Uzma Siraj has been teaching in Federal Urdu University since 2004, currently working as an Assistant Professor and Head of Department of International Relations, Federal Urdu University, Islamabad. She is a Ph.D. International Relations, International Islamic University, Islamabad. Her main area of research is Central Asia and Post-Soviet states, with specific special interests in energy security, energy politics of the region and role of regional and global powers especially Russia and China.
Additionally, Pakistan’s foreign Policy, South Asia, Central Asia relations, CPEC, BRI and regional connectivity are other topics of interests. She has published several research papers in HEC recognized national and international journals and presented research papers in international conferences. She is Assistant editor in Journal of International Peace and Security and managing editor in Sublime Haro Journal of Academic Research (SHAJAR).
How the Russia-Ukraine conflict will affect Central Asia, the relationship between the United States and Central Asia, and the interaction between China and the United States in this region
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has profoundly changed the international geopolitical landscape, especially in Central Asia, where world powers are competing for influence. Dr. Uzma Siraj has been studying the geopolitical economy and international relations of Central Asia and post-Soviet states, as well as the role of major powers such as the United States, China and Russia in the region, especially the impact of international organizations and cooperation, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the Quadrilateral Transit Transport Agreement, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has not yet ended, and the prospects for China and the United States are uncertain. SPCIS has interviewed Dr. Uzma Siraj in order to understand how the Russia-Ukraine conflict will affect Central Asia, the relationship between the United States and Central Asia, and the interaction between China and the United States in this region.
The heartland of Mackinder, the land of “Great Game” Central Asia, has become an incredibly significant region in the geopolitical landscape of the 21st century. It has always held a special place in the foreign policy strategies of the US, and every event since 1991 has only increased its importance. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the geopolitical situation in Central Asia presents both challenges and opportunities for US interests in the region, requiring modifications to the current strategy as well as increasing tension between the US and China in the region. These challenges and opportunities encompass both traditional and nontraditional security threats. It is crucial to understand these challenges and opportunities in relation to US interests and its previous and current strategies for the region.
Since 2001, the United States has mainly concentrated on collaborating with Central Asia in terms of security, particularly regarding the conflict in Afghanistan. Its previous strategy in Central Asia has historically emphasized various crucial objectives such as regional stability, counterterrorism, energy security, and economic development, as well as the promotion of democracy and human rights. While these priorities remain significant, the approach of the United States has adjusted to changing global and regional dynamics. In the early 2000s, Central Asia received significant attention from the United States due to its proximity to Afghanistan and the necessity for logistical support in the War on Terror. There was a significant change in Washington's perspective and engagement in the region after September 11, when military and security considerations became more important, overshadowing the commitment to political and economic reforms and human rights. This resulted in a higher priority being given to security cooperation and America's geopolitical position in the region. However, as U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan wound down, there was a shift in focus towards other global priorities, including competition with China and Russia. The U.S. has been increasingly concerned about China's growing influence in Central Asia through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Regarding how different the US 2020–2025 Central Asia policy is from the previous one, I would have said it retains almost similar objectives but more comprehensively if this question had been asked before the outbreak of the Ukraine war. Central Asia’s significance in the US strategy for 2020–2025 remains as a support to Afghan stabilization efforts or countering Chinese influence rather than a priority in itself. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought about changes in the current situation, presenting new challenges and opportunities that necessitate adjustments in current US strategy. The political and economic instability caused by the war in Ukraine poses a vulnerability to the interests of the US and its allies. To fully comprehend this, it is important to consider the challenges faced by the Central Asian region. There is a looming economic crisis due to the decline in trade and the disruption of major supply chains, particularly in global energy and agricultural markets, as well as trade between Europe, Russia, and Central Asia. Concerns regarding food security are being raised by the war's impact on international agricultural markets. The values of Central Asian currencies tend to fluctuate alongside the depreciation of Russia's currency, the ruble, against the US dollar, resulting in a depreciation of regional currencies. The war and subsequent closure of various projects have led to joblessness and have had an impact on the remittances sent by the Central Asian labor force to their home countries. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are among the most reliant on remittances in the world, with remittances from Russia accounting for over 30% of their respective gross domestic product (GDP) in 2022. Uzbekistan’s remittances from Russia makes approximately 17% share of its GDP in 2022. Consequently, Central Asia is more prone to economic volatility, which could lead to political and security issues. Such challenges requires change in US strategy, and a cooperation of major powers, especially the US and China in the region. An unstable Central Asia is not in the best interest of the either the United States or China.
