Security of Central Asian Region

Issue: 3 / 2013 By Lt General (Retd) P.C. Katoch

The security interdependence between states in the region is particularly intense because of the nature of perceived security threats. Transnational non-traditional security threats dominate the Central Asian security narrative, implying that these have an extensive impact on the region and require a regional response but regional security dynamics are defined by mutual suspicion.

The Central Asian Region (CAR) comprising Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan measures some four million square kilometers and is inhabited by just over 64 million people with most population concentrations in the Ferghana Valley, its periphery, and the north of Kazakhstan. With GDP of $166 billion and per capita GDP of $2,700, access to sea ports range from 2,770 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers. Alternation in expanses of desert and mountain ranges has led to vast unpopulated areas lying alongside other relatively densely populated areas. Many are unaware that bulk of present day Indian population has its ancestry in CAR and it is the eastward migration of CAR inhabitants centuries ago on account of drying up of river basins that led to the origin of Indus Valley Civilisation.

For the CAR, unexpected breakdown of USSR did create chaos with territorial disputes erupting overnight, but it also created new opportunities including new partners and allies. The US, Turkey, Iran, India, Pakistan, China and Russia were quick to establish relations with the new countries. What is referred as the ‘New Great Game’ today, actually is the modern version of the traditional power plays in the region by the major players (Russia, China, the US) due to the increasing importance of Central Asia stemming from existence of vast reserves of hydrocarbons (oil and gas) and minerals like uranium, plus its strategic position as a link between major markets of Europe and Asia. The region is inexorably linked to Afghanistan with growing uncertainties post 2014. A regional security perspective must include internal dynamics of CAR and the external factors. The security paradigm in Central Asia is often not regionally interrelated and interdependent but influenced by external powers on an individual state-unit rather than regional level, multilateral security frameworks notwithstanding. CAR countries have differing attitudes towards external attempts to influence regional politics and security. For example, 80 per cent of the US investment in CAR is in Kazakhstan, which is perhaps not liked by some other CAR countries. It would not be wrong to say that Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan regard the US influence in the region as a threat in itself. Therefore, CAR countries can be expected to respond at different levels to foreign interventionist presence despite possibility of increased Taliban influence in Afghanistan.

Internal Dynamics

Economy, unemployment, drug trade, illicit weapons are factors that contribute to instability in any country coupled with lack of governance, inept handling of social change, lack of avenues of political expression and justice. Central Asia is an area offering certain geo-economics advantages to countries or multinational corporations that have particular regional or global aspirations, due either to their own interests or to the need to neutralise other nations or companies which they see as rivals. As per the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in Caucasus and Central Asia, the economic outlook remains favourable, reflecting high oil prices that are benefiting oil and gas exporters, supportive commodity prices and remittance inflows benefiting oil and gas importers, and, for both groups, moderate direct exposure to Europe. The positive outlook provides an opportunity to strengthen policy buffers to prepare for any downside risks. However, the outlook on unemployment, drugs and illegal weapons, is not that bright. The economic crisis has caused millions of migrant labourers from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to lose their jobs in the boom economies of Russia and Kazakhstan. Unemployment rates in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are 6.1 per cent, 8.2 per cent and eight per cent respectively, which are manageable. However, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have unemployment rates of 60 per cent and 70 per cent respectively. This in conjunction with their immediate neighbour Afghanistan’s unemployment rate of 36 per cent, form a trilateral of instability conducive to terrorism, especially since this large unemployed segment has access to vast quantities of drugs from both Afghanistan and Iran. In 2009 itself, some 90 metric tonnes of drugs came from Afghanistan. Then is the problem of illegal weapons which has alarmed most CAR countries and seizures by security forces has taken place in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Gun running in CAR is endemic with illegal weapons coming from Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan, latter via Afghanistan. In June 2012, Kyrgyzstan admitted that only half of the small arms that went missing during the country’s 2010 political and ethnic violence have been accounted for and the missing quantities are considered enough to carry out another revolution.

Another important factor contributing to instability and insecurity in the CAR is border disputes. For example, borders among Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are not properly defined. Ferghana Valley is rife with territorial disputes, especially in densely populated areas with competition for resources and friction periodically erupts into violence among Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Uzbeks. Ferghana Valley is also teeming with various extremist/terrorist elements and their role in larger conflicts cannot be discounted. There has also been problem of rivalry like between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Serious ethnic divisions like in Kyrgyzstan in June 2010 caused hundredsof people and mostly Uzbeks killed, and over 2,000 homes and buildings destroyed. There is also the risk that Central Asian jihadis currently fighting alongside Taliban in Afghanistan may take their struggle back home after 2014. This would increase instability and pose major difficulties for Central Asia and even China. Tajikistan already faces a threat from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a group with a vision of an Islamist caliphate that is fighting in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban.

