Great Game in Reverse: Decoding Central Asia’s Geopolitical Rebalancing
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Associate Fellow, VIF

Central Asia’s geostrategic location is critical, making this region a focal point of geopolitical struggle for centuries. In 1904, British geographer Halford Mackinder presented his ‘Heartland Theory,’ in which the Eurasia region is referred to as the Heartland. Mackinder projected that whoever controlled the Heartland would have the resources and military power to rule the world. This appeared to be true since this region has historically served as a playground for major powers engaged in geopolitical rivalries. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, five autonomous republics emerged, complicating the power struggle because the competing forces now had to deal with five distinct countries, each with its own political objectives and economic conditions. Even the five Central Asian republics (CARs) competed with one another and encountered several challenges as a result of the Soviet Union’s legacy. Border issues have been the most challenging issue in this region, notably in the Fergana Valley shared by Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, and they continue to loom large, harming Central Asian regional cooperation. However, there is now indication of progress. Despite the numerous challenges that regional integration in Central Asia has encountered for over three decades, there appears to be a practical regional framework in place to strengthen regional cooperation.

Since the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out in 2022, attention has been focussed on the Central Asian nations, which are closely linked to Russia politically and economically. Central Asian countries adhering to their multi-vector foreign policy approach neither condemned nor supported Moscow’s endeavors. Along with this, they also started diversifying their foreign relations, especially with the West. These countries are already close economic partners of China, which certainly has multiple consequences in the long run. Therefore, building closer ties with the US and the West would benefit their geopolitical balancing.

President of Uzbekistan, Shawkat Mirziyoyev deserves recognition for creating a favourable regional atmosphere in Central Asia. His position as an emerging regional leader in Central Asia has also gained prominence. Since coming into power in 2016, President Mirziyoyev has not only reshaped Uzbekistan’s political and economic dynamics, but his endeavours have also resulted in the blossoming of Central Asian regional cooperation. Central Asia is now represented as a region in multiple forums. Since the regional cooperation took a positive turn in the region, CARs held a leaders’ summit with almost every major world power, recently with the US and Germany.

The first ever US-Central Asia Summit held in September this year did not produce outstanding results, but it gave the US-Central Asia relationship a fresh outlook. A shift in emphasis from long-term security concerns to more immediate and ubiquitous issues such as energy security, climate change, and expanding trade and commercial links and transportation routes is a sign of mutually beneficial cooperation.[1] As announced by President Biden, USAID hosted a “C5+1 Regional Connectivity Ministerial summit in Samarkand on October 24 to discuss ways to promote sustainable economic growth. During the ministerial, Administrator Samantha Power revealed plans to invest an extra USD 14.3 million in regional development programmes to strengthen ties between the US and Central Asian nations.[2]

Given that Russia’s influence in Central Asia has declined in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, Washington’s continued focus on the region, with a particular emphasis on effective commercial partnerships in trade, transportation, and the energy sector, will undoubtedly contribute to the broadening of Central Asia’s foreign relations. Additionally, this will support preserving the balance of power in the region.

In continuation of an increased interaction with the Western world, the recently concluded visit of French President Emmanuelle Macron to Uzbekistan is also significant. On November 1-3, 2023, French President Macron made his first-ever trip to Central Asia, visiting Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan is currently the EU’s third-largest energy supplier after Norway and the United States. But it is Central Asian Uranium that is of particular importance to France, which relies on nuclear energy to provide more than 60% of its power, the most significant percentage of any country. Previously, Niger was the leading exporter of Uranium to France, but the African country became increasingly volatile following a recent coup. Under this scenario, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan may become France’s next major suppliers of uranium. In exchange, Kazakhstan desires French expertise in order to create its own engineers and local nuclear power business.[3]

On the second stage of his visit, he arrived in Samarkand on November 1 and met with his Uzbek counterpart. President Macron praised President Mirziyoyev’s initiatives and pledged his support. Both presidents decided to raise their bilateral relationship to strategic cooperation. Both nations have common interests that might be used to strengthen their ties. Many French enterprises (Orano, EDF, Total, SUEZ, Eiffage, Voltalia, Lactalis, Veolia) already operate in Uzbekistan. There is a lot of potential to boost French investments in Uzbekistan; similarly, France is a prospective trading partner in Europe for Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. France can also assist in hastening Uzbekistan’s WTO membership.

