The deterioration of bilateral relations between Pakistan and the U.S. represents at once potential peril for the region and an opportunity for the U.S. and the Central Asian states. Although the U.S./Pakistan bilateral relationship has been in decline for some time—the result of a combination of conflicting military objectives, a lack of trust, and perceived Pakistani corruption—the dramatic recent disintegration opens the door for a rebalancing of relationships between the U.S. and some of the regional states. The ability of the U.S. to influence the future course of events will in turn be influenced by the role China and Russia in the evolving landscape.
As a result of its location and history, it could be argued that the country that potentially stands to gain the most as a result of this dislocation is Russia in the near term. Indeed, Russia is in the process of reasserting its regional influence, its primary objective being to re-establish its role as guarantor of regional security, which it is seeking to do through membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization—a Moscow-led alliance which seeks military and political integration among Central Asia’s countries (with the exception of Turkmenistan). The CSTO is an attempt by Russia to create a regional counterbalance to U.S./NATO presence and influence in the region, and is consistent with other initiatives Russia is undertaking to re-establish its ability to influence other parts of the world.
A contrast to Washington’s deteriorating relations with Islamabad is Moscow’s strengthening ties with Islamabad. Pakistan will soon join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (formerly known as the Shanghai Five group) for which Moscow’s backing is a crucial prerequisite, and it is evident that through Russia, Islamabad seeks improved ties to Central Asia (the idea being that stronger ties with Moscow will open the door to the same in Central Asia). Moscow’s initiatives are being led by growing economic cooperation, specifically in the energy, mining, and infrastructure sectors. During President Zardari’s recent visit to Russia, preliminary agreement was reached for a $540 million Russian loan for the modernization of a Pakistani steel plant. Zardari was quoted as referencing Russia’s long-held ambition of gaining access to the southern seas—a reminder that economic integration and military cooperation also come with a price: Moscow seeks access to the Arabian Sea.
In that regard, the other power with decisive interests at stake in Pakistan and Central Asia is China. Pakistan recently declared its desire to have Beijing operate the country’s only deep water port, at Gwadar, which would become an important pearl in the ‘string of pearls’ of naval bases China has or will have access to surrounding India (the others being in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar). China and Russia are competing for the same prize in Pakistan, which China appears to have already won. But China appears to be in a much better position to deepen its military and economic ties with Pakistan, given Pakistan’s long-term military relationship with China, and China’s willingness to invest heavily in the Pakistani economy. China has proven, however, that it is not willing to devote substantial resources to long-term foreign aid in a meaningful way, so China is unlikely to be replacing U.S. aid to Pakistan, should it be curtailed or withdrawn.
The net effect of this ‘mating dance’ between China, Russia, the U.S and Pakistan is that, in addition to being the global epicentre of terrorism, Pakistan is now also the epicentre of superpower competition for regional influence. The challenge for the U.S. is to attempt to maintain balance between its own economic and military objectives while not losing parity in its existing relationship with Pakistan. With China and Russia both anxiously circling the country and awaiting the right opportunity to cement their relationship, and given the state of U.S./Pakistan relations, this will prove difficult for the U.S. Pakistan is also playing its hand deftly—both appeasing and holding at arm’s length all of its suitors to extract maximum benefit.
That being the case, and with threats in the U.S. Congress to either curtail or terminate financial assistance to Pakistan, Washington is also in the process of strengthening its alliances in Central Asia. The focal point is the two countries where the U.S. already has an existing military presence and arguably, its strongest bilateral relationships: Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. The U.S. already has a substantial military presence in Turkmenistan and the use of the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, which serves as an air mobility hub for U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Both countries have already been the subject of high stakes political and military sparring between Russia and the U.S. as a result of the U.S. military presence there. The U.S. wants to ensure that the vital resource and supply capabilities represented by both Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan remain in place, as it would have few options if Pakistan’s role in supporting U.S. operations in Afghanistan were to be cut off.
The truth is, the U.S. has made only limited progress in deepening its ties with the Central Asian states more generally, in part because they have maintained their independence since the fall of the Soviet Union. This should have been seen as an opportunity by the U.S. government, but has instead been long neglected. Bilateral commercial ties between the U.S. and all the Central Asian states remain weak, with the lion’s share of American money in the region going toward Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. After two decades of effort, a trans-Central Asian oil and gas pipeline remains only an idea, and the U.S. has paid a price for its criticism of human rights in the region, with Uzbekistan having ended its military arrangement with the U.S. as a result.
What the U.S. needs to do is refrain from playing the game of competing with China and Russia for economic and military dominance in the region and spend more time focusing on the development needs of the region—which are acute—and devoting more assistance of all kinds to these states. Doing so would provide these states with an incentive to strengthen their ties with the U.S., while meeting their own needs. One ongoing source of tension in the bilateral relationship between Kyrgyzstan and the U.S., for example, has been the amount of money the U.S. pays to lease the Manas air base. If the U.S. had been willing to pay a higher price for its use from the beginning, the government of Kyrgyzstan may not have been inclined or able to play games regarding its use, and it may not have succumbed to Russian demands and influence, which prompted the Kyrgyz government to temporarily terminate its lease with the Americans in 2009.
All this must be viewed in the context of America’s desire to improve its relations with China and Russia, at the same time. President Obama’s challenge will be to strike a balance between enhancing America’s relations with Central Asia and making progress on the larger trilateral front. The question will quickly become whether this can be achieved, given the inherent competition between the countries in Central Asia, and China and Russia’s likely preference to play the game the way they have always been accustomed to—with a combination of an open hand and clenched fist. A delicate touch that demonstrates the U.S. commitment to the region and the promise of a long-term relationship with the U.S. will in the end be more compelling to the region’s governments than shifting alliances and goal posts with China and Russia.