The United States has a limited trade relationship with Central Asia, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan. Central Asian countries are governed by the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which imposes certain sanctions on some current and former nonmarket economies. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan currently have temporary Normal Trade Relations status, which is reviewed on an annual basis. Some policy changes that occurred in the post-Ukraine crisis are that the Biden Administration is in favor of removing the Jackson-Vanik amendment for Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and has introduced a bill to authorize this change. Another bill has been proposed in September 2023 to grant permanent normal trade relations status to Tajikistan, along with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. However, it is important to note that Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan continue to be affected by these sanctions.
The Biden Administration has started the Economic Resilience in Central Asia Initiative with the goal of promoting trade diversification, improving infrastructure, and supporting the private sector in order to mitigate the economic effects of the conflict in the region. This could potentially offer the US an opportunity to assist Central Asian states in diversifying their energy exports and progressing towards the completion of the Trans Caspian pipeline. Currently, there is limited energy trade between Central Asian states and European countries directly. However, this presents a valuable chance for the US to reduce Russian influence in the energy sector of Central Asian to expand their resource-based economies by diversifying their energy trade towards the west.
This increased US involvement in the region is making relationship between the US and China in Central Asia more complicated. While they share some similar goals, such as opposing terrorism and supporting economic diversification in the region, there has not been much cooperation in practice. Competition for the control of Central Asian energy resources will become more intense, as Central Asian nations may have become more wary of their reliance on Russian energy supplies and infrastructure as a result of the Ukraine crisis. This might provide China the chance to increase its economic influence in the region, which might have an effect on U.S. interests. The development of BRI and trade on the China-Central Asia route has not been significantly impacted, and trade data shows that imports from China into Central Asia have increased significantly during last two years. This is because the region is gradually integrating into a Beijing-Moscow economic axis, which has led to the development of a so-called "division economic and security domains" in the region, with China dominating economic and financial cooperation and Russia continuing to be the primary security guarantor and political power. However, post Ukraine instability will make Central Asian countries less safe for Chinese businesses. Central Asia’s potential instability might also affect trade routes along the flagship Silk Road Economic Belt, which have already been redirected to Belarus due to the war in Ukraine.
In the wake of Ukraine war and subsequent economic crisis, Central Asia’s main geopolitical challenge is to reopen a window for trade with South Asia. This is the key not only to its economic progress but to the sovereignty of these states. This is essential as the sole means of overcoming the historical isolation of Central Asia arising from its double landlocked status. This cannot be done without Afghanistan’s cooperation and a strategic understanding between Washington and Beijing which seems improbable. The Ukraine crisis may have escalated the US regional security concerns specifically related to Afghanistan and could have led to increased U.S presence and engagements in the region, which are very much opposed by China triggering more tension in the region.
Unfortunately, the whole scenario does not reveal a serious willingness from US to address the issue with the collaboration of China; instead, the Cold War-era approach is getting stronger, using the war in Ukraine to encircle China, either through opposition to BRI, AUKUS or Korean and Japanese sanctions on Russia. However, it is worth noting that this confrontational approach has yielded limited success in the past and could potentially harm the interests of both countries, particularly in Central Asia. This approach will not contribute positively to resolving the crisis in Ukraine. It would be beneficial for the US to acknowledge the principle of ensuring indivisibility of security, which holds that the security of one country shall not be fulfilled at the expense of the security of other countries. This principle should serve as the foundation for a new international security framework. It is crucial to move away from a Cold War mindset and the concept of blocs and instead foster a multipolar, pragmatic global system where non-Western countries too have a more influential role.
Uzma Siraj is an Assistant Professor and Head of Department of International Relations, Federal Urdu University, Islamabad, Pakistan.
Interview: Jiang Beilei
Editor: Liu Chaoqi