The Indo-Pacific Strategy’s Missing Continental Dimension

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The Indo-Pacific Strategy’s Missing Continental Dimension

Anxiety over the rise of China and the authoritarian threat to the liberal democratic order has driven a maritime-heavy strategy. But don’t forget about the Eurasian landmass.

The Indo-Pacific Strategy’s Missing Continental Dimension
Credit: Depositphotos

As China continues on its global superpower trajectory, policymakers in Beijing have taken increasingly aggressive measures to affirm their nation’s clout. These efforts have included attempts to expand China’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas and discussions about a potential annexation of Taiwan. Additional issues include Beijing’s pursuit of partnering countries for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project – which has been marred by frequent allegations of “debt trap diplomacy” – as well as the recent Global Development Initiative (GDI) to provide aid for projects in developing countries that promote the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 

The leading democratic countries that uphold the liberal international order have expressed concerns over China’s attempts to garner international influence. Prominent government and business officials in these countries have accused China of attempting to overturn the current world order in favor of an authoritarian alternative. Consequently, China has emboldened other authoritarian regimes, most notably Russia, to take more forceful action in upending liberal democratic hegemony – with the Russian invasion of Ukraine bringing this growing brazenness to the forefront.  

Anxiety over the rise of China and the authoritarian threat to the status quo has driven the G-7 and the world’s other leading democracies to collaborate on an “Indo-Pacific Strategy” to contain China while simultaneously bolstering their authority in Asia as a whole. Notable efforts include the EU’s renewed plan of Indo-Pacific engagement; the Quad, a loose security alliance composed of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia; and the Blue Dot Network, a U.S, Japan, and Australia-led challenger to the BRI. 

A marked feature of these democratically aligned countries’ Indo-Pacific Strategy is their focus on maritime affairs. Joint naval exercises and additional maritime security activities serve as major components of the EU’s Indo-Pacific agenda, as well as the foundation for the Quad’s cooperation. While the Blue Dot Network is less explicitly focused on maritime issues, the fact that it was first announced at the 35th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Thailand, as well as its ties to the leading countries of the Quad (sans India), hint at its oceanic orientation. 

While these maritime initiatives show promise regarding the democratic countries’ efforts to balance China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region, they also expose a major flaw in their strategy thus far: What about the “continental dimension” of Indo-Pacific engagement? What is the democratic powers’ plan of action for strengthening ties with China’s inland neighbors – namely, the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan?   

Although the leading democratic countries have taken some measures to forge stronger ties with Central Asia, their efforts have proven underwhelming thus far. To their credit, they have pursued such initiatives as the EU-Central Asia strategy, Japan’s Central Asia plus Japan political dialogue, and the U.S. C5+1 initiative. These programs have helped promote democratization, human rights protection, sustainable economic development, and related policies in Central Asia. However, the democratic countries have been relatively limited in the scope of their collaboration with Central Asia and have done less multinational coordination – especially when compared to their more varied activities regarding the Indo-Pacific Strategy.

China and Russia still wield far more influence in Central Asia than their democratic counterparts. The Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), China’s aforementioned BRI, and the multilateral Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) have exponentially increased China and Russia’s economic and security influence in Central Asia.

The economic and strategic aspects of bolstered engagement with Central Asia, however, are growing increasingly difficult to overlook. The region’s clout was on full display at the “Central and South Asia 2021” conference in Tashkent, which served as a platform to promote investment in Uzbekistan and greater Central Asia. The event emphasized Central Asia’s economic capacity by highlighting its vast mineral resource endowments and capacity to become a major producer of renewable energy via its solar, wind, and hydropower potential.

Furthermore, Central Asia’s long-standing reputation as “the continental crossroads” could transform global trade. The conference stressed the need to promote connectivity with South Asia in particular by constructing a greater number of trade and transport routes to India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. One of the most notable ongoing initiatives is the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which could bolster revenues for the  Turkmen energy sector while providing 1.5 billion people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India with secure energy access. 

