By Latheef Farook
The vast region of Central Asia stretches from the Caspian Sea in the west to western China and Mongolia in the east, and from Afghanistan and Iran in the south to Russia in the north.
It includes the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It is a diverse region with a mix of upper middle and low income countries with major strategic importance due to their geographic location and natural resources.
Central Asia was historically closely tied to the Silk Road trade routes, acting as crossroads for the movement of people, goods and ideas between Europe and the Far East.
They were all Muslim countries.
From the mid-19th century until almost the end of the 20th century, Central Asia was colonized by the Russians, and incorporated into the Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Union.
According to a 2019 report the region had a population of about 72 million, in the five countries: Kazakhstan (19 million), Kyrgyzstan (7 million), Tajikistan (10 million), Turkmenistan (6 million) and Uzbekistan (35 million).[
During the Soviet rule Islam was banned and brutally suppressed to enforce communism. Mosques were forcefully converted to night clubs. However with the collapse of Soviet Uni0n in 1981 Islam once again started rising under the changes region has been witnessing. This trend was expedited with the region establishing closer ties with rest of the world especially Muslim countries.
As a result there has been a rapid religious and cultural awakening throughout the region .This was given a new impetus by big powers rushing to establish closer ties for political, economic, and strategic and defense purposes.
Though these countries were free, Russia which emerged after the collapse of Soviet Union, had its own holding under a newly formed organization “Commonwealth of Independent States -CIS.
Though all five former Soviet Central Asian republics are traditionally viewed to be within Russia’s sphere of influence, but none has backed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. All five abstained in a vote to condemn the invasion at the United Nations General Assembly on the anniversary of the war.
However Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the situation as big powers started rushing to establish better ties while Russia is busy with its war in Ukraine and slowly losing control over Central Asian countries.
For example United States, Europe, China, India, other countries in the region and beyond started seeking closer ties with this resource rich region.
America, desperate to make inroads into Central Asia, dispatched U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on 28 February where he met Central Asian leaders. President Joe Biden’s administration has increased its stake in the region to demonstrate the benefits of U.S. cooperation to countries facing economic hit from the Ukraine conflagration.
Joe Biden also announced $25 million of new funding to support economic growth, including with new trade routes, and helping business find new export markets, on top of the $25 million already committed to the region. Later US had increased an initiative to expand regional trade routes and export markets in the region to $50m.
At the same time, the US has sought to spare Central Asia from actions against Russia.
Russia worked for years to reduce US influence in central Asia after ties intensified during American military operations in Afghanistan. Blinker’s summit talks with five central Asian republics during his visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was an assertion of American interest in Moscow’s former backyard.
Meanwhile China eyes Central Asia for green energy and natural gas deals.
China sees its ties with Central Asia – especially Kazakhstan, the region’s richest state – as crucial to building the economy of its far west while cracking down with a strict security apparatus on Islamic movements in Xinjiang .
Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Kazakhstan last September aimed at improving trade, especially by reopening cross-border motorways and railways that were closed during the pandemic.
Regional security continued to be a major area of cooperation, given Beijing’s priority in thwarting separatist groups that seek to create an Islamic Xinjiang state independent of China.
Xinjiang’s party chief had assumed a new role of reaching out to Central Asian countries after the party’s national congress in October. In February this year, China hosted its first industry and investment forum with five Central Asian countries – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan – a grouping that did not include Russia.
Muhammad Adan Nisar, an Independent Researcher, and graduate in Diplomacy & Strategic Studies from University of the Punjab, Lahore stated that;
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, China and the U.S. have been ambitious in strategically influencing the Central Asia region. Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a part of China’s grand strategy in Central Asia, which has intensified the importance of this region. Further, China’s influence in this region has increased through regional organizations such as Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Pakistan is an important pivot of China’s regional strategy. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the flagship project of China’s BRI.
Meanwhile India has also intensified its cooperation with Central Asia on issues like trade and connectivity, economic development, energy security, regional concerns of shared interest and the shared geopolitical worries of both sides regarding new challenges in Afghanistan.
Trade significantly impacts India’s relationships and influence in the Central Asian Region. India’s trade with Central Asian countries helps to foster economic ties and strengthens political and cultural relations. India’s imports from the area, such as oil, gas and minerals, provide the country with access to critical resources. In contrast, its exports, such as textiles and agricultural products, give the region market access. Ends
Famous Samarkand Mosque, Uzbekistan. Central Asia .
Former president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev took part in the opening ceremony of the largest
mosque in Central Asia in Nur-Sultan city.
Disclaimer: Central Asian Muslim countries waking up
Big powers rushing to cultivate ties. - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view