One day after Christmas of 1991, the red star, hammer and sickle were lowered from the Kremlin for the final time. As the West declared victory over their “Evil Empire”, a new set of countries were born on the banks of the Caspian Sea: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. This region, part of Halford Mackinder’s “great pivot” has been of strategic importance to trade and politics for millennia, but has failed to climb to the top of the political agenda in Washington.
An Office of Congressional Ethics report leaked to the Washington Post this spring detailed an all-expenses-paid trip taken by a bipartisan group of ten influential congressmen and their staff to Azerbaijan in 2013. The bill for the two-day conference was picked up by the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) by funneling $750,000 to two Houston non-profits: Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians (TCAE) and the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan (AFAZ). Although investigators stated that SOCAR’s involvement in the conference was public knowledge, each congressman claimed not to know that the state-owned company was the benefactor. To make matter worse, all but one congressman failed to report thousands of dollars in gifts received on the trip. Despite pressure from watchdog groups, the OCE has yet to release the report, but has already made a ruling on the matter, finding that the congressmen involved did not knowingly violate any rules.
But, despite highly questionable junkets by congressmen, central Asian states still find themselves on the outside of the Washington establishment looking in, while signing lucrative contracts with Moscow and Beijing. Last fall, the Caspian 5 (Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan) signed a political declaration recognizing the right of only the states littoral to the Caspian Sea to have a military presence on it, a shot across the bow of NATO and the United States. Already at odds with Russia due to the situation in Ukraine, the declaration also spells trouble for a proposed trans-Caspian pipeline for moving natural gas from fields in the region to the European Union, bypassing current routes through Russia and Iran. Just as the West sees itself locked out of the region, China has continued fostering lucrative relationships in the area. In 2013 Chinese Premier Xi Jinping introduced an effort to link China to Turkey via the Central Asian states by increasing infrastructure, cultural exchange, and trade. The “One Belt One Road” is already well on the way to becoming reality, having created a US$40 billion fund for the project, and slating US$1.65 billion of it for a hydroelectric project in Pakistan.
Why should Central Asia even be on the US’ radar? For one, the Caspian Sea region is estimated to have 68 billion barrels of oil and 535 trillion cubic feet of natural gas beneath it. The region’s production is set to increase by about 10% in the next two decades as well. Under the Soviet Union, the Caspian Sea area’s production was consumed exclusively by the USSR, but since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Central Asian states have been seeking to branch out. Turkmenistan, the region’s largest natural gas exporter, has already inked a deal with China and is projected to increase its sale to the Middle Kingdom threefold by 2020. The country could be a geopolitical asset for the US: both the EU and Ukraine have expressed interest at tapping into Turkmenistan’s gas reserves. For Brussels, the key lies in overcoming Russian opposition to the building of the Trans-Caspian pipeline and deliver Turkmen gas through the so-called Southern Gas Corridor. Ukraine has been suffering under the weight of high gas prices, ever since the scrubbing of a 2006 deal negotiated by Dmitry Firtash to bring in Turkmen gas. Some have even suggested that given the many countries vying for Turkmenistan’s gas, Firtash should be brought to the negotiating table to make sure Europe outrivals China.
In addition to legitimate markets such as petroleum, controlling the area means gaining a better grasp on the market for contraband from East Asia. Afghanistan, which produces 75% of the world’s heroin and whence 99% of the region’s opiates originate, shares a border of about 1,800 miles with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Illicit drug trade from the Golden Triangle passes through China’s Xinjiang before it goes on through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to consumers throughout the world.
Central Asia remains in play, but not for long. The policymakers in D.C., who are more than happy to partake in the hospitality and gifts dished out by its strongmen, would do well to acquaint themselves with the immense importance of the region and formulate a policy for engaging with it. The time to do so is now, lest they be left out in the cold of the Eurasian Steppe.