Central Asia Connectivity Project

In 1904, the renowned British geographer and godfather of geopolitics, Sir Halford Mackinder, conceived of Eurasia as the “World Island” stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the Arctic to Indian oceans. Central Asia is located in the center of Eurasia, surrounded by regional and great powers, including China, Russia, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey. Central Asia has also attracted interest from the United States, European nations, Japan, South Korea, and, increasingly, the Gulf Arab states.

Central Asia is rich in oil, gas, minerals, and other natural resources, including (in some areas) water and hydropower. The combination of its resources and its location amidst contending great powers often leads analysts and commentators to describe the region as “strategic,” although very few define what the term means. For the United States and Russia, it has been important that three Central Asian states, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, share borders with Afghanistan.

A millennium ago, Central Asia was wealthy and powerful, even a global center for science, mathematics, music, and the arts—a kind of Lost Enlightenment as described by the historian S. Frederick Starr. As Silk Road trade through Central Asia declined with the rise of sea trade starting in the 16th century, both Central Asia’s wealth and its significance as a global center diminished. Central Asia re-emerged in the 19th century as an area of contention between the British and Tsarist empires in the so-called Great Game. As the age of imperialism passed, Central Asia found itself isolated from its neighbors and under control of the Soviet Union until the USSR’s demise in 1991. The Soviet collapse created five new Central Asian states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Having enjoyed independence for more than 32 years, these countries are no longer new, but still rather young.

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 have shaken up Central Asia and its international relations. These processes remain in flux, making any broad conclusions very tentative, but the longer the Ukraine war continues, and by extension the longer Moscow, Washington, and Brussels are focused elsewhere, the more durable these developments become. The potential consequences for the United States could include not merely geopolitical losses and missed economic opportunities, but also possible new terrorism, instability, and conflict.

One central premise of the Project is that beginning with Deng Xiaoping’s 1970s and 1980s reforms in China, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the emergence of market reforms in India in the mid-1990s, the Eurasian supercontinent started to reconnect in ways unseen since the 16th century. This is also the core theme for Kent Calder’s Super Continent: The Logic of Eurasian Integration.

Since their independence in 1991, some Central Asian states have taken advantage of this burgeoning reintegration to build economic, political, social, and security ties to the North, South, East, and West. Others have exported their challenges across newly permeable borders. For good and ill, Central Asia is now showing signs of greater intra-Central Asian integration too.

This is the moment to assess how Central Asia’s international connections are shifting and to what extent the United States can influence this evolution to advance and defend U.S. interests. That is the task we have set at the Center for the National Interest in the new Central Asia Connectivity Project. In the months and years ahead, we shall seek to shed light on many questions regarding individual Central Asian states as well as the “region” more broadly.

The project will address the following themes:

  1. If Central Asia (the five post-Soviet republics) and its population of about 80 million and GDP of nearly $100 billion were elsewhere, few might consider it “strategic.” Its location in the center of a reconnecting Eurasia surrounded by countries of high importance to the United States has earned this adjective, at least among American and other great power analysts. China, through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is rapidly changing the region’s landscape with new transit infrastructure and development projects to pave a figurative superhighway to Europe and the Greater Middle East. All the great and regional powers of Eurasia—and their large commercial enterprises—are scrambling to guarantee their own interests. The challenge for Central Asian states is to strengthen their sovereignty and freedom of action to avoid being left out and/or being dominated by others.
  1. To what extent is intra-Central Asia integration taking place? For the first three decades of independence, intra-regional cooperation was very modest as the new states reveled in their newly found sovereignty. At that time, Uzbekistan, the most central of the Central Asian states, sharing borders with all others, was especially reluctant to engage in regional cooperation. After Uzbek founding President Islam Karimov’s death in 2016, Uzbekistan quickly mended fences with Tajikistan and its other neighbors. This removed the single greatest obstacle to regional cooperation. With Russia’s war in Ukraine in 2014, and especially since the full invasion in 2022, the pace of regional integration has accelerated. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as the region’s two largest and most wealthy states, are acting in concert to promote broader regional cooperation.
  1. Russia and China are by far the most powerful external actors in Central Asia. To what extent are their interests complementary or conflicting? Conventional wisdom has Russia losing influence as China gains it, especially after Russia has become consumed by its war in Ukraine. China’s influence has grown mainly through its investment in transit infrastructure and development projects tied to Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese growing presence in Central Asia is clear, but whether this comes at Russia’s expense and whether Russian power in the region is diminishing are not so straightforward. Approximately four million Central Asians work in Russia, and the remittances they send home, which have not dropped to the degree predicted by the World Bank and other multilateral economic institutions after the expansion of the war in Ukraine, play a huge role in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and a lesser but significant degree in Uzbekistan. Now there is a new migration pattern as well, created by hundreds of thousands of disaffected Russian citizens who have left Russia for Central Asia since 2022. This group, approximately one million total in less than two years, has brought wealth and skills, but for how long will they stay?
  1. Russia’s war in Ukraine is also increasingly affecting the direction and development of oil and gas pipelines and of rail and other transit infrastructure in and around Central Asia. The heavily sanctioned Russian economy and desire of some external actors to bypass Russia have given new life to many projects under consideration for decades, such as the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway and the TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India) pipelines. Officials in capitals across Eurasia are discussing the TCITR (Trans-Caspian International Transit Route) or “Middle Corridor” from China through Kazakhstan across the Caspian to Azerbaijan to Europe and the Greater Middle East. What projects are most likely to be completed, and how will they alter trade and financial flows as well as regional security?
  1. While regional supplies of oil and gas, valuable metals and other natural resources raise the profile of Central Asia, water might actually be the region’s most coveted product. Tight water supplies are already a source of potential conflict between up-stream (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and down-stream states (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan). Climate change is affecting Central Asia also as glaciers are melting at an unprecedentedly rapid rate. In the short- and mid-term, this will increase water supplies, but over time the glaciers will shrink and eventually disappear. As this occurs, conflicts over access to water for drinking, extractive and other industries, and agriculture will become much sharper and even life-threatening. The Caspian Sea, a crucial body of water for the region, is already shrinking, and this is happening most rapidly on the Kazakh shoreline. Using the Caspian as a connector between Central Asia and the South Caucasus is a critical piece of the “Middle Corridor.” Yet the newly refurbished Kazakh port of Aktau is already finding water levels too low to dock ships.

Under the leadership of Senior Fellows Andrew Kuchins and Greg Priddy, and with strong support from its Board of Directors, the Center for the National Interest is forming a small core study group with extensive connections in the region. This group will guide, support, and contribute intellectually and operationally to the project.