Let us start by asking a simple question: What are the most important states in the international system today? Many would answer with China, Russia, the United States, or Japan, just to name a few, and they would not be wrong. These countries have played outsized roles in our contemporary history and they continue to shape the way politics, economics, and culture operate in the modern world to this day. As such, it is not surprising that they are the recipients of so much of our attention. However, we should not ignore the many other, less influential, rich and powerful countries, that we tend to overlook in today’s discussions on international relations. The following article will take a closer look at one particular set of these “forgotten countries,” giving insights into their international relevance and bringing them back to the fore.
Landlocked and located right at the heart of the Eurasian landmass there is a cluster of countries with a combined surface area of around 4 million square kilometers (McGlinchey & Laruelle, 2019). Made up of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, this area of the world seems to be more often overlooked than almost any other in the discourse on contemporary international relations. This is despite the fact that the region borders not one, but two key international state actors – Russia and China – and borders the turbulent Middle East through both Iran and Afghanistan. In order to put that further into perspective, the total surface area of the European Union is also only around 4.4 million square kilometers; barely any larger, but much more discussed than this cluster of Central Asian states. So, what is it that makes these countries so regularly overlooked in international relations? And, why would we be foolish to continue to do so?
The Origin of the Central Asian Attention Gap
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, these five central Asian countries found themselves freed from the shackles of the USSR. However, they had to move quickly in order to make their countries benefit from their new found freedom and engage with the global economy, as the rest of the world had had a considerable head start during the Cold War. Geographically located at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, they had access to a large number of potential trading partners by means of trade routes in practically every direction (Asian Development Bank, 2006). Sadly, these former Soviet states have failed to integrate into the world economy after their separation, leaving their economies in the lower echelons of relevance to foreign investors and largely irrelevant to Western and Asian trading partners (McGlinchey & Laruelle, 2019). The consequences of this are still felt today.
These Central Asian states continue to have relatively low GDP’s per capita, as well as small militaries (World Bank, 2020). Their economies tend to be too small and they tend to have too little domestic infrastructure to make the investments of their main partners, China and Russia, profitable (International Crisis Group, 2011). This in turn deprives them of the resources needed to enhance their position towards other, further developed, further off parts of the world such as Europe or East Asia, creating a poverty trap. Caught in a Catch-22, they remain like sardines, wedged between two blue whales, with little prospect of scaling the food chain or any potential for escape due to the inexorable limitations of their geography.
Likewise, their lack of military power plays a large part in why they are often forgotten in discussions of contemporary international relations. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are not known for having strong militaries. Out of these five, Uzbekistan is ranked the highest at 51 (out of 140) in the Global Firepower Index, while Tajikistan is ranked the lowest, coming at number 99. To put this into perspective, their Northern neighbor Russia is ranked at number 1, their Eastern neighbor China is ranked at number 2, and their Southern neighbor Iran is ranked at number 8. With their relatively miniscule military power, it is no surprise then that they stand little chance of having any form of influence, not only in their own region, but even in their own countries. These two key factors may explain why these states are so often overlooked, but an explanation should not be mistaken for a justification, as we will see.
At a Crossroads: the Importance of Central Asia
When it comes to the security of Eurasia, the Central Asian states are vital. Even though the issues they are generally involved in remain largely contained at the regional level, there are serious concerns to be had about what may happen if regional conflicts encroach on international security, be this in the traditional sense of state security or in relation to newer concepts of human security and energy security. For example, Afghanistan is one of the most unstable countries that directly neighbor Central Asia and that continues to struggle with increasing instability as a result of domestic terrorism and extremism (Standish, 2020). The extent to which this will improve under the new Taliban regime remains to be seen. Nonetheless, there have been concerns about the increase in transnational extremist networks that link Central Asia to its neighboring states for years (Hallgren & Ghiasy, 2017). This is particularly so, because, like the Taliban and the population of Afghanistan, the overbearing majority of people in these Central Asian states is Sunni Muslim. Moreover, there have been worries that negative spillover effects emanating from Afghanistan may destabilize an already tilting region (Pyrouse, Boonstra, & Laruella, 2012). As such, a destabilized Central Asian region is not unthinkable in light of recent developments. Such a development would likely create new problems for the Middle East, Russia, China and even the West in unforeseen ways, should they fail to pay proper attention to these states.
Meanwhile, both Russia and China benefit greatly from their territorial contiguity to these Central Asian states and continue to exert their influence in the region. Chinese investments through the Belt and Road Initiative, and Russian influences through energy sector ties, are making this cluster of states increasingly dependent on these stronger neighbors (Oliphant, 2013). For example, in 2008, Russia’s Gazprom imported around 12.3 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Kazakhstan and around 3.8 billion cubic meters from Uzbekistan in order to reexport to European customers (Garibov, 2019). Moreover, despite introductions and calls to reverse the dependency on Russian gas, there continues to be an increase of gas imports in the region. Thus, it appears that Russia has positioned itself to pursue an assertive strategy in the region, not only when it comes to controlling the region’s sources of natural gas, but also when it comes to using said control as a means to maintain its political and diplomatic influence (Garibov, 2019). Similarly, China has increasingly been using these Central Asian states to establish land-based corridors to Europe, through the Middle East, in pursuit of its Belt and Road Initiative, as well as exploiting mineral and energy deposits in the region (Hallgren & Ghiasy, 2017).
While Russia and China’s influence in the region may appear to be an economic opportunity for these weaker states, the reality is much bleaker. This is because, even though these states are the beneficiaries of investments from their more powerful neighbors, their reliance on said investment to keep their economies afloat, combines with the limited profitability of said investment, creates the risk that these countries will slowly be deprived of their sovereignty, turning into mere pawns in Chinese and Russian geostrategic calculus (McGlinchey & Laruelle, 2019) So, we see that both Russia and China have utilized these states in Central Asia for not only for their own economic gain, but also in order to exert and maintain their influence in the region, potentially furthering greater, geostrategic aims. Given the rising tensions between China and Russia, and the West, the influence of these states over Central Asia should, then, perhaps be more worrying to the European Union and the United States than it currently appears to be.
To conclude, most will agree that little to no attention is given to the five Central Asian countries discussed. Being ex-Soviet states with insufficient economic progress since the dissolution of the USSR, they are left with small, unstable economies, to be exploited by their stronger neighbors. Moreover, with the countries surrounded by a number of regional (super) powers such as Russia, China and Iran, it is not difficult to see why the states in Central Asia are outshone when it comes to international media attention. At the same time, however, they have garnered attention from their larger, more powerful neighbors who appear to use them as pawns in their geostrategic games, something which the West appears to have not woken up to yet. In the end, the main take-away is that these are important countries, whose issues and vulnerabilities, might catch us all off-guard if they continue to be overlooked and their significance discounted.
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