There is a sense in Kyrgyzstan that the United States is on its way out. It is a worrying prospect when one considers that almost a fifth of its gross domestic product comes from the U.S. “transit hub” for Afghanistan at Manas Airport, outside the capital, Bishkek. Against this backdrop, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a visit to neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan last month to highlight how America has a strategy for the region, post-Afghanistan. Such a strategy is essential to lay out now if the United States does not want to leave a regional vacuum that allows a poor region to fall further into disaffection and economic uncertainty.
Talking with Kyrgyzs and others in Bishkek and Osh, the country’s second-largest city, reveals a strong sense that America’s interests in the region do not extend much further than the 2014 withdrawal date from Afghanistan. As a result, while the United States remains an important actor in the region, it placed third in terms of how “good” people saw relations with it among global powers, behind China and Russia, in a recent poll conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI). For Kyrgyzs, Russia is seen as the most popular outside power; residual linguistic and cultural links and a tendency for young men to seek their fortunes in Russia mean that the public is largely accepting of Moscow’s might in the region. Political leaders recognize this. They regularly make pilgrimages to Moscow before and after any election and use their links with Russia as badges of distinction.
But as it was put to us in Bishkek, Russia is an “immature” power that seems to want to simply assert its authority regionally to compensate for a lost empire. This is something that Kyrgyzs notice. They also note with concern their now almost complete economic dependency on China. Officials and analysts in Bishkek darkly allude to Beijing’s potential leverage, though none can point to many examples of it being exerted. In contrast, the United States is seen as a fickle power whose interests rotate around operations in Afghanistan and will fade rapidly once the 2014 deadline passes.
The stage is thus set for a post-withdrawal situation in which the United States leaves a poor region to fall back into instability. Russia will continue to play an important role, but it is China that will fall into the role of being the balancer. It is not a role that China seeks, but one that it will assume by default given the absence of American leadership and the continued Russian tendency to attempt to re-enact previous glories. China is already setting itself up to play this role. Recognizing the importance of having some sort of a cultural footprint, it has established Confucius institutes in four out of five Central Asian states. Its embassy in Bishkek towers over its American counterpart, sitting mostly empty as it leaves room for further expansion of its diplomatic presence.
Semi-official analysts with whom we spoke in Beijing highlighted the importance of stability and development in Central Asia in guaranteeing stability in China’s restive Xinjiang province. This is perhaps the most important signal of China’s future role in the region: If influence in Central Asia is key for Beijing’s domestic concerns, it is likely to grow.
From her visits in the region, Mrs. Clinton’s post-Afghanistan Central Asia strategy seems to be made up of three pillars: direct investment, such as a new General Motors Co. plant in Uzbekistan, regional economic integration, through a new “silk road” of transportation links to South Asia through Afghanistan, and lectures for the region’s autocrats to respect human rights. This vision is a welcome indicator of an American path, but it is one to which Washington will have to demonstrate commitment, particularly because, compared with China, the U.S. is rather thin on the ground. Unless that happens, America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 could hand China the unwanted role of alternative to Russia in the region.
Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, and Alexandros Petersen is author of “The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West” (Praeger, 2011).