A trip to Astana, the architecturally stunning, yet soulless new capital of Kazakhstan for the EBRD Annual Meeting (a major political and economic event in the region), gave me an opportunity to think about the geopolitical landscape of Central Asia. For a long time the region has been under Russian influence, but the wealth of its hydrocarbons has meant other powers are taking more than a passing interest in this often overlooked and landlocked part of the world.
China has made its presence felt by building a gas pipeline to Turkmenistan and by extending its unrivalled financial influence across the region, buying assets and lending money to the governments of cash strapped ‘Stans. India is now dipping its toe into the region, driven by its massive energy shortfall; the country’s cabinet recently approved the construction of its own rather geopolitically risky pipeline to Turkmenistan – through Pakistan and Afghanistan. The risk this entails underlies the fact that India needs gas to power its economic growth.
The Russians are not sitting idle, President Putin has proposed a Eurasian Union to draw Russia and the Central Asian states closer, its stated aim is to create a better version of the EU, the project is still at an early stage, and some in Central Asia fear that Russia is trying to recreate the USSR. Central Asia still leans towards Russia, partially due to cultural, historic and language ties, all of which should make developing a Union easier. The Russians are also adept that playing a good hand, geo-politically speaking, however weak. Russia’s advantage also lies in the fact that they see the region as their backyard; if they cannot project power in in their former empire they cannot do it anywhere. China meanwhile is projecting influence across the globe, and Central Asia is just one of many regions they have a stake in. The US will lose interest after the end of Afghan conflict and Turkey is not quite strong enough yet to be considered a major influence.
The region remains largely dominated by dictatorships (save Mongolia and the Kyrgyz Rep), which are keen on Beijing’s non-interference policy and the energy rich states like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are happy to continue sending hydrocarbons east to the world’s biggest energy consumer.
The region remains economically underdeveloped and suffers from its remote geographic position far from coastlines and other major population centres, this makes transportation expensive and difficult, therefore it is likely that oil and gas will remain its major export products. Although the Chinese/UN do have a huge rail project planned, the “Iron Silk Road” from Shanghai to Turkey and beyond, a great idea in theory, but the political challenges of having a smooth running train service are considerable and then there is the fact that there are four different gauges used across the region, which would mean major logistical problems. Therefore it is difficult to see rail replacing the sea as the cheapest form of transporting goods from Asia to Europe. However a new rail line would of course help the regions’ landlocked countries a great deal.
For now Central Asia looks set to be politically dominated by Russia, but with China taking more economic power, which over time has a habit of translating into diplomatic strength. The two Eurasian giants need not clash as Russia does not need the regions’ energy having plenty of its own supplies, and as long as China does not assert itself militarily or overtly politically, then the two could rub along peacefully.
Kazakhstan is a powerful regional power in its own right and projects influence to its Southern neighbours, as well as balancing the influence of Russia and China. India will be an interesting wild card in the future of Central Asian politics; it has the biggest energy shortfall of any major emerging economy and will have perhaps the most to gain from secure Central Asian energy supplies.