Missed Opportunities Along the Silk Road: China and Russia Neglected


A prediction: in 2014-2015, the US media will begin churning out op-eds about the failures of US plans to stabilize Afghanistan after military withdrawal. A good number will acknowledge, in passing, the New Silk Road (NSR) as one of many small failures, but not give full consideration to the opportunity the NSR represented and hence the opportunity missed. As 2014 draws near, it looks increasingly like Russia and China will become the reigning duo in the region. The unfortunate neglect of these two players in the NSR should not be forgotten.

Impediments to NSR Success

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the NSR strategy in 2011 as the plan forward in Afghanistan--economic integration between Central and South Asia would provide the stability so sorely needed in Afghanistan. In the Small Wars Journal, Joseph Cheravitch summarizes the major impediments for the NSR’s economic success: 1) cooperation from rulers of the Central Asian republics who would likely use NSR resources to prop up personal patronage systems, 2) the Pakistani wildcard as already unreliable if not hostile, and 3) the tenuous hold Kabul has on a monopoly of power outside major urban centers. The latter two impediments are manifested most clearly in the touted Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline and CASA-1000. Concerns with both projects circle around security issues.

The TAPI will pass through Herat and Kandahar in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, throwing the safety of the TAPI pipeline into question. Although Afghanistan has committed 5,000-7,000 security personnel, the US military withdrawal in 2014 overshadows such deployments in the risk calculations of investors. Pakistan’s capabilities are perhaps less dubious, though parts of its military and intelligence communities remain Taliban sympathizers.

The competing Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline also bears mentioning. Rather than finding energy supplies in Turkmenistan, the IPI would feed Pakistan and India using Iranian energy resources. More recently, despite US pressure to forego this pipeline altogether, the newly installed Pakistani government signalled to Tehran that preparations for a pipeline between Iran and Pakistan should continue as scheduled.

The United States is a primary player in the politics around TAPI, a position it maintains through the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which is the underwriter. Yet Washington chose to bypass Russian and Chinese involvement in the project due to geopolitical interests. The US wants a transit route for energy out of Central Asia that does not involve Russia, while India refuses to have Chinese firms involved in building the pipeline.

CASA-1000, with some similarities to the TAPI pipeline, is a plan to transit 1,000 megawatts of power from Tajikistan through Afghanistan, to Pakistan. The World Bank, ADB, and Inter-American Development Bank funded CASA-1000. But in June 2013, ADB pulled out citing Afghanistan’s security risks and the World Bank has also dropped the project (according to the World Bank website).

This is not to mention the already problematic inter-state relationships between Pakistan and India as well as the Tajikistan-Uzbekistan issues. The Rogun Dam project in Tajikistan, another NSR-supportive investment, has been met by opposition from Tashkent because the water source is used for cotton cultivation in Uzbekistan.

The Missed Opportunity: China and Russia

The move to push China and Russia to the side when formulating the NSR appears counterintuitive. Washington unrealistically expected that coordinating a regional integration strategy from afar would work when Central Asia is coming to the table politically and economically weak. Add to this the ever present pressure of security risks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which in essence lie at the heart of the whole NSR strategy. Security risks require risk-averse players.

While pushing diplomatically and providing funding may help the US agenda, nothing undermines trust and risk-taking as much as a scheduled withdrawal. With the United States now a risk-averse player and investment institutions also playing a conservative game in a not-so-promising Afghanistan, regional stability requires players with higher risk-tolerance levels. The risk-tolerant are tolerant because they are in the game for the long haul. These players are China and Russia.

As US influence wanes in the region with its diminishing military footprint, local governments will lose a major leveraging piece in regional politics, leaving the door open for more Chinese and Russian engagement. This is a commonly accepted projection among analysts and a common prescription is also widely accepted: cooperation. Geopolitical maneuvering to keep Beijing and Moscow out at first now leaves Washington with the ironic option of bringing them in. Admittedly, Russia and China will enter the fracas with or without US invitation (and already have), but the US can help shape what Russian and Chinese engagement will look like.

To conclude, two questions: first, what if Washington did include China and Russia in its earlier plans; and second, what now?

If the United States engaged China and Russia early on, initiatives such as the TAPI pipeline admittedly may not have made any progress or at least would look very different, but there would be a higher likelihood of having tangible results. Washington realized its mistake when dealing with the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) and tried to use the US-Russia “reset” overture to obtain Russian help. While the triangular relationship continues, they share a security interest in the region, which may prove enough of a platform to build cooperation. Moreover, by engaging both countries, Washington could also ensure a balancing act, knowing that Chinese and Russian economic and political competition in Central Asia is on the rise.

These mistakes of the past will indelibly mark the future of the region’s development. But Washington still has agency to engender a cooperative atmosphere with Moscow and Beijing. The three are stakeholders first, competitors second.

 Published originally at Registan here.