Through Central Asian countries, Beijing is fast realising its dream of connecting nations from Pakistan to Poland to China and reviving the ancient Great Silk Road, outpacing both the US and Russia.
This was a trip of America’s top diplomat to Russia’s “soft underbelly” and China’s new frontier that drew the ire of Moscow and Beijing.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited two nations of ex-Soviet Central Asia on Feb. 2 – 3, and met with foreign ministers of all five ex-Soviet – stans – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Several days later, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Americans "think, unfortunately, that they can do anything, but at the same time, they pit everyone they [ally with] against Russia and, probably, against China.”
China said it was “utterly disgusted by Pompeo's behavior and blackmail.”
It referred to his attempt to rally the regional governments behind Washington to protest China’s treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities. Rights groups and witnesses claim that up to 2 million Muslims have been confined in “training and education centres,” while Beijing denies their allegations and says it fights “extremist ideology.”
But it was the very fact of Pompeo’s visit to Central Asia that irked Moscow and Beijing, analysts say.
Russia’s backyard, China's new frontier
Under President Donald Trump, the US seems to have lost its grip in the modern-day replay of the Great Game, a confrontation between the Russian czars and the British Empire over Central Asia.
“A great-power rivalry which until recently would have seemed to be a phenomenon of bygone days is now an officially recognised geopolitical reality,” Diyar Autal of Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies told TRT World. “Competition with other great powers, namely China and Russia, is displacing terrorism as the key security concern for Washington.”
After the 1991 Soviet collapse, Washington was keen to boost its presence in the region that has some of the largest untapped hydrocarbon reserves on Earth and strategically borders Russia, China, Afghanistan and Iran.
The White House consulted the newly-independent governments, provided expertise, aid and scholarships for university students, while Western oil giants invested tens of billions in oil and gas, especially in the Caspian Sea.
Shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks Uzbekistan became the first ex-Soviet nation to offer the use of its airspace and airbase on the Afghan border to Washington.
But the hopes of turning the “stans” into a beacon of democracy never materialised as their regimes stagnated under the ageing autocrats with Soviet-era backgrounds who extended their rules by resorting to vote-rigging, persecution of opposition and constitutional “referendums” to remove term limits.
Central Asian leaders were also concerned about the revival of Islam after decades of suppression under officially atheist Communists. The threat of radicalism and terrorism became an excuse to tighten political screws, while Beijing and Moscow never objected their deteriorating human rights record.
Moscow versus Beijing
Moscow considers Central Asia its “soft underbelly” and millions of hard-up Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Tajiks flock to Russia in search of jobs. The Russian language, Russian movies and music are still ubiquitous in the region, while China’s “soft power” does not manifest itself.
“I don’t feel it. Don’t see anything like it,” Aziz Beyshenaliev, an award-winning actor and filmmaker who lives in Kazakhstan and once studied Chinese linguistics, told TRT World.
But Moscow seems to have lost the economic competition with Beijing.
It hasn’t had a monopoly on oil and gas exports since 2009, when China completed the first section of a pipeline network that gets natural gas from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan as far as Shanghai, or about 7,000 kilometres.
Russia’s main imports to the region are foodstuffs, wood and steel – while China is responsible for virtually everything else.
“What do Russians have to offer? The Chinese destroyed every [export from Russia] on the market 10 years ago,” Nurlan, who runs a small business in the Kazakh city of Almaty, Central Asia’s financial capital, told TRT World. He withheld his last name fearing persecution from increasingly autocratic Kazakh authorities.
Chinese banks and businesses expand their sway in Kazakhstan staking control over markets and oil businesses, while the AliExpress app has become one the most downloaded retail mobile apps.
Beijing sees Central Asia as the focal point of its Belt and Road initiative designed to connect nations from Pakistan to Poland to China – and revive the ancient Great Silk Road that connected the Middle Kingdom with the Roman Empire more than 2,000 years ago.
A diplomatic success?
Pompeo was the highest-ranking US official to arrive in the region since the 2015 visit of then-Secretary of State John Kerry. Analysts see his trip as bluff at a geostrategic table where China has too many aces up its sleeve.
“Although containment can work in relation to Russia, it is unlikely to work in the case of China as the expansion of its influence is based on often advantageous and coveted investment deals that go far beyond what is offered by Washington,” Davis Center’s Autal said.
Pompeo seems to have only partially succeeded in improving ties with Uzbekistan.
Alisher Ilkhamov, a London-based expert, told TRT World that he sees “the looming contours of a new geostrategic partnership” between Washington and Tashkent.
This rapprochement resumes the alliance that ended in 2005, after Uzbekistan evicted the US airbase following Washington’s criticism of Tashkent’s crackdown of a popular uprising in the eastern city of Andijan.
On February 5, the White House released its new Central Asia strategy, in which it for the first time sees it as a separate region not tied to Washington’s presence in Afghanistan.
“We see Central Asia as a geostrategic region of importance in its own right,” Lisa Curtis, the senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, said at the strategy's unveiling in Washington.