External Factors

There is no denying that USA and China are rivals competing for the booty of untappedmineral wealth and hydrocarbons, straddling the vast expanse from the Xinjiang-Kazakh/Kyrgyz border to the western shores of the Caspian Sea. Their individual perceptions, how best their political and economic interests can be served, differ vastly in geographical terms.

  • USA: At the Istanbul Conference on Afghanistan, Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State had explained the US New Silk Road Strategy as “a web of economic and transit connections that will bind a region too long torn apart by conflict and division”. The US perceives Central Asia, South Asia and South East Asia as a region playing a crucial role in stabilising Asia, with Afghanistan as the bridge between CAR and Eurasia and South-South East Asia. However, the key problems are the outright refusal by Pakistan to provide access to Afghanistan by land to India and the US-Iran tensions on the nuclear issue. Resultantly, both the TAPI and Iran-Pakistan-India pipelines have not been realised yet. As of now, India’s access to CAR is through the Iranian port of Chahbahar.
  • China: China has made enormous investments in CAR; Kazakh and Uzbek oil, Turkmen gas and Kyrgyz and Tajik mineral wealth. Its geographical proximity is an enormous advantage. China already has trade with CAR to the tune of $29 billion as compared to just $500 in case of India. China also has stakes in Iranian energy resources, for which, she would like to make use of the Iran-Turkmenistan cooperation for oil and gas exploration and exploitation. This link once established and made functional would help China flood the Central Asian markets with its goods. China has also invested in Afghanistan including building a railroad from Logar to Kabul and China’s CNPC began Afghan oil production in October 2012, extracting 1.5 million barrels of oil annually. China has an active plan for a quadrilateral freight railroad from Xinjiang through Tajikistan, Afghanistan to Pakistan. The ultimate destination for China’s Silk Road politics is Eurasia across Central Asian Steppes or the heartland of the Turkic region and the former Eastern Europe. China envisages rail, road and oil/gas pipelines through this heartland and numerous arteries feeding it from south and finally landing in the European Continent. China’s CNPC built a pipeline connecting China’s eastern coast with gas fields of Turkmenistan in just 18 months in 2007-2008 and is extending it to reach the Caspian Sea. CNPC plans to expand its natural gas network to all five Central Asian states and Afghanistan in the next five years. China has also taken on the region’s highway, railroad and electricity transmission challenges through very difficult terrain for Chinese goods to reach Europe, the Middle East and Chinese-built ports in Pakistan and Iran. But there are downsides to the China-CAR relationship with growing belief of economic hegemony laced with negative images of environmental depredation by Chinese mines, bad working conditions in Chinese plants, and Chinese businessmen squeezing out competitors with liberal bribes to officials. The nationalist sentiment in the region also views with suspicion Chinese demographic invasion including illegal immigrants. Beijing is starting to take tentative political and security initiatives in the region through Shanghai Corporation Organisation (SCO) but this organisation has proved ineffective in times of unrest. Beijing’s major concern also is the security and development of its Xinjiang Autonomous Region, which shares 2,800 kilometers of borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The core of its strategy seems to be creation of close ties between Xinjiang and Central Asia, with the aim of reinforcing both economic development and political stability. China has been engaging Taliban to induce them to scale back their perceived support for Uighur separatist groups, such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Yet, Chinese policymakers have yet to come up with a clear plan to work toward stability in both Afghanistan and Central Asia while ruling out any military intervention even in a case of extreme unrest. But if Chinese investments and national interests are threatened, they may force to do so. On balance, China’s CAR policy rests on four objectives; keeping Uighur separatists down, keeping north-eastern neighbours stable, managing natural resources effectively and continuing to develop new markets.
  • Russia: Russia is determined to maintain interests and access in Central Asia by dominating the security framework through Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and controlling major pipelines that allow resources to enter and exit the region. In addition to economic, labour and stability interests, Russian interests also lie with the large Russian populations in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. More recently, Russia is attempting to integrate CAR countries into the Eurasian Union that creates a dilemma for the countries in the region albeit Kazakhstan seems to have decided to join. Whether CAR countries, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in particular, will join Russia’s Eurasian Union or tilt to China is the test for influence in the region. Eurasian Union would have negative effect on the investment that China has made on both sides of its border. Erection of a Russia controlled tariff barriers will adversely affect China’s trade with CAR.
  • Iran: Iran has already invested $340 million in the development of Chahbahar port and India’s contribution is over 100 million dollars. At the same time, India has invested over 136 million dollars in the construction of Afghan Ring Road Highway (Helmand sector) that will be connecting Chahbahar with Kabul and thus provide Kabul access to Indian Ocean. This fits with the Russian concept of constructing North-South corridors. Devoid of land access through Pakistan, this is the avenue for India to connect with Central Asia. Iran is eager to develop its eastern region and expand its trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia, and is also working to link Mashshad with Herat in Afghanistan. The Chahbahar-Kabul link for trade and commerce will enable oil and gas rich Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to reach the South East and South Asian markets. This route will also suit western nations in addition to via Caspian Sea.
  • Afghanistan: As per a report on the cost of the US war in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2013, released by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, USA on January 14, 2013, if all figures for FY 2001-FY 2013 that follow are totaled for all direct spending on the war, they reach $641.7 billion, of which $198.2 billion—or over 30 per cent—will be spent in FY2012 and FY2013. This is an incredible amount of money to have spent with so few controls, so few plans, so little auditing, and almost no credible measures of effectiveness. The vital revelation is that vast majority of the aid went to the Afghan National Security Forces and not development. This implies that the US was never bothered about economic security of Afghanistan and with reduced troop strength post 2014, will be content with holding on to Northern Afghanistan as buffer to ensure Taliban do not reach the CAR. Therefore, a certain amount of chaos in South and East Afghanistan is very possible.

