The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace brought out a paper recently on the United States’ policy options toward the Central Asian region in the period ahead following the drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan. Three pundits rooted in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie co-authored the paper and what distinguishes them is also their long stints in the US state department and National Security Council, and/or the intelligence community.

In a nutshell, the paper estimates that

The Central Asian region is at the threshold of a profound geopolitical shift characterized by receding Russian influence, an elevation of China’s influence, and a diminishing interest in the Euro-Atlantic community;
Russia and China remain the region’s principal political, economic and security partners, but Russia is incapable of matching China’s surge as the top economic partner;
The US should steer clear of zero-sum mindset and instead “seek to harness Russian and Chinese actions to advance US interests”.
The Carnegie scholars have argued out their case with great reasoning and their recommendations would become inputs for the US’ regional policies toward Central Asia. The point is, it is difficult to quarrel with their stunning conclusion best recapitulated in the following two sentences:

The occasional expressions of American interests notwithstanding, Central Asia will be of limited importance to the United States… Accordingly, US policy toward Central Asia has to be rebalanced to bring Amercian commitments into better alignment with its limited aims and means.
From an Indian perspective, the Carnegie Paper provides much food for thought. In a much smaller way, though, many of the American policy predicaments are similar to India’s too. India’s predicaments would have a greater sense of immediacy given the region’s geographical proximity. To be sure, the impending membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is bound to intertwine India’s geo-strategies with those of the countries of that region like at no time before in the post-Soviet era of regional politics.

Indeed, the key question concerns the shift in the tectonic plates of the Central Asian region’s geopolitics, devolving upon the unstoppable, irreversible, inexorable surge of China as the region’s by-far preeminent partner-cum-benefactor. The Carnegie paper makes a clinical evaluation of China’s profile in Central Asia. Principally,

China has emerged as the region’s most significant geopolitical and economic actor;
But, how Beijing plans to exercise its influence remains unclear;
Unlike Russia, China has not claimed the region as “a sphere of privileged interests”;
China keeps a low profile on security issues;
China is disinterested in any projection of military power into the region or establishment of military bases there;
Nor is China interested in proposing any collective security organization for the region;
China channels its security activities primarily through the SCO;
SCO’s focus being on counter-terrorism, China’s real preoccupation is the security of Xinjiang rather than “ambitious plans for expansion beyond its border”;
China’s vast economic stakes in Central Asia notwithstanding, Beijing “prefers to rely on political rather than military means to protect its equities”;
No doubt, even making allowance for Washington’s game plan to create misgivings in the Russian mind regarding the ‘yellow peril’ and to thwart Moscow’s ‘pivot’ to Beijing to gain strategic depth to offset the US’ containment strategy, the Carnegie paper has made an audacious conclusion that “China has become the region’s indispensable partner and patron” and China’s political and economic support support will be in times to come “an essential precondition for any new leader in Central Asia to consolidate and remain in power”. It overlooks the ingenuity of the Central Asian mind, which can be inscrutable while remaining very focused on self-preservation.

However, the Carnegie paper is far from advocating that the US should counter China’s deepening and expanding presence in the Central Asian region. For one thing, even if China delivers only 50 percent of what it has pledged by way of economic assistance in projects, US is not going to be able to match it. Second, even a limited US intervention in the region will need “cooperation and possibly coordination or at least consent” from China. Third, China has “far greater interests in the region and assets stationed nearby” than the US to be a provider of security. Fourth, the shrinking military footprint in Afghanistan makes Central Asia even less important for US strategies.

The punch line comes here: “American policy toward Central Asia should be based on the premise that it is a region of convergent rather than competitive interests… Thus, wherever possible and appropriate, Washington should better harness…(the) Chinese presence in the region to its favor… Similarly, Washington should not try to impede China’s Silk Road Economic Belt initiative. It is not necessary and will prove ineffective for Washington to take an overly competitive approach to challenging Chinese… political, economic, and security engagement in the region”.

Of course, this new thinking is already evident in the convergence between the US and China in promoting the Afghan peace talks. (See my blog Hopes rekindled for Afghan peace process.)

Where does all this leave India’s regional policies? Frankly, Pakistani diplomacy seems to grasp these undercurrents in regional politics far better than we have been able to do. The Indian pundit takes a one-dimensional view of the power dynamic. Suffice it to say, India’s ability to optimally take advantage of the SCO forum will depend largely on its capacity to understand that Central Asia and South Asia can be regions of “convergent rather than competitive interests” with China. In sum, it depends on its ability to think big and in the long-term.

But the Indian pundit has a long way to go to reset his (or her) archaic mindset to let in the fresh air of realism. As things stand, even the construction of an obscure sea port on the Bangladesh coastline gets magnified to epic proportions as the stuff of a titanic struggle against China by the Gang of Three — India, US and Japan. When fancy takes wings, it soars high from terra firma. This is where the Carnegie Paper could have a sobering effect. After all, we Indians are all Americans nowadays, open to American think tanks to show us the way out of darkness. Read the Carnegie paper here.

By M K Bhadrakumar – February 8, 2016