On the other hand, this does not imply that the Central Asian Republics’ improved ties with the US and other Western countries have undermined their ties with Russia. While Russia continues to be one of the leading trading partners of the Central Asian nations, they consistently assure the Western leaders in their talks that they would not assist Moscow in avoiding the sanctions. In contrast, during the recent visit of the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to Moscow to participate in President Putin’s birthday celebration, the three leaders formally inaugurated the delivery of Russian gas to Uzbekistan. In June, Uzbekistan and Gazprom, the national gas firm of Russia, inked a two-year gas supply agreement. The gas is being transported via the Soviet-era Central Asia-Center pipeline, which was constructed in the 1960s to transport gas from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to Russia.[4]

It is worth mentioning here that China is the largest importer of Natural gas from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan through Line A, B, C of China-Central Asia gas pipeline. Another proposed pipeline, Line D which will pass through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is also under construction. Once it is completed and becomes operational, it will carry an additional 30 bcm gas annually. It is surprising to find out that Uzbekistan exports gas to China while purchasing gas from Russia. One explanation for this could be that Tashkent gets cheaper gas from Russia, and as winter approaches, this will assist the country in managing its energy crisis.

Since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war, Kazakhstan, which shares a long border with Russia and has a sizeable Russian population, has been subjected to much propaganda being targeted for Russian aggression. Since then, the country’s leadership has emphasized respecting territorial integrity and sovereignty, an indirect response to Russian endeavors in Ukraine. Even after many false claims of deteriorating Russia-Kazakhstan relations, in October 2023, at the CIS Council of Heads of State meeting in Bishkek, the President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev proposed the initiative to establish an international organization on the Russian language in the CIS territory.[5]

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have also emerged as flag bearers of Turkic solidarity along with Turkish President Erdogan. Since these leaders got involved in the Turkic organization, its significance has grown. Turkmenistan and Hungary joined this organization as observers as well. Recently at the 10th Summit of the Organization of the Turkic States held in Astana, greater emphasis was laid on the Trans-Caspian corridor (Middle corridor) for enhanced transportation and connectivity between East and West.[6] Enhanced cooperation with Turkey has also increased Turkish investments in these countries.

Overall, the region’s two main economies, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, both of which have substantial geopolitical clout, have played their geopolitical cards quite successfully. They have recognised the significance of their geostrategic location and have engaged and negotiated with other nations in accordance with their interests. These nations’ main priorities include increasing investment in the Central Asian space and enabling transit via their territories. And, with the greater spotlight they are receiving due to multiple conflicts in neighbouring countries, they are moving in an appropriate direction with their multi-vector foreign policy.

India, as an emerging economic power, has launched a fresh Central Asia policy, which has garnered the necessary attention in the Central Asian republics. Though there have been remarkable developments in India-Central Asia relations though trade and economic ties are still underdeveloped (around USD 1 billion in 2022-23). Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are the largest trading partners of India in the region. Kazakhstan makes almost 50 percent of total of India-Central Asia trade. Lack of connectivity is the main reasons of the low volume of trade. India and Central Asian countries should work together to expedite the progress on the existing connectivity projects such as International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and Chabahar port in Iran. Additionally, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have Uranium reserves and are important for India's energy security. New Delhi has been importing Uranium from Kazakhstan and has shown interests in increasing the quantity. Similarly, India and Uzbekistan have also signed a deal for Uranium import but there is no available information whether Tashkent has delivered it or not. Overall, India, which has never been a part of any power play in Central Asia, is now paying attention to the region and is also receiving positive response. However, the challenges that are hindering the progress in the bilateral relations need to be dealt with for improved political and economic ties.


[1]Colleen Wood, What Happened at the First-Ever Central Asia-US Leaders’ Summit?
The Diplomat, September 21, 2023.,these%20leaders%20in%20this%20format.
[2]Joint Statement on the C5+1 Regional Connectivity Ministerial in Samarkand, USAID, October 30. 2023.
[3]Ido Vock, Why France's Emmanuel Macron is courting Central Asia, BBC News, November 1, 2023.
[4]Bruce Pannier, RFERL, October11, 2023. Central Asia in Focus: Russia Starts Shipping Gas to Uzbekistan
[5]Dana Omirgazy, Kazakh President Outlines Key Tasks, Proposes to Strengthen CIS Ties in Bishkek , 13 October 2023.
[6]The 10th Summit of the Organization of Turkic States was held in Astana
November 3, 2023.\

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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