On the surface, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, formerly known as One Road One Belt, is designed to promote unimpeded trade and infrastructure connectivity, a win-win project for China and all the partners involved. But many countries in Asia already see this project as a threat to their sovereignty, as China is pushing territorial claims against its neighbors, and in some cases affecting territorial disputes for its own benefit.
This development has triggered a renewed quadrilateral diplomatic effort from Japan, Australia, India and the United States, promoting a “free and open Indo Pacific” initiative. The four-party working level meeting took place in Manila on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian nations meeting in November. Among other things, it focused on the international law-based order in Asia, which guarantees security and freedom of navigation and overflight in the maritime commons, as well as enhancing connectivity.
While the United States is showing signs of interest in balancing China’s proactive strategy in Southeast Asia, so far the picture is different in the Eurasian heartland. The United States has no clear strategy towards China’s growing presence in Central Asian countries, expanding it to countries of the South Caucasus and Eastern Europe. China has already become the major trading partner for the Central Asian region, outpacing Russia in this role.
China is offering countries of the region significant financial resources, essential for the growth of their economies, as well as for the political viability of the existing governments. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan welcome growing infrastructure connectivity with China, which allows them to sell more of their resources to China. These countries are also enthusiastic to serve as transit for China’s exports to other states. China is clearly serving as a balancing factor for the region vis-à-vis Russia.
The question is, where is the United States in this picture? Should the United States be concerned if the infrastructure connectivity of Central Asia shifts the strategic dependency of the region from Russia to China? Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has invested significant political and economic capital in supporting the development of Caspian resources, as well as the development of pipelines and other elements of infrastructure to allow access of those resources to global markets.
The pro-active U.S. policy in the late 90s and early 2000s helped countries to strengthen the economic basis for their statehood and political and economic sovereignty. The focus at that time was on the infrastructure that promoted East-West energy connectivity from the Caspian region to the Black Sea and Mediterranean, in partnership with Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, the latter playing a pivotal role in the process due to geographic, economic, historic, cultural and linguistic reasons.
But proactive strategies and policies of the U.S. government in the Caspian region and Central Asia waned down during the last decade, and currently the United States has a very limited regional role. The United States can no longer offer the economic support that can match China’s investments in the region, and there is no clarity on how deep the United States will be interested in strategic engagement with the region going forward. Meanwhile, China is advancing its Belt and Road Initiative and has emerged as a main beneficiary of the previous U.S. investments in the region.
The United States needs a clear strategy towards China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Central Asia. The principles that apply to the Indo Pacific region should apply to the heartland of Eurasia as well. These are rules-based order, free access to transportation infrastructure, enhanced connectivity to benefit not one, but all the actors, preventing proliferation of nuclear materials and technology, and fighting terrorism. The Central Asian states and their partners in the South Caucasus are committed to these principles and are making significant investments of their own resources to advance them.
The United States now needs to clearly communicate to China that principles of openness and shared access to resources and infrastructure are a priority and will determine the U.S. position vis-à-vis the Belt and Road Initiative in the region. In a parallel effort, the United States should revamp its support to Trans-Caspian and Caspian-Black Sea infrastructure connectivity, which would lead to advancing trade between Asia and Eurasia and to opening access to markets for Central and South Asian states.
Mamuka Tsereteli, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Central Asia Caucasus Institute of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.