Russia, China, and the US in Central Asia’s Regional Environment

The Eurasian landmass is increasingly engaged in a range of ambitious regional economic projects, with the common goal of enhancing trade and growth but displaying competing geopolitical visions. Alexander Cooley, Jeff Mankoff, and Roger Kangas, participants in the recent Central Asia Security Workshop, which took place at George Washington University on March 5, 2018, looked at the interactions of Russia, China and the US in Central Asia and discussed the possible political implications of such interactions.

Excerpts of presentations at the Central Asia Security Workshop, March 5, 2018

“Greater Eurasia” means a common space between Europe, Russia, and Asia, where Russia could play the role of a center for integration between a rising Asia and a stagnating Europe.

Today, the traditional representation of Eurasia advanced by Moscow—a Russian-controlled regional architecture that includes the CSTO (Common Security Treaty Organization) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU)—is being challenged. Russia-backed institutions are not necessarily the main vehicles for promoting regional integration, hence the need to develop a new concept that can accommodate China’s major role.

Alexander Cooley

Director, Harriman Institute; Claire Tow Professor of Political Science, Barnard College; Columbia University

This is what this “Greater Eurasia” notion accomplishes, at three levels. For Russia, it continues to provide a concept to hedge against the West and against the EU and NATO. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it is an official acceptance of China’s asymmetric economic power. Moscow seems to be willing to accept the Belt and Road Initiative as if it were in Russia’s interest. Third, the “Greater Eurasia” concept is consistent with Moscow’s promotion of post-Western global governance, a changing international order promoting non-Western regional security and economic institutions: the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), the EEU, and so forth.

The “division of labor” in Central Asia between Beijing and Moscow is that China is said to do the economics and investment, while Russia provides the security and the politics. Purportedly, the two are perfectly compatible. But is this geopolitical division of labor sustainable in a “Greater Eurasia” concept? Can China’s role as an investor, as a purely economic partner, be bound within this “Greater Eurasia” framework?

The concept of a “Greater Eurasia” underscores Central Asia’s regional location within a number of these emerging architectures. But it also leaves a lot of questions open. “Greater Eurasia” neglects the emerging social, political, and geopolitical tensions that are unleashed by high-profile integration processes. In my view, China’s growing regional influence is going to be rooted in the Belt and Road Initiative, its role as a creditor, and the new security footprint that it generates in the region.

“When we talked about Eurasian integration four or five years ago, this [the EEU] would have been the first thing that came up. Six, seven years later, we don’t care a whole lot about the Eurasian Economic Union.

The Eurasian Economic Union exists, and it has a concrete impact on the political and economic relationships between Russia and a number of the Central Asian and other post-Soviet countries, but it is not the bogeyman that some of us in the West may have made it out to be. From the other side, it has not fulfilled some of the larger geopolitical aspirations that Putin and other Russians may have had for it.

Jeffrey Mankoff

Deputy Director and Senior Fellow with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program. He is the author of Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009) and a frequent commentator on international security, Russian foreign policy, regional security in the Caucasus and Central Asia, ethnic conflict, and energy security

The Eurasian Economic Union—at the time, it was just going to be the Eurasian Union—was supposed to be based on the experience of Europe: ever-closer union moving toward some kind of supranational structure. It was clear that the Eurasian Economic Union also had larger geopolitical goals. In fact, Putin laid out some of them in an essay he wrote for Izvestiya in October 2011: “Capable of becoming one of the poles of the modern world, a bridge between Europe and the Asia-Pacific.” So this was in some way an aspiration to create what I would argue is a Russia-centric bastion of integration: a view of the world as increasingly not bipolar, but maybe tri-polar or multi-polar, and an aspiration to position Russia and certain countries within its orbit as one of the poles within that system, interacting with other poles—the EU, the West, the China-led Asia-Pacific, or whatever it may be—on the basis of some kind of equality.

Over the course of the last six or seven years, something different has happened—the Maidan Revolution and the conflict in Ukraine, as a result of which it became clear that Ukraine was not going to become a member of anything like the Eurasian Economic Union. And that’s not only the current government’s position: any Ukrainian government, no matter how pro-Russian, is now basically inoculated against the idea of participating in some sort of Russian-led integration process.

The other thing that happened in the intervening period was the elaboration of a competing Chinese-led project for Eurasian integration that had a very different underlying logic to it, and a lot more money behind it. So now not only was Russia in the position of trying to bring these countries into its orbit and inure them—or immunize them—against the influence of the West, but it was also competing with China in a way that it was, in economic terms, largely unable to do. Thus, there was a degree of adaptation that had to take place about how these countries were going to preserve their relations with Russia at the same time as they were in the process of developing economic and other ties with China.

