Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Erica Marat – assistant professor in the Department of Regional and Analytical Studies, Center for International Strategic Affairs at the National Defense University; associate with the Central Asia Program at the George Washington University; and author of The Military and the State in Central Asia: From Red Army to Independence (Routledge, 2009) – is the 78th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”
Assess the strategic calculus of China and Russia in Central Asia.
Central Asia will continue to be an area of Chinese and Russia interest for political and economic influence. It is a region with an educated population and strong economic potential. The region is stable compared to parts of the Middle East or South Asia where the Chinese and Russian presence is growing as well. The level of violent extremism and the possibility for violent insurgency is still low. While this stability is likely to remain, persisting authoritarianism and lack of economic development can lead to growing political extremism and a propensity toward ethnic conflict. Both China and Russia prefer a predictable Central Asia led by loyal autocrats disinterested in ties with the West. Any outbreak of instability will highlight the inefficiency of the existing regional security organization – the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.
With the Chinese economic presence now overshadowing that of Russia, Beijing’s potential to influence the political configuration of Central Asian governments is expanding as well. There have already been cases of Chinese investors leveraging their influence with top politicians in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. For instance, a number of Kyrgyz politicians, including a former prime minister, were publicly accused of receiving kick-backs from large infrastructure contracts won by Chinese firms. Previously it was only Russia that tied large economic contracts with political interests in the region.
Russia, however, will continue enjoying enormous cultural influence in the region and a positive public opinion of the Kremlin’s policies. This influence is transmitted mostly via the Russian language media, which penetrates the entire region. But unlike the early years of the post-Soviet period, this influence has now expanded from popularity of the Russian culture to the spread of the Islamic ideals of pro-Putin political leaders, chiefly among them Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov. Thanks to this, Kremlin can drive public opinion in its preferred direction, including instilling negative views of the Western and Chinese presence.
How might the Trump administration counterbalance Chinese and Russian influence in Central Asia?
Although Central Asia was featured in Trump’s electoral campaign documents, how the region will fare in U.S. foreign policy is hard to predict. If the Trump administration strengthens U.S. relations with Russia at the expense of NATO allies and countries that suffered from Russian aggression, Russian political influence in Central Asia will continue to expand. It will be easier for both Russia and Central Asian leaders to reject support for civil society groups and independent media and instead focus on military cooperation.
Washington should prioritize democratic development and economic reform in the region, ideals that neither Russia nor China can offer. This would include support of civic and professional education, academic exchange programs, and funding of independent media outlets. Other areas for cooperation can include military-to-military ties, support of security sector reform and sharing of experience on disaster relief operations.
How might Washington regain leverage in strengthening Ukraine’s independence?
Alignment with Russia will hurt Ukraine as well. The Trump administration won’t support Ukraine’s efforts to regain its territorial integrity. On the contrary, the Kremlin’s attempts to align Ukraine to its interests will be implicitly supported by Washington. This includes Ukraine’s joining of Russian-led regional organizations and allowing greater political autonomy of the country’s eastern parts. Lack of support for an independent Ukraine will also affect countries with large parts of their population trying to break away from Russian political influence, including Georgia and Moldova. Furthermore, a lack of U.S. support for Ukraine will intensify the political meaning of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, leaving the Central Asian countries with limited leverage against Russian influence on the international arena.
How fertile is radical Islamic recruitment in Central Asia, and how are Central Asian governments combating the growth of groups such as Islamic State (ISIS)?
ISIS and other radical organization will continue gaining popularity among economically disenfranchised populations. Studies of radicalization in Central Asia indicate that the search for economic opportunities and the inability to freely exercise one’s religion are the major factors leading recruits to join ISIS. Economic grievances as the major factor in radicalization separates Central Asian recruits from countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, where ideological and political resistance play a bigger role in ISIS’s appeal. To counter radicalization, the Central Asian governments must therefore allow greater freedoms for religious expression and actively look for ways to improve the economic condition of the majority population. Opening regional borders for economic exchange and creating favorable conditions for labor migration are key.
In addition, more venues for religious expression and discussion must be created in public schools, mass media, and government institutions. Governments must send a clear message that they welcome both Islamic and interfaith pluralism across ethnic communities. Unfortunately, however, the region is not accustomed to deflating political and social tensions through discourse and instead prefer to rely on its robust law enforcement sector. Harsh suppression of radicalization will continue to dominate as the main response tactics; this will only exacerbate the problem, forcing more men and women to distrust the state and align with radical ideologies. The law enforcement tactics of arresting suspects of radicalization won’t contain radicalization.
What top three geopolitical priorities in Central Asia await U.S. President Trump in his first 100 days in office?
A clear message on Washington’s plans in the region would be a good start. Treating each Central Asian country as a distinct entity that requires a tailored approach depending on the level of commitment to economic development and democratic governance will strengthen the U.S. approach. The new administration should renew Washington’s commitment to democracy assistance programs by engaging both with the Central Asian governments and the population, including small and medium entrepreneurs who are interested in transparent and accountable governance.