Central Asia was once the prize in the so-called Great Game, a center of competition for the Russians, British, Persians, Mongols and Turks at various times and in various combinations. Sitting at the intersection of the Russian steppes, the western Chinese wastes, the mountain passes into the Indian subcontinent, and the modern Middle East, the region is at once a barrier and a bridge between the powers in its periphery. It is a path for trade and a highway for invasion, a vast strategic buffer and a cauldron of ethnic and national competition and instability. It is a space that its neighbors can afford neither to hold nor to ignore.
But for all its strategic importance, the region is beset by problems. Many of these are holdovers from the Soviet era, when borders were drawn to create pockets of competing ethnic identities in single countries and political dynasties that would brook little opposition or challenge. On top of these challenges, the region's population has nearly doubled since the fall of the Soviet Union, particularly in the Fergana Valley, where swirling borders complicate ethnic and national identities. Declining agricultural output, languishing oil prices, falling remittances from workers in Russia and weak international investment in Central Asia have only added to the stresses on the region's leaders.
In recent months, several events have drawn the world's attention back to Central Asia. A series of small flare-ups have occurred along the contested Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan border, and, though not all that unusual for the two countries, the dispute has grown more contentious as the competition increases for dwindling water resources. In Kyrgyzstan, too, an apparent Uighur terrorist attack rocked the Chinese Embassy, raising concerns that Central Asian militants who have trained in Syria may bring their newfound skills home. The Kazakh government, meanwhile, has redoubled its crackdown on militancy — sweeping up its political opponents in the process — following attacks by Islamist militants. And on Sept. 2, longtime Uzbek President Islam Karimov died, leaving his country to undertake its first power transition as an independent state. Despite the fact that the country appears to have a succession plan in place (and that nearby Turkmenistan's first transition a decade ago proceeded relatively smoothly), the new leader will face simmering social problems and clan competition.
None of these events will necessarily be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back, nor is their coincidence anomalous in a region rife with small, localized crises. Nonetheless, they recall Central Asia's tenuous grasp on stability and raise the question of what the many powers with interest in the region might do if that hold were to falter.
The Usual Suspects
So how would significant instability in Central Asia be managed? History, geography and military realities all point to Russia as a first line of defense. As the traditional security guarantor for Central Asia, Russia has military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, two of the three regional members (Kazakhstan being the third) of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Moreover, Moscow's concerns over the spread of ethnic unrest and terrorism and its strategic considerations along its periphery compel Russian involvement in Central Asia. But Russia is preoccupied with other problems in other places. Still mired in economic recession, the country has had to re-examine even its sacrosanct defense budget. In fact, it has recently drawn down and reorganized some of its troops in Central Asia. Should the region start to unravel, Moscow will face a strategic dilemma. Given Russia's involvement in Syria and Ukraine, the Kremlin may have to consider allowing China to expand its presence in Central Asia.
China has steadily increased its ties to Central Asia, focusing first on energy and resources, then on trade and infrastructure projects and, more recently, on defense and security cooperation. After all, Central Asia offers a route to Europe far from the U.S.-patrolled seas and a vast buffer from the instability and Islamist militancy of the Middle East and Southwest Asia. But as China's involvement in Central Asia has grown, so too has its dependency on the region, and, in turn, the need to secure its interests there. The attack against the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan was a reminder that Beijing's activity in Central Asia could make China a higher-profile target, not only for members of the Uighur diaspora but also for aggrieved locals. Though China has met similar resistance to its endeavors around the globe, the ethnic and linguistic connections between China's Uighurs and the region present a unique concern for Beijing. If stability in Central Asia breaks down, China could find itself in the nightmarish scenario of having a potential haven for separatist militants just across its border. That prospect could compel Beijing, which has yet to participate in military action in a third country beyond U.N. operations, to action.
Then, of course, there is the United States. The country also has expanded military relations in Central Asia as a means to assist with the war in Afghanistan and to operate in Russia's periphery, much as Russia operates in Europe's. But in many ways, Central Asia is the last place the United States, primarily a maritime power, is prepared to intervene in the event of a major security breakdown. Although the U.S. military is an intervention force, it relies on the seas for transporting troops and supplies, as well as for projecting power. The political complications of running supply lines through third countries and the logistical headache of moving heavy supplies by air or over ground compound the difficulties of distance, as the war in Afghanistan has demonstrated. Notwithstanding the potential for instability in Central Asia and the possibility that another "terrorist haven" could emerge in a chaotic region, the implications of a Central Asian intervention of any significant scale make it unlikely. Furthermore, after years of sustained military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq, and with budgetary and social considerations at home, the United States is naturally (and historically) inclined to back off from overseas interventions. To that end, Washington will pair a call for greater active responsibility from its allies with a strategy focused on preventing the rise of a single regional hegemon, rather than on imposing stability.
An Interesting Position
And so, Washington will find itself in an interesting position. Embroiled in an interminable war against terrorism (an inherently un-winnable conflict, since it purports to combat a tactic, not an enemy), the United States has an interest in sealing any vacuum that Islamist militancy might otherwise fill in a destabilized Central Asia. At the same time, direct, large-scale intervention is infeasible and perhaps unnecessary. If the United States' strategic objective is to prevent the rise of a single regional hegemon, having Russia and China engaged in Central Asia could prove useful.
Given their proximity to the region, both countries have a compelling reason to take action in Central Asia. Of course, their shared security concern could provide Moscow and Beijing impetus for greater joint military cooperation, and a Sino-Russian alliance would not be a positive development for U.S. international strategy. Nonetheless, it could just as easily expose the differences between the countries' strategies and goals in the region while tying up Russia and China's resources and attention. A protracted pacification and stabilization operation would stress the countries' budgets, military and domestic political capital. For the United States, this could solve a couple of problems at once. Heavily engaged in Central Asia, Russia may be more willing to make compromises in other areas. China, meanwhile, may divert resources from its maritime budget and developments to its land warfare capacity, easing tensions in the South and East China seas.
The threat of a floundering Central Asia would not be enough to overcome the domestic political and military obstacles to a direct, large-scale U.S. military intervention in the region, regardless of what moral, political or security justifications Washington may offer. During the Cold War, instability anywhere in the world could jeopardize the balance between the Soviet and U.S. spheres. Consequently, both powers adopted the habit of intervening by overt or clandestine means even in minor countries. After the Cold War, the United States continued in this vein, first under the guise of a moral imperative to promote stability for stability's sake, and later to counter terrorism. Now that the global balance of power is shifting, however, the United States is losing its ability and desire to be the policeman of the world.