The Central Asian region holds immense strategic importance, primarily due to its rich energy reserves that still remain untapped. In the recent years, the vast economic potentials have re-triggered major interests of global powers in the region. The pivotal economic links within the region ensure the pragmatic presence of the global players to ensure their self-interests and tackle the instability in Afghanistan which directly influences the security environment within Central Asia.
In this latter regard, US, Chinese and Russian interests are aligned with ambitions to limit the spread of terrorism in the region. Additionally, Central Asia has ethnic divisions which create instability; such ethnic differences are prominent in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. This resultantly has led towards political crisis such as the outbreak of violence and government crackdowns in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
Russian foothold within the region is adamant under a series of organizations (Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), and the Customs Union Commission (CUC)) which allows them to cement political, economic and security ties with Central Asia. Similarly, USA and China have also made critical overtures to the Central Asian states. For the USA, these untapped markets are critical for economically recovering post-war Afghanistan; aiming towards enhancing its security and economic ties with Central Asian states.
Analysts believe that China is keen to preserve the geopolitical balance in the region for two key reasons; on one hand these small states act as a buffer space between China and Russia, conversely it also aids her in minimizing the emergence of a dominant state that is capable to control the other states of the region as well. China through the platform of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has prioritized discussing the security issues within the region. China’s broader prospects in the region can be underlined as limiting the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in its Xinjiang Province and counterbalancing Russian influences in the region.
She prioritizes the approach which allows it to sustain enhanced bilateral relations with the Muslim world (Shia’s and Sunni’s) rather than triggering any unwanted upheavals. Apart from that, Chinese ties with Kazakhstan as an important energy producer persists, as this economic tie with China has opened avenues for business opportunities and investments for Kazakhstan and allows China to counterbalance Russian interests in the state. Additionally, Turkmenistan has allowed China to pursue major gas reserves projects, which has raised red flags for Russian interests. However, with the development of CPEC project; Russia, China, and Pakistan might emerge as the key triad in the region whose interests in Central Asia coincide and pave way for enhanced strategic and economic cooperation.  Projects like Amur Bridge indicate new trade corridor between Russia and China, as it aims to improve the connectivity by reducing the transportation distance by around 700 km.
Other regional players like India, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey also have ambitions within Central Asia. To strategically overpower Pakistan, Indian policymakers have opted towards maintaining more stable relations with Central Asian states and Afghanistan. According to analysts, the two major objectives behind Indian interests within the region are driven under 2 factors; primarily to gain access to the hydrocarbons of the region and secondly eliminating scenarios where Pakistan can form a broad Islamic coalition against India. The access to these energy reserves will allow India to diminish its dependence on Iran and the Middle East. Pakistan’s interests within Central Asia are also energy driven by enhancing ties amidst the regional states will allow her to enhance its strategic potential. Under the CPEC initiative, Pakistan’s desire to strengthen bilateral trade with Central Asia persists.
The Recent visit of Turkmenistan President to Kazakhstan displayed roots of emerging alliance amidst Uzbekistan and the former two; focusing towards enhancing ties via security and transportation. Turkmenistan enjoys the title of core supplier of natural gas in the region and additionally is the largest supplier of natural gas to China. The three main export routes of the country are Central Asia – Center Pipeline (CAS) to Russia, Central Asia – China pipeline (CACP) and two routes to Iran, which are Korpedzhe-Kurt Kui (KKK) and Dauletabad-Sarakhs-Khangiran pipelines. To further expand its market avenues she hopes to expand its influence in the European market via trade with the European Union. With the imposed sanctions upon Russia, Central Asian energy reserves are of critical interest in the EU market.
 Furthermore, Turkmenistan had also shown keen interests towards the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline Project i.e. the construction of a 300-km pipeline along the bottom of the Caspian Sea to the coast of Azerbaijan. The project is considered to be an effective solution for the supply of energy reserves in both Turkish and European markets. Recently, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have also signed a declaration on strategic partnership, foreseeing the cooperation in the delivery of energy reserves to the European markets.
Though this project is strongly opposed by Russia and Iran, the construction of Baku International Sea Trade Port Alyat (Phase 1) has been taking place, which is slated to be completed by 2017. The target of developing this port is to link Turkey, the European Union, Iran, India, and Russia with three international rail lines. Additionally, Turkmenistan is also involved in the development of its Turkmenbashi International Sea Port (eastern part of the Caspian Sea); this port will serve as a key transit hub between Central Asia and Europe, and expected to be completed by 2017. Apart from that projects like TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) are currently underway.
Azerbaijan, on the other hand, is also involved in the construction of Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) rail link which directly connects the countries of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. The project is intended to increase regional cooperation and serve as a critical link in the rail transport corridor which will link China and Central Asia to Europe. The recent summit of the D-8 Organization for Economic Cooperation (D-8) laid grounds for actors such as Iran, Turkey, and Azerbaijan towards cementing ties via addressing security concerns.
Another player such as Japan has also shown keen interests within Central Asia. These interests were clearly evident under Japanese ambitions of enhancing cooperation with Uzbekistan and the boost in the investment of natural gas industry and the Caspian Sea port construction project. Additionally, the Gas-to-Gasoline (GTG) project i.e. a $1.7 billion has been invested within by Japan and is considered as biggest gasoline production plant built in Turkmenistan. According to analysts, Japan’s extended interests within the region can be highlighted under two notions.
The first notion indicates how Japan wants to counterbalance Chinese interests in the region. Thus, they are indirectly assisting Russian interests which are heavily influenced by enhanced Chinese ties in the region, as it violates their control over the regional resources. Secondly, Japan’s presence in the region can create a wildcard scenario for actors such as US and India which are already competing for influence with the dominant China-Russian rivalry in the region.
It is highly likely that the geopolitical significance of Central Asia will persist in the current political dimensions. In this regard, the global powers are clearly defining the geopolitical and geo-economic interests in the region and powerfully seeking towards spreading and maintaining their influence in Central Asia. Yet, how the Central Asian states tackle via their diplomacy remains the most interesting factor.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.
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Kinza Arif is currently attached with Islamabad Institute of Conflict Resolution (IICR) and graduating in International Relations from Bahria University.