In 2021, after its so-called war on terror that lasted for 20 years, the United States hastily withdrew its military from war-torn Afghanistan. This not only led to a sharp decline in the domestic situation in Afghanistan, but also raised concerns among other countries in the region and the broader international community. Various external forces, driven by their own interests, sought to strengthen their influence in Central Asia. The previous geopolitical balance was disrupted, but a new balance could hardly be established in the short term. To achieve outcomes more favorable to their interests, some countries resorted to non-peaceful means, posing new challenges to regional stability.
The security of Central Asia is closely related to changes in the international environment. On the one hand, the rapidly changing world order provides opportunities for Central Asian countries to maintain their independence and security. Multipolarization and globalization make it easier for Central Asian countries to enter an open regional security system. On the other hand, as developing countries, the five Central Asian countries are in a disadvantaged position in terms of security. Over the past 30 years of independence, the Central Asian countries have experienced a tortuous development process. With a series of political and economic accomplishments, active diplomatic operations, and enhanced defense capabilities, they have become a regional power that cannot be ignored.
Looking at the trends of the past three decades, neither the current nor potential issues in the Central Asian region pose a deadly threat to international security, but the danger and harm of long-term instability in the region should not be overlooked. The combined impact of the Afghanistan situation and the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more challenging to maintain domestic stability in Central Asian countries. Faced with increasing internal and external pressures, and drawing lessons from the failure of nation-building in Afghanistan, Central Asian countries need to improve their defense capabilities, strengthen social management, and enhance their governance capacity and means.
Western countries, including the United States, have shown a pragmatic attitude in their approach to Central Asian governments to safeguard their strategic interests. In 2020, the US introduced a new version of its strategy for Central Asia, prioritizing the so-called democratic institutions in Central Asian countries. In reality, this is a means of exerting pressure on Central Asian leaders to maintain US strategic interests. The change of government in Afghanistan will have a long-term impact on the security of the Central Asian region, and the ongoing escalation of geopolitical competition among major powers has brought many regional issues to the surface.
To achieve effective regional security governance, two necessary conditions are required: the formation of interdependence in the whole region and the establishment of effective multilateral mechanisms. However, the US’ desire to maintain its hegemony and its willingness to use military force to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries have led to a severe imbalance of power in the current international security landscape. The strategic adjustments of major powers, particularly the US’ intensified confrontation with Russia and China, have resulted in the escalation of contradictions and frictions among external forces in Central Asia.
On the regional level, Turkiye’s efforts for revival, the attempts of terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State to make a comeback in West Asia, the Iran nuclear crisis coupled with unilateral sanctions imposed by the US, and the ongoing conflicts between India and Pakistan despite joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization have exerted increasingly negative effects on Central Asian countries and posed security challenges that are becoming more cross-regional and cross-sector. Central Asian countries are facing a new set of security challenges. First, they must balance them with major powers, because China, Russia, the US and the European Union are all considered important and prioritized partners for regional countries.
Second, internal security threats prevent Central Asian countries from looking externally. Issues such as large impoverished populations, transnational crimes, extremist forces, ecological crises and border and resource conflicts will continue to be pressing concerns for them in the long term. Third, the instability and wavering policies of Central Asian countries deepen their disagreements, making it difficult to carry out effective regional cooperation. Fourth, after the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, the situation in the country did not improve significantly, nor did the regional security environment fundamentally change. The Afghan issue still has adverse effects on the stability of neighboring countries.
One positive change brought by the Afghan situation to Central Asia is the possibility of transitioning from a coercive order to a cooperative order in the region. In the former, major external powers play a leading role, while in the latter, regional countries participate together to play the leading role in regional affairs. Under the new order, regional countries have increased their say in regional affairs and can integrate regional resources through the establishment of new cooperation platforms, while further strengthening regional identity. The willingness of countries to unite and strengthen themselves has become stronger.
Among the various multilateral mechanisms in Central Asia, the SCO is irreplaceable in terms of its importance and influence in resolving the Afghanistan issue. With the SCO’s expansion, Afghanistan’s neighboring countries, except Turkmenistan, have all become member states, and Afghanistan itself has become an observer state of the organization. Leveraging the SCO as a crucial platform, as well as the China+Central Asia foreign ministers’ meeting mechanism launched in 2020, China has become an important force in maintaining stability in Central Asia. China’s economic strength has created favorable conditions for regional cooperation, and the assistance of China is essential for Central Asian countries to participate in the international political and economic systems.
The SCO is a good example of a cooperative regional order where the basis of cooperation lies in political and security mutual trust among member states and reciprocity in economy and trade. The SCO’s expansion of membership will help absorb all regional forces. Both Iran and Afghanistan were previously unstable hotspots in the region, but now they have the opportunity to participate in extensive regional cooperation plans within the framework of the SCO. This can also help them jointly resist interference from external major powers and shape shared values and behaviours among regional countries. Therefore, the role of the SCO in regional integration should be enhanced to promote the establishment of a new political and economic order in Central Asia that includes elements such as multipolarity, diversity and multifaceted cooperation. Courtesy: China Daily
—The author is the Director of Russian, Eastern European and Middle Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a researcher of the National Institute for Global Strategy at the CASS.