For all the talk of globalization, until quite recently the world did not look flat or well integrated when seen from most Central Asian airports. Many capital cities in Central Asia, like Tashkent, Bishkek, or Dushanbe offered primarily flights to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other Russian cities popular for the hundreds of thousands of labor migrants that go north to work every year: Omsk, Novosibirsk, Khabarovsk, or Ekaterinburg. Until the emergence of carriers like Turkish Airlines or China Southern into the Central Asian travel market, making your way along the Silk Road via the air was hard. In more recent years, well-funded local carriers like Air Astana of Kazakhstan have connected with country with exotic destinations like Beijing, Bangkok, Delhi, and Abu Dhabi, and even Turkmenistan Airlines offers a Birmingham-Ashgabat-Amritsar route for the more adventurous. The emergence of such new routes traces the outlines of the new Central Asia emerging as part of the larger Game of Thrones Via Meadia is tracking.That dynamic has been getting even more interesting of late, with the seemingly trivial announcement that Tajik Airlines, the national carrier of Tajikistan, is beginning flight operations from Dushanbe (the Tajik capital) to Islamabad starting next month. As the Business Recorder (Pakistan’s top financial paper) reports, the agreement is part of a wider emergence of commercial ties between the two countries:
Tripartite negotiations between Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan are going on for Transit Trade Agreement and construction of road linking Pakistan with Tajikistan through Wakhan, Afghanistan. He [Dr. Zubaydullo N. Zubaydov, Tajikistan’s Ambassador to Pakistan] also informed that Tajikistan after Karachi has already appointed Honorary Consul General in Lahore and Peshawar. Tajik envoy informed that big activities of improvement of road network and infrastructure are going on in Tajikistan and China has taken up construction of road network at a cost of $500 million.
This move illustrates some of the complexities involving trade, development, and regional rivalries in South and Central Asia that policymakers from Beijing to Delhi to Washington will have to take into account in 21st century Asia. For one, trade between Tajikistan and the region could hardly be a bad thing; the private sector in Dushanbe is choked by government interference, part of why so many of the country’s men either leave (for work in Russia) or get involved in the heroin trade. Remittances might keep poor, landlocked countries like Tajikistan alive, but like the drug trade, labor migration has negative externalities of its own, and is no substitute for a free and healthy private sector. Policymakers in Washington and Delhi are likely to keep an eye on any all-weather transport corridors that would weave together Xinjiang, Pakistan, and Central Asia too closely, but more trade within the region is good. It might even give Islamabad more of a stake in viewing the projection of security – rather than militant Islam – into Central Asia as being in its national security interest.Second, however, the opening of greater Tajik-Pakistani links has to be seen in the context of the Indo-Pakistani rivalry in greater Central Asia, a story that American Interest contributor Rajan Menon has discussed at length in a full-length piece earlier this spring. You might not think of Central Asia as Pakistan’s, much less India’s back yard, but the flight time from Dushanbe to Islamabad is only just over an hour (to Delhi takes just over two). That’s a fact that not only Tajik businessmen but also military staffs in Rawalpindi and New Delhi have in mind. While Tajikistan publicly denied that India was in the running to lease Ayni Air Base, a former Soviet air base 100 miles from the Tajik capital, two and a half years ago and claimed that only Russia was in the running for the base, when Indian Defense Minister AK Antony visited Dushanbe this winter, the Indian press speculated that there were backroom dealings afoot between New Delhi and Moscow (which has a longstanding strategic relationship with India) to give India access to the base eventually. So while Islamabad has neither the capacity nor even desire to lease any Central Asian real estate, it does have a keen interest in limiting Indian influence in Afghanistan or Central Asia. One conspiracy-minded Pakistani paper reported in 2008 that “hundreds” of Indian consulates in Afghanistan (there are four, plus the Embassy in Kabul) were reportedly training armies of Tajik, Uzbek, and Baloch separatists; while this paper hardly speaks for the military or civilian elite of Pakistan, it nonetheless captures Pakistan’s fear that India could encircle it from the rear. Shoring up its position in Afghanistan and Central Asia – whether by economic ties, a closer embrace of China, or other means – is all part of how Islamabad seeks to counter Delhi’s perceived diplomatic offensive in the region.Americans are going to have to recalibrate our sense of geopolitical geography. We aren’t used to seeing connections between Uzbekistan and Malaysia, but things that happen in Central Asia make waves in the South China Sea. The rise of China and India, the efforts of Russia to reassert itself in its former Central Asian hinterland, the withdrawal of the United States and the turmoil in Pakistan are weaving new webs of intrigue and interrelationship. Successfully managing change in this region will require recognizing the friendships across this arena – Russia and India on the one hand, China and Pakistan on the other – but also realizing that a winner-take-all mentality is unacceptable when four nuclear states and Eurasia’s largest energy reserves are at stake.The Afghan war made this region a central focus of American foreign policy, but that was an exception; the United States is not going to keep Central Asia at the core of its foreign policy forever. It is too far away, and there are too many great and middle powers engaged. Our influence in the region is going to be limited and our goals need to be carefully matched with both our capabilities and our interests. Our primary interest is that the region not become a sanctuary for radical Islamist movements providing a base and sanctuary which they can use against us; our second interest is that the region not destabilize Asia — either by becoming an exporter of radicalism or by sparking dangerous rivalries among neighboring powers that could trigger wider wars or otherwise complicate the lives of American policy makers. Beyond that we don’t want the region to become a major axis of the world heroin trade — especially if there are signs that fanatical religious terror groups can use the heroin trade for revenue and communications. We would also like human rights respected in the region and for the region’s natural resources to be developed in ways that take the edge off resource competition elsewhere, but given the limits on our resources there is doubt that either of these last two priorities will get a lot of attention.If things were to go badly wrong in the region, the United States might be drawn back in, but our goal is to prevent that from happening. A successful Central Asia policy for the United States is one that reduces our obligations and our costs there while ensuring that any trouble in the region does not spill out into the wider world.