Asia’s problems and the West’s opportunities

Displays of upheaval and state breakdown in global politics are not particularly rare, but the number of missed opportunities for dealing with these issues has been shamefully high in recent months. It’s easy to say that no one is to blame; after all there was Syria to deal with. And then Ukraine, Gaza, and now it seems like Iraq will indeed be making a violent entry in the list of failed states and current conflicts we can’t seem to deal with. This is all in addition to a dozen other pockets of instability around the world that seem to have gotten worse while the rest of the world tried to absent-mindedly enjoy their summer holidays. These aren’t unsolvable issues even if they can certainly seem too daunting on their own, much less taken as a whole picture of geopolitics.

And yet that is something we should have been doing all along. It is intriguing that global leaders let the concept of global grand strategy die in such an ignoble fashion in a world that is by all accounts more de-centralised, interconnected and faster than ever. Sure, there are security policies and guidelines and countless think-tank papers on how a nation should act in specific conflicts and scenarios, but they are usually ridden with politically safe choices that are not always or even likely to succeed. Simply put, we now look at these geopolitical problems as largely compartmentalised in what one must assume is a misguided effort to limit their impact. It has become easy to forget that the seemingly intractable problems of one battlefield can sometimes be answered by the less intractable problems of another battlefield.

So, let’s talk about Central Asia. In what seems like a continuation of Putin’s penchant for calling out the West’s hypocrisy on certain policies and then following those policies himself, the Eurasian Economic Community seems to be giving birth to an EU style union in the Eurasian Customs Union. At first this seemed like the beginning of a new Asian bloc to counter the EU on purely economic terms. The situation in Ukraine has certainly changed all that, and as questionable as Putin’s actions