Foreign Affairs

The Geopolitical Situation in Central Asia

The glittering capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, rises from the steppes like a desert mirage. The sleek buildings and broad avenues of the city’s business district were all built within the span of the past twenty years, beginning with the boom in oil sales that saw GDP grow at a whopping 9-12 percent per year for seven years straight. Once home to the same nomadic horsemen that fought alongside Genghis Khan and later the backyard of Russia, Central Asia now plays court to the world’s newest economic superpower: China. Liberal democracies should be concerned.

Central Asia’s oil reserves are among the top 15 largest in the world. Critically, some of the biggest importers of Central Asian oil are our most important allies. The European Union imports seven percent of its crude oil from Central Asia and a further 31 percent from its neighbor to the East, Russia. Europe should scrutinize the vital role Kazakhstan in particular plays as both a large scale oil producer and a transportation hub for transcontinental rail-freight networks that connect European markets with Chinese manufacturers. Although Chinese investments in Kazakhstan’s railway infrastructure have lowered transportation costs for European firms, they represent the ambition of an increasingly assertive China. Europe should view Chinese investments within the larger context of China’s rise as global superpower that seeks to build political influence and therefore proceed with caution.

These investments are part of a larger Chinese development strategy to integrate the global economy, expand goodwill toward China, and expand trade via its potentially world-altering Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Chinese officials promote the initiative, which promises to bring large-scale Chinese investment to developing countries, as a legitimate bid to “enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future.” Critics, however, assert that the initiative aims to restructure global trade according to Chinese rules and thereby establish Beijing’s dominance in world affairs. In either scenario, Central Asia’s strategic location makes it an important component of Belt and Road. Earlier this year, Kazakhstan’s development minister announced that China would be working with Kazakhstan on 51 projects in oil, gas, mining, and industry worth $27 billion. China’s growing presence in Central Asia should concern observers given its aggressive behavior elsewhere, most notably the South China Sea, and contempt for democratic institutions.

Troublingly, China’s abuse of modern technology to create a totalitarian state in its restive western provinces may become a model for Central Asian governments that have been ruled by strongmen for nearly three decades. In Kazakhstan’s most recent general election, the country’s leader since 1991, Nursultan Nazarbayev, garnered 97.7 percent of the popular vote. In the rest of Central Asia, incumbents won over 80 percent of the popular vote in elections that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized for failing to offer a “genuine choice.” Europe and the United States, the world’s preeminent democracies, have a moral responsibility to reverse this trend by making their case for democracy and accountability. Memorably, America’s investments in democracy across the former communist bloc following communism’s collapse in 1991 made much of Eastern Europe more prosperous and secure. Meanwhile in Central Asia, Kazakhstan ranks a dismal 158th in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index. Supporting democratic reform in Kazakhstan would advance our commitment to promoting democracy and make Central Asia a freer, more prosperous place.

Burdened by Russia’s anemic growth, wars in Ukraine and Syria, and his growing unpopularity at home due to a recent, deeply unpopular bid to raise the age of retirement, Vladimir Putin can no longer devote resources to expanding his country’s presence in Central Asia. Our country would be unwise to focus as much attention as it currently does on a country increasingly preoccupied by domestic troubles. We should instead pay more attention to Central Asia, which has become a bellwether of China’s designs for global dominance in the 21st century. Xi’s China has enough economic muscle and internal stability to create influence by implementing its Belt and Road initiative in Central Asian countries eager to build critical infrastructure. Behind the gilded doors in Astana’s sleek business district, global standards for trade and diplomacy are being rewritten by the world’s largest one-party state. Democracies should pay attention.

Categories: Foreign Affairs

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