Regional Security Paradigm

Threats and problems that confront the CAR can be summarised as follows:

  • Centrifugal forces causing disparity, rivalry, lack of trust.
  • Weak economy, political systems and corruption.
  • Security crisis; border and ethnic conflicts, drugs, radicals.
  • Taliban threat post 2014 through Afghanistan.
  • The US, China, Russia rivalry plus CSTO and SCO promoting geopolitical ambitions and concerns of Russia and China respectively.
  • Increasing PLA capacity and modernisation.

Regional Security Architecture

The security interdependence between states in the region is particularly intense because of the nature of perceived security threats. Transnational non-traditional security threats dominate the Central Asian security narrative, implying that these have an extensive impact on the region and require a regional response but regional security dynamics are defined by mutual suspicion. Over the past few years, SCO and CSTO appear to be staking out complementary rather than competing mandates. There appears to be under-the-surface competition between the two groups. The new International Crisis Group (ICG) writes in its report titled “China’s Central Asian Problem” that Russia continues to seek military influence in Central Asia but has become increasingly distrustful of the SCO and Chinese intentions. It also notes that China has not been able to match its ambitious economic moves with political and military muscle because of strong Russian influence in CAR security structures. Russia continues its monopoly of arms sales to CAR. Therefore, relations between CSTO and SCO remain uncertain and potentially competitive but these organisations have proved ineffective in crisis. ICG assesses that in case of a power vacuum in the region, even if either China or Russia is willing to intervene militarily in Central Asia, China may take the lead. However, this ICG assessment is just one view. Post 2014, there is also good chance of Afghanistan increasingly integrating with Afghanistan and SCO assuming greater role in Afghanistan. Simultaneously, there is also possibility of more CSTO-NATO cooperation since China cannot provide security for its investments in the region, particularly Afghanistan, and Russia understands adverse effects of radical dispensation in Kabul.

Indian Concerns

Despite all the overtures made to Pakistan over the decades by India including grant of the MFN status, a radicalised Pakistan obsessed by hatred has continued not to open trade and grant MFN status to India and facilitate the land route for India to trade with Afghanistan and CAR. South Asian markets, especially India, are important to CAR and Afghanistan for trade and easy business. Concurrently, India needs the hydrocarbons of CAR for its energy needs. Indian goods have been routed to Afghanistan through the Chahbahar port in Iran and through Dubai and will continue to do so also with the CAR while Pakistan brews in its own stew.

Security Perspective

The regional security perspective in CAR is fluid and has varied possibilities. Finally, the quantum US troops in Afghanistan post 2014, Pakistan’s capacity of mischief, the posture of Taliban, level of instability in Afghanistan and possibility of another international force (like from OIC countries) are a matter of speculation but CAR countries certainly need to integrate more intimately into the security framework.