New transport routes in Central Asia and the Caucasus trigger intraregional competition
Unsurprisingly, the development of railways in Central Asia and of sea routes and pipelines across the Caspian Sea are consistently characterized as elements of geopolitical competition between major external powers, including Russia, China, Turkey, United States, Iran and India (see EDM, February 19, 2013, May 23, 2017, March 21, 2019, April 23, 2020, December 15, 2020). But such focus often overshadows the views and actions of countries in the region, each of which is typically more concerned with strengthening itself at the expense of regional competitors, even if it delays the progress of vital projects.
This trend is intensifying as more routes are discussed, as more external actors participate in these discussions, and as evidence accumulates that some regional agreements designed to benefit all countries in Central and South Asia. South Caucasus will not benefit them equally. This prompts the governments there to insist that their specific national interests be taken into consideration by external actors who will certainly be the main sources of funding for new rail and maritime lines. Indeed, the tensions between them and between them and outside power were unquestionably evident during two intraregional meetings held in mid-July. The first of these, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, was devoted to the challenges and promises of regional interconnectivity initiatives in Central and South Asia (Kommersant, July 17); and the second, in Makhachkala, the capital of the Russian Republic of Dagestan, focused on the fact that some Caspian ports are doing much better than others, which has led to discussions on the possible privatization of the port of Dagestan as well as on the expansion of links and other riparian states (Finam.ru, July 9; TASS, July 12).
The situation in Central Asia is particularly critical. Part of the reason is the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, which has led to a review of plans for north-south rail routes there. But also, it is becoming increasingly clear that differences within the region with regard to existing rail lines make such discussions both problematic and potentially explosive – not only between countries in the region but also between various external geopolitical competitors (Rythm of Eurasia, July 12).
This diversity reflects the fact that Central Asia has long been a commercial hub. Moscow controlled much of the region until 1991, so it built a rail network there to meet its needs. This legacy provided a much better geo-economic launching pad for some of the region’s post-Soviet successor states than others. But now other foreigners are involved, and Central Asian countries want to have a say in where the new rail lines go. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan already have extensive rail networks, but Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan do not. In addition, Tajikistan’s system is divided into two parts, and Kyrgyzstan’s system has stagnated since Soviet times, with no kilometer of rail laid. At the same time, all of them suffer from tariff and non-monetary restrictions on interstate transit of goods that were imposed after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Every country wants to take advantage of any new rail line, and some want to ensure that their regional competitors do not take advantage of it. Therefore, they periodically devised programs to boost themselves at the expense of others, so much so that outsiders give up and do not proceed with any construction. Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, for example, have proposed to build a rail link between the two via Afghanistan, in order to bypass their regional competitor Uzbekistan; and similar proposals mean that what are supposed to be “unifying projects” in fact “give rise to a whole series of conflicts between the countries of the region”, according to the Rhythm of Eurasia portal. Foreigners find themselves caught up in these fights, such as when Bishkek seeks to have China build a railway that will help integrate northern and southern Kyrgyzstan and promote the Kyrgyz Republic at the expense of Uzbekistan in establishing the way. using international rather than Russian. standard gauge. This delayed Chinese investment there and could ultimately kill the project (Rhythm of Eurasia, July 12).
Most external actors wish to develop routes that will benefit them and, in their view, the region as a whole rather than any country, lest they be drawn into regional conflicts. China has made it clear and Russia is now insisting on the same approach, especially in the wake of the Taliban’s victories in Afghanistan, a development that makes alternative rail plans across that country unlikely to be realized any time soon. . Indeed, as the recent meeting in Tashkent underlined, Moscow and Beijing are now arguing in favor of a regional rather than a national approach; but the countries of Central Asia have not abandoned their demands to take account of their individual interests (Gazeta.uz, June 2).
A similar situation exists with regard to transcaspian navigation (see EDM, October 16, 2020). If the partial agreement on the delimitation of this inland sea has led to an increase in trade, it has not benefited all the riparian states in the same way, given the differences in their land infrastructures. Russia suffered the biggest losses in this regard (see EDM, May 23, 2017), and now it is thinking even more about privatizing its port of Makhachkala. Baku and Ashgabat are already seeking to take advantage of such a potential development by further expanding their trade ties with Iran (Kaspiyskiy Vestnik, July 21, 2021).
Neither developments in Central Asia nor those around the Caspian Sea appease geopolitical competition. Instead, they may even intensify such struggles, especially if outside actors assume that they can form useful alliances with one or more of the countries involved. But governments in the region are getting more and more demanding, and no one should assume that outsiders can plan as if the region were a clean slate which they can write on as they please without worrying about anyone. In turn, the capitals of Central Asia and the Caucasus are becoming increasingly sophisticated playing one outsider against another. However, such “successes” are most often likely to delay the completion of certain projects and can ultimately kill them, at the cost of themselves.