The Great Game, Part 3
The threat that faces Central Asia is particularly severe since the two sets of actors have asymmetrical objectives. Russia and China are rather interested in the political stability and economic success of the region which they view as essential to their own political and security objectives.
It is not in the interest of either country to have half a dozen failed states in their immediate political neighborhood, riven by political, economic, and religious conflicts threatening to spread to their own territories.
In addition to being a massive security burden to Russia and China, it would threaten the development of their joint Eurasian integration projects and, moreover, attract so much political attention that the foreign policy objectives of both countries would be hamstrung. The effect would be comparable to that of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on the US political and military establishment.
The monetary price of these wars, sheer political distraction, wear and demoralization of the armed forces, and unfortunately frequent killings of civilians amount to a non-tenable cost to the warring party, not to mention damage to US international “soft power” wrought by scandals associated with Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and “black sites”.
Even as these words are being written, a senior-ranking US Navy “SEAL” commando is facing a court-martial for the wanton killing of civilians in Northern Iraq during the US military’s anti-ISIS operations.
By contrast, this dismal scenario would be enough to satisfy the US foreign policy establishment which, at the moment, is wholly dominated by “hawks” determined to assure the continuation of US hegemony. Preventing the emergence of a multi-polar international system by weakening China and Russia is their desire.
This sets the stage for another round of great power rivalry in Central Asia. While the pattern is roughly the same as during the 19th and late 20th centuries—one or more Anglo-Saxon powers seeking to diminish the power of Russia and/or China—the geography of the battlefield is considerably larger for it encompasses the entirety of post-Soviet Central Asian republics.
Also included is China’s province of Xinjiang which has suddenly attracted considerable Western attention, manifested, as usual, by concern for “human rights” in the region. Historically, such “concern” usually precedes some form of aggressive action. Therefore the two sets of great power actors—the US and other interested Western powers on the one hand, with Russia and China on the other—are locked in a race against time.
Will countries of the region be destabilized to the point of civil war, or will the integrative projects pursued by the two Eurasian powers induce prosperity and stability quickly enough to forestall this nightmare scenario?
The Belt and Road Initiative
An example of the benefits that may accrue for Central Asian states is already visible in places like the Khorgos-Nurkent pair of cities on the border between China and Kazakhstan, a location which has recently become the world’s largest “dry port”.
First opened in 2015, in 2016 it handled 45 thousand containers, a figure that grew to over 150,000 in 2018 and is projected to continue increasing. Job opportunities in the region are such that Nurkent, which barely existed even few years ago, is expected to become one of Kazakhstan’s largest cities in the coming decades.
The success of Khorgos-Nurkent will be replicated in other parts of Central Asia, as the growing volumes of trade necessitate construction of additional infrastructure. The job opportunities thus created offer the countries of Central Asia an opportunity to diversify their economies which, at the moment, are heavily dependent upon the exploitation of natural resources.
Furthermore, infrastructure expansion will facilitate the growth of yet another industry hitherto largely missing from the region, namely tourism. The region is dotted with cultural attractions such as the ancient cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, and the beauty of its nature is also likely to attract many tourists.
Yet all of these are fragile developments and highly vulnerable to any negative security developments. The recent uptick in attention focused on Xinjiang cannot help but have an adverse impact on the international perception of the region’s security and stability.
Collective Security Treaty Organization
Thus far the main entity tasked with providing security for the region is the CSTO. The CSTO includes Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, with Afghanistan and Serbia being non-member observers states. Uzbekistan exited the CSTO for the second time in 2012.
The armed forces of CSTO member states’ stage regular joint exercises focusing on combating armed non-state actor formations, followed by peace enforcement and restoration components.
Russia’s recent combat experience in Syria is perfectly relevant to the problems faced by the CSTO, given that the openness and low population density of the potential theater of operations mirrors conditions around Palmyra and Deir-es-Zor, while the potential adversary is actually the same—the Islamic State.
While ISIS was purportedly “defeated” in Iraq and Western Syria by the US-led coalition, the fact that we have not seen any evidence of these fighters being taken prisoner or, better yet, put on trial for the well-documented atrocities they perpetrated and posted on social media for all the world to see, one should not be overly surprised if these very same individuals start appearing in Central Asia in order to promote chaos in that part of the world.
Another important actor is China. It is evident that China does not appear eager to involve its armed forces in operations outside the borders of its own state and its level of inter-operability with Russian and Central Asian militaries remains very low.
Even the large-scale Vostok-2018 exercise, held in September of 2018 in Russia’s Far East where Chinese troops were present, did not demonstrate any great level of inter-operability between these two armed forces.
While these factors might change in the coming decades, there may be a political dimension here, in the form of an informal “division of labor” agreement between Russia and China on how to manage their cooperation. It is entirely possible that China is perfectly happy to allow Russia to leverage its superior military experience for the sake of shared economic and political interests.
Finally, China’s restraint from sending its military into Central Asia for exercises may be motivated by a desire to avoid a “sphere of influence” rivalry with Russia. There is some concern within Russia about China’s aims in Central Asia, and construction of Chinese military bases in the region would almost inevitably complicate Sino-Russian relations.
European Research Area
The “Russia-centricity” of Central Asia’s security environment is exemplified by the efforts of the “ERA Technopolis”, a military research and development center launched in 2018 in Anapa, on the coast of the Black Sea. Expected to be completed in 2020, the purpose of the ERA is to promote the military inter-operability of CSTO member states.
The military aspect of the potential challenge facing the CSTO is largely the same as was faced by Russian and Syrian forces around Palmyra—highly trained, well equipped, and extremely mobile detachments of jihadists relying on hit-and-run tactics rather than a stubborn defense of urban areas.
Dealing with such an adversary places a premium on intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, rapid communications, and, of course, high mobility. In order to ensure that armed forces of CSTO member states are up to the task, their representatives are participating in the development of relevant technological solutions and then incorporating those solutions into their own military and security forces.
All of these collective security measures appear to be intended to provide a deterrent effect which is all the greater thanks to Russia’s demonstrated ability at combating these kinds of threats in Syria. Experience has shown that the Western “regime collapse” specialists are attracted to weakness and shy away from strength.
Indeed, as soon as the covert action or proxy warfare component fails, they call for military action in order to salvage the situation. That is a step that even the Obama and Trump administrations shied away from when confronted with the prospect of an armed clash with Russia and China.
The best possible outcome for Central Asia is if the collective security arrangements for the region are perceived as being strong enough that any attempt to challenge them runs the risk of becoming yet another embarrassing failure.