s important to highlight that Afghanistan was not part of these regional agreements at that time. The exclusion of Afghanistan from these agreements posed a challenge to achieving comprehensive water management in the region, given its significant stake in the Amu Darya basin. As a vital stakeholder, Afghanistan’s involvement in water allocation and management decisions is crucial for ensuring equitable and sustainable water usage across the region. On March 30, 2022, Mulla Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy prime minister of the current Afghan government, made an official announcement regarding the commencement of the Qosh Tepeh Canal’s construction. The Qosh Tepa canal is being built in Balkh province and will draw water from the Amu Darya. The construction of the canal is planned to be carried out in three phases, spanning a period of five years. Covering a distance of 285 kilometers, the canal will have a width of 152 meters and a depth of 8.5 meters.
As Afghanistan embarks on developing the Qosh Tepeh Canal to enhance its water infrastructure, concerns arise not only about the potential impacts on the country’s water supply and irrigation but also about the implications for neighboring countries that rely on the waters of the Amu Darya River. The project’s scale and its potential effects on regional water flow and availability are areas of particular attention for both Afghanistan and its neighboring nations, as they strive to strike a balance between their development needs and the responsible management of shared water resources.
The Taliban has set forth a plan to transform an extensive 550,000 hectares of arid desert into fertile farmland to address the pressing need for agricultural resources in Afghanistan. Currently, Kabul receives a significant 7 cubic kilometers of water from the Amu Darya basin, but they aspire to increase this amount to a total of 17 cubic kilometers. However, this ambition comes with potential consequences for neighboring countries, particularly Uzbekistan, whose water supply is predicted to decrease by around 10% to 15%. While Tajikistan may not experience a substantial impact on its primary water source, the implications for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are undeniable. In a worst-case scenario, the lower regions of the river, such as Karakalpakstan and Khorezm, could face severe hardships.
Uzbekistan’s water availability is already diminishing due to the combined pressures of climate change and widespread drought, resulting in an unfortunate 15% water loss. If the proposed canal exacerbates this situation, Uzbekistan might encounter an additional 10% reduction, leading to a concerning total loss of 25% of their water resources. As such, the project’s potential consequences raise serious concerns about the delicate balance of water resources in the region and the need for careful consideration and collaboration among all stakeholders to ensure sustainable water management.
Although Afghanistan has made rapid progress in creating the canal, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have decided to keep silent about it and have not yet made any public statements. A group from Uzbekistan visited Afghanistan on March 22, 2023, with the aim to discuss problems pertaining to the two countries’ economic relationship. The “Trans-Afghan project,” which includes building the Termez-Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railroad and installing an electrical line along the Surkhan-Puli Khumri route, was at the center of the negotiations. Although the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a formal statement noting the negotiations discussing collaboration in the water-related and energy industries, no specific comments regarding the building of the canal were mentioned in the official statement.
Consequently, Uzbekistan wishes to keep its interactions with the Taliban peaceful for the time being. However, Farkhod Tolipov, a political analyst based in Tashkent, warned in the Eurasianet that if a dangerous scenario emerged in relation to the canal’s development, Uzbekistan would undoubtedly defend its national objectives. Furthermore, The World Bank has stated that if no action takes place, severe droughts and storms in Central Asia are predicted to cause economic losses of up to 1.3 percent of its gross domestic product annually, while the yields of crops are anticipated to decline by 30 percent by 2050, resulting in approximately 5.1 million climate migrants by that point in time.
It’s important to keep in mind that geopolitical dynamics may be complicated and that nations frequently take into account a variety of considerations when determining how to react to developments in their region. It is possible to understand Uzbekistan’s negligent attitude toward the construction of the Qosha Tepa Channel in Afghanistan by carefully examining the many factors that influence the country’s actions. Diplomatic, geopolitical, and domestic issues are among the numerous variables that influence Uzbekistan’s attitude toward this cross-border development project and are interconnected with one another.
Amid a widespread consensus among experts about the paramount importance of water as a crucial resource for the future, there is growing concern and speculation about its potential use as a potent political tool. An alarming report from the reputable “Global Water Intelligence” magazine underscores the significance of water in today’s world by revealing that the financial gains within the water market over a single year can rival the staggering sums allocated to military expenses. As global water scarcity and competition for this finite resource intensify, countries with abundant water resources, like Uzbekistan, find themselves increasingly cognizant of the geopolitical implications and potential vulnerabilities surrounding water management.
Additionally, complaints about infrastructure and water supplies are only two examples of international problems that are best handled through diplomatic channels. To prevent worsening relations with Afghanistan, Uzbekistan may decide without making a public statement about the development of the Qosha Tepa Channel. As a result, they may favor undercover diplomacy to have a productive conversation with Afghan officials. Uzbekistan can express its worries about potential effects on shared water supplies, environmental effects, and any violations of earlier agreements about water consumption and administration through diplomatic measures. Maintaining diplomatic channels may promote goodwill and develop an environment favorable to conflict settlement.
Furthermore, given the intricate geopolitical landscape and delicate inter-state relations in Central Asia, Uzbekistan finds itself treading a careful and nuanced path to ensure that its response to the construction of the Qosha Tepa Channel in Afghanistan does not inadvertently give rise to perceptions of interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Uzbekistan is keenly aware that any misstep or overly assertive reaction could potentially strain diplomatic relations and undermine the fragile equilibrium in the region. Striking a delicate balance between voicing justifiable concerns about the channel’s implications and upholding Afghanistan’s sovereignty and independence becomes paramount for Uzbekistan’s foreign policy objectives in the context of regional peace and cooperation initiatives.
Another assumption in the context of the situation might be the fact that the country must carefully assess the significance of the Qosha Tepa Channel project in comparison to its ongoing domestic issues to determine the order in which national objectives should take precedence, as Uzbekistan faces lots of pressing challenges and national priorities. Although the project’s potential effects should not be discounted seriously, Uzbekistan may give priority to domestic infrastructure, welfare programs, and economic development initiatives that directly benefit its inhabitants. For sustaining internal equilibrium and taking care of critical requirements within its own boundaries, this practical approach is crucial.
In conclusion, the fate of Central Asia and its water resources lies in the hands of its nations, united in their pursuit of sustainable cooperation. By engaging in comprehensive discussions that transcend borders and political boundaries, Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan, can demonstrate their commitment to a shared vision of prosperity and harmony. Embracing the principles of transparency, fairness, and equitable water management, they can unleash the true potential of these vital waterways, transforming them from potential flashpoints into enduring symbols of regional unity. This transformative endeavor is a testament to the power of collaboration as Central Asia forges ahead, hand in hand, towards a future where water resources flow not as causes of discord but as conduits of shared progress and prosperity for generations to come.
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