Recent developments in Afghanistan have significant effects on the region. The withdrawal of the US troops created a void in the region. The Taliban significantly increased its influence in this power vacuum. This situation caused the change of balance of power in the region and pushed great powers to reshape their regional policies.
Therefore, the importance of the Central Asian states in the eyes of the great powers has increased. In recent days, many states have been negotiating with the heads of the Central Asian states and trying to establish alliances to increase their influence in the region.
As The Asia Today, we asked Mr. Dr. Sayed M Abdullah Al Mamun Chowdhury to evaluate Russian and Chinese policy in Central Asia in the context of recently development in Afghanistan.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has created a ‘power vacuum’ and changed the geo-political calculations drastically in Central Asia, mostly for the present unprecedented speedy re-organization of Taliban regime. Although the Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen ensures that their policy is fully different from that of two decades ago, the external stakeholders of Central Asia i.e., USA, China and Russia have already stepped into a climax situation. All the three parties have talks with the Taliban to override one another. However, China and Russia must compromise each other to bid Western influence in Central Asia. Turkey could take a lead based on Pan-Islamism, but due to a partner of NATO alliance, it is now facing an awkward circumstance.
China wants harmonious Af-Pak relation so that it can expand its market in the five states of Central Asia. On the other hand, land-locked Afghanistan needs Pakistan to get access to sea through Pakistan. Taliban wants Chinese cooperation to excavate mineral resources to restore its economy, however, it declares, the Sino-Afghan relation must be cooperative in nature, no interference in domestic affairs will be appreciable. In the recent Chinese-Taliban summit in Beijing, which was held in 2019, the Taliban representatives ensured that they will be no longer a terrorist-sheltering regime against any country in reply to Chinese concern about ‘Uyghur Muslim’ issue. However, China still is not convinced by the soft diplomacy of Taliban because the latter helped the ‘Uyghur Muslim’ in the past.
China has thrown lucrative proposals of cooperation in agriculture, healthcare, education, trade, energy, and transportation to the Central Asian states and convincing them through small-type summits. Through this type of summit, China wants to ensure its dominance over the participant-states. Therefore, these five states in Central Asia (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan) although they are attached with Russia historically for their economy, infrastructure and very security (even, the region is attached to Moscow culturally via the Russian language, which is the lingua franca), they are now willing to avail the opportunities to trade with the outside world beyond Russia through newly proposed (and semi-established) economic corridors. Chinese BRI project offers them to trade through the Caspian, Iranian, and Chinese corridors; although, it is no other than the ‘subsidiary alliance’ policy of the British adopted in the Indian sub-continent in the eighteenth century (which has already focused on Sri Lanka). However, the Central Asian states have already stepped into Chinese provocation and Chinese influence is gradually increasing in this region.
To connect China with the Middle East and the South Caucasus, China seeks approval of a railroad through Kyrgyzstan to connect China directly to Uzbekistan. In return, Beijing offers Kyrgyzstan help reducing its huge debt. Once this railroad is established, it will divert a sizeable portion of cargo transit from the Russian route. It is a single example of Russian concern about Chinese policy. However, Moscow would accept Chinese involvement in this region due to its commitment of regionalism against Western involvement.
Presently, China’s main concern is the spill over of the Afghan refugees into Central Asia and its Eastern provinces. 1500-miles border sharing three central Asian states have already preparing to adopt the new realities in Afghanistan and this can strain Chinese dream here. The age-old Taliban ties with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan can be a concern for China because the Tajik government has already accepted Afghan refugees and sought help from Russia-led CSTO.
Although Russia has no boundary with Afghanistan, it wants strong relations with Taliban to expand spheres of influence of CSTO. Therefore, Russia is strengthening relations with Pakistan discarding its traditional ally, India.
The Sino-Russian competition in this region is a competition between soft and hard power. Russia has military base in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Other three states are also connected with Russia through military treaties. Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization are two major pillars of Russian dominance here. On the other hand, China is extending its sphere of influence through trade and investment offers.
However, both Russia and China need partnership in this region to avert the spread of Western multilateralism. It seemed, the sustainability of the theories adopted on the hegemony competition between the emerging power and the traditional power in this theatre is still uncertain. Both China and Russia need to develop a consensus of shared activities in economic activities and security issues for the stability of peace in this region.
The situation in this region is changing often. It is still not certain whether the Taliban can set up centralised government in Afghanistan, or a civil war is awaiting. The future of US initiatives for setting up US-military base in central Asia, the future nature of Taliban diplomacy, the future of QUAD and the Russian move will be deciding factors in shaping the geo-politics of central Asia.