While these aspirations have faced, and will continue to face, reconfiguration as a result of the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan, they should remain goals to strive for. Deepened integration with South Asia would provide the Central Asian states with massively enhanced economic opportunities on both a regional level and through access to sea-based international trade routes. In turn, the expansion of additional trade markets for Central Asian goods would lessen Chinese and Russian hegemony in the region. 

South Asian countries also stand to gain from Central Asian connectivity. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the Central Asian states could fulfill their “vast economic potential” through heightened trade with India, especially through the Indo-Iranian Chabahar Port and the massive International North- South Transport Corridor (INSTC) transit project. Then-Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan discussed developing and enhancing infrastructure ties between Pakistan and the Central Asian states, particularly through the country’s Karachi and Gwadar ports. Central Asian integration with South Asia would also have ripple effects throughout the Eurasian continent, as the region’s market reach could extend into Southeast Asia, Western Asia, and Europe through the bridges from the Indian Ocean to the continental mainland. The linkages created could revive the spirit of the Silk Road and forge new flows of ideas and goods throughout greater Eurasia. 

Strategic implications also make it imperative for the democratic countries to add a more robust continental element in their Indo-Pacific Strategy. Securitizing Central Asia gained increased attention in the aftermath of the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan. Governments sought to alleviate regional spillover effects, including refugee flows and increased terrorist activity, as well as to protect the proposed super projects envisioned for the region. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine further emphasized the critical geostrategic significance of Central Asia. The Central Asian states have tiptoed around not openly condemning Moscow while also signaling support for Ukraine. Anxieties over the possibility of Russia repeating an invasion in their territories, as well as fears of becoming too dependent on Chinese investment,  have motivated Central Asian leaders to expand their geopolitical partnerships. 

Given the global energy insecurity that has resulted as a consequence of the war in Ukraine, establishing alternative energy routes that bypass Russia has become of critical importance to multiple countries around the world. Caspian-based routes have emerged as viable contenders to this objective, and thus the Central Asian states, along with Turkey and the Caucasus states of Azerbaijan and Georgia (Armenia has not been included in most of the current major projects), are becoming increasingly vital players in catering to global energy demands. Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan have been in negotiations over the development of a Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TCP), which would connect Turkmenistan’s bountiful natural gas reserves – the fourth largest in the world – to the Caucasus, Turkey, and Europe via linkages such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (BTE) gas pipeline and Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP).

Energy and transit networks could also be expanded into the other Central Asian states through such initiatives as the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), which aims to facilitate intercontinental trade and could provide a key outlet for Central Asian resources and products to more easily reach markets beyond Russia and China. Given all these factors, Central Asia should serve as the linchpin for any strategy determined to maintain stability and secure vital supplies in Eurasia and beyond.

With these factors in mind, the democratic countries should revise their current Indo-Pacific strategy to give greater priority to Central Asian engagement. To balance out the heavy maritime focus of the current strategy, these countries should shift to inter-regional connectivity via both land and sea. They can continue the Central Asian regional projects they have pursued as individual states, but should aim to deepen their involvement in these projects while developing multilateral initiatives – similar to their cooperation in the East and South China Seas. The democratic countries should unite in their objectives and resources to collaborate with each other and the Central Asian states to secure the success of their aims more effectively.

The payoffs of such coordination have immense potential: market integration could mutually benefit multiple states through the expansion of trade networks, which in turn could foster greater interregional cooperation, securitization, and poverty alleviation. Furthermore, strengthening Central Asian alliances would serve as a key means of countering Chinese and Russian authoritarian influence, which would serve as wise preventative measures to protect against territorial concerns expanding beyond Ukraine and possibly Taiwan.

The Central Asian land nexus is a critical component to fortify the South and Southeast Asian maritime dimension of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, and thus should be continued and strengthened. In doing so, the leading democracies can promote value-based diplomacy throughout Eurasia and more effectively ensure successful engagement in the region – from both a continental and maritime standpoint – for years to come.