There was also a concern—in Astana, in Minsk, and in a number of other capitals—that the Eurasian Economic Union might turn into a tool of Russian economic and geopolitical dominance, which in some ways it arguably was. And so as a result, you had pushback, not only in Ukraine—where of course it led to revolution and war—but also, more subtly, in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and elsewhere. When the agreement establishing the Eurasian Economic Union (the Astana Treaty) was signed in 2015, it walked back some of the more ambitious provisions that had been laid out in Putin’s original discussion of what the Eurasian Union was going to look like.

That’s not to say that the Eurasian Economic Union has been without impact. The most notable impact has been on customs tariffs, which is unsurprising giving the origins of the Eurasian Economic Union in the Customs Union. It harmonized external tariffs among its member states and abolished internal customs borders while elevating decisions about tariffs to the top. This is one area where there is a kind of supranational governance. The relaxation of customs barriers within the Eurasian Economic Union should ease the movement of goods and people, although the effect on trade has been a little ambiguous, in part because many elements affect levels of trade within the Eurasian Economic Union. The key takeaway, though, is that trade between member countries continues to operate very much on a hub-and-spoke model.

What does the future hold for the Eurasian Economic Union? According to the agreements that exist between member countries, a number of common markets are going to be established and developed over the course of the next eight years (by 2025): common energy markets, common transport space, common agricultural policy, and a single financial market. There’s been some talk of expanding the Eurasian Economic Union, not only within the post-Soviet space but more broadly, including signing additional trade agreements with India, China, Israel, Singapore, and others. That is, the future of the EEU and its future membership remain very much up in the air.

In sum, the Eurasian Economic Union is there, it functions, and it has had a real impact in some ways, but it has fallen a little short of the larger geopolitical aspirations that Putin laid out in 2011.

On August 21, 2017, President Trump delivered a speech at Joint Base Myers-Henderson Hall, noting that the American people were frustrated with the inactivity and lack of success in Afghanistan, not to mention the ongoing expense of the war and the costs in terms of human lives. The conflict must be won, he indicated: “Our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives.”

Criticisms about the management of the conflict can reasonably be levied against the Obama administration. While noting that Afghanistan was of strategic importance, President Obama announced in December 2009 that the withdrawal of U.S. forces would begin in 2011. We went from about 102,000 American combat troops in August 2011 down to about 8,000 in January of 2017—a 92 percent reduction. A lot has happened in interim: the resurgence of the Taliban, the resurgence of opposition force, the rise of the so-called Islamic State or Daesh. All this has caused the US to rethink its Afghanistan strategy, and plan to maintain a U.S. presence for the long haul, or until certain conditions are met.

However, the specific goal of such a presence remains unclear. Is it liquidating terrorist groups on the territory of Afghanistan? Is it building a government able to cooperate with opposition forces? Is it the promotion of regional cooperation?

Roger Kangas

Academic Dean and a Professor of Central Asian Studies at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. Previously Dr. Kangas served as a Professor of Central Asian Studies at the George C. Marshall Center for European Security in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

On a related note, what is the future of our assistance in the region? Developmental assistance, especially from USAID, is critical here, because this spills over regionally. In terms of social assistance, economic assistance, the desire is “to promote American prosperity through investments that expand markets for U.S. exports, help create a level playing field for U.S. businesses.” It is not about foreign direct investment, nor about assistance. It’s about creating an environment where U.S. businesses can come in and do their job.

Finally, from a security perspective, as I’ve already noted, one of our concerns is: how long will troops stay there? Is it 12,000? Is it going to be 6,000, 8,000? With this small contingent, what’s the mission? The mission is going to be counterterrorism—going after specific groups—and, interestingly, border protection.

So what does all this mean for Central Asia? Sadly, that Central Asia will remain viewed through the lens of Afghanistan and South Asia.

When security discussions with Central Asian partners come up—and I’m thinking specifically within the Defense Department—it’s not about internal security, it’s not about great powers coming in. It really is focusing on extremist groups, and even the threat of the so-called “returning foreign fighters,” which is now a buzz phrase throughout the region and beyond. The notion that the thousands of foreign fighters who have somehow got out of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq will have some place to go seems to keep a few people up at night. And it is a concern.

But if this becomes our focus, and if this is the way we evaluate foreign and security policy in the region, we limit other ways to engage the states of the region. Is this lack of interest in nation-building accompanied by a lessening of interest in—or at least commentary on—human rights, democratization, political party development, NGO development? There’s clearly a debate on this. Some say it’s not our business to impose Western values—an ideology of almost non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, à la Beijing, seems to resonate. You see this in broader security documents from top officials, including [former] National Security Advisor McMaster last year in the Wall Street Journal, who presented a neo-Hobbesian approach of foreign affairs, where we really look out for ourselves, where American interests and American markets are deemed primus inter pares.

Could we be an actor in the region? At the end of the day, we’re going to see the US most likely limit itself to these areas I’ve noted. Unless there’s a radical policy shift, expect more of the same.

Roundtable meeting of leaders at Belt and Road international forum. Source:

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