The U.S foreign policy toward Central Asia, the role of great powers, the strategic importance of Central Asia for International politics and even the “Great Game” and “New Great Games” are kind of prevalent literature in Central Asian studies. However, the subject has been shaped and even developed thorough several areas of cooperation and competition between these powers. The geopolitics of region have been under Russian shadow, but challenging with American alternatives such as connecting Central Asia to South Asia. The China is almost the main economic partner, while EU is trying to keep the region in development process and Russia keeping Kremlin’s options, such as remittances, on the table. The Cultural sphere is more controversial with the addition of regional powers like Iran and Turkey to the battle of Western liberalism, or Chinese and Russian worlds. So, the complexity of these interactions has made it difficult to predict the consequences. Hence, we have talked to Professor Matthew Crosston to keep an opinion to the mentioned subjects. Dr. Matthew Crosston is the Director of Academic Transformation at Bowie State University in the USA. He is a globally-recognized specialist on foreign affairs, national security, intelligence, and political development.
Q: Central Asian researchers and analysts often talk about the strategic importance of Central Asia to the United States. Some see it as important because of its proximity to Afghanistan, while others see Russia's role in it as important. What is your opinion? Is the Central Asian region really important to the United States and has a special situation in its foreign policy?
Crosston: As someone who has extensively written, researched, and published on the importance of this region to strategic global security interests, I admit that I have something of an intellectual bias in favor of Central Asia’s relevance. However, if I am being completely honest, the actual policies and engagement of the United States with Central Asia reveal a very uneven and inconsistent behavior. There is no doubt that initially Central Asia’s importance was focused through the lens of the so-called Global War on Terror and its proximity to Afghanistan. But as GWOT wound down and eventually became a disregarded term in Washington DC there can be no doubt that the focus on Central Asia also went down with it. It is true that Russia’s involvement in the area always raises an American diplomatic eyebrow but that has never amounted to anything more than just communiques or memos telling Russia to respect Central Asian states’ sovereignty and their right to engage whomever they want. On that note, America has often misstepped with Central Asia, believing that if given a real choice for engagement – Russia or the United States – then all the Central Asian partners would ‘naturally’ vote for America. This has not exactly been proven true. Russia has easily outpaced the US in terms of Central Asian engagement and making the region a continued priority. Now, with China’s Belt & Road Initiative, it seems a second potential competitor is poised to outpace US involvement in the region. The United States needs to realize that if it wants to be taken seriously in the region, then it has to show Central Asia that it takes the region seriously. So far, in the 21st century, that really has not happened to the degree it should in my opinion.
Q: What is Iran's role in US attention to Central Asia? Does this factor affect the direction of US foreign policy towards the region?
Crosston: In reality, Iran’s positions and policies in Central Asia SHOULD be a major factor and major source for attention and review in the United States. But I am skeptical that this actually plays out in real diplomatic time. There is far more focus on what Russia does with Central Asia than what Iran does. Perhaps, and this is just a prognostication, there is an assumption within the US policy community that because America continues to punish Iran with sanctions and isolation that Iran is unable to be a true force in its own surrounding neighborhood. I think that type of American hubris is misplaced, honestly, and a mistake on the part of the United States. But the fact remains that I do not find a huge policy audience here in the United States trying to bring more focus on how Iran engages Central Asia. So, in the end, it could end up that when it comes to Central Asia, America could end up a distant fourth in the engagement race behind Russia, China, and Iran.
Q: In the last few years, has China's influence in Central Asia increased? What opportunities and challenges does this increase have for the countries of the region? What about Russia? What is the view of Western rivals, especially the United States, on this increase in influence?
Crosston: I have somewhat already hinted at these two aspects in the previous questions. The Belt & Road Initiative undoubtedly incorporates Central Asia as a critical ‘central hub’ area for the BRI to be successful. I have mentioned in conferences here in the US and abroad that the BRI will not work if Central Asia does not effectively operate within the plan. So, without doubt, China has been deeply focused the importance of the region. The question, of course, and this applies to Russia’s engagement as well, is whether or not these bigger, more powerful countries are interested in pursuing policies that truly benefit ALL participants or really just aim to elevate the power and standing of China and Russia and use the Central Asian states as simple conduits for that power elevation? Central Asia strives to maintain its own policies and interests whenever engaging any foreign power, as it should. But it is difficult to stay equitable when dealing with a partner, like China and Russia, that is so overwhelmingly more powerful and influential. Western countries watch the evolution of these relationships warily, but I cannot say that this wariness has actually led to any of them (not the US, and most definitely not the EU) increasing their own intensity of engagement or led to any of them trying to make new efforts in establishing better relations with Central Asia, as a region or with any individual Central Asian state.
Q: There is another popular view that Central Asian countries tend to either China or Europe and the United States to balance Russia. How much do you agree with this opinion? Can China or Western players have enough ability to balance Russia in the region? (Due to Russia's traditional influence in the Central Asian region)
Crosston: It is an interesting question, full of intrigue and speculation. My research tends to emphasize a different reality, however. I do not see much partnership between China and the United States in Central Asia when it comes to ‘balancing’ or ‘out-strategizing’ Russia in the region. Part of this is because both parties, China and the US, think they are capable of doing this very thing without the other. This could end up being an example where both of them are being too arrogant or at least underestimating Russia’s ability to genuinely attract Central Asian partnership. The misperception around the world is usually that Russia is not capable of anything without the use of force or coercion. In other words, the world too often disrespects Russia’s diplomatic and trade talent. In Central Asia, this has been a huge miscalculation as it has resulted in Russia re-engaging with Central Asia over the last twenty years in new ways, more innovative ways, and not really involving any heavy-handed manipulation on Russia’s part. In all of this, just to complete the geographic analysis, the EU comes in way behind all of the other players. It remains minor compared to all the rest, politically, economically, and militarily.
Q: As the last question of this section, how do you assess the future of politics in this region, considering the political developments in Central Asian countries and currents related to power transfer programs? In other words, what will be the outlook for convergence or divergence in Central Asian countries towards Western and Eastern actors? Is a specific trend recognizable?
Crosston: I have always been a bit of an outlier on this question amongst my Western peers and colleagues. I think it is a mistake when we constantly frame Central Asian questions of power through a prism of position. What I mean is that we ALWAYS discuss Central Asia only through its relations with other, greater powers as a region. We never discuss the individual Central Asian states having a capability to establish their own relations, bilaterally, with whomever they want based on their own natively-derived foreign policy and national security interests. I find that a little condescending and patronizing, to be truthful. I believe the states that make up Central Asia to not only be wonderfully vibrant and independent, but they are truly individual in many ways across so many different policy areas. While Central Asia is indeed a legitimate global region, the states that make it up are not wholly monolithic and do not agree on every issue. I see this in the academic community here in American all the time. No one is a “Kazakhstan expert” or an “Uzbekistan specialist.” Everyone is simply a “Central Asian regionalist.” This tends to make our expertise, in my opinion, limited and partial. Not as strong and rigorous as it needs to be. I believe the country, whether it is the US, Russia, China, Iran, or some other emerging nation, that finally understands how to engage and interact with each individual Central Asian state on its own terms and according to its own singular interests, that will be the state that achieves and opens up a whole new era of progress and interaction across the region. As we say here in the West, I will not hold my breath for this to happen any time soon. But I know the individual countries that make up Central Asia are indeed waiting for that new era to begin and they have been waiting for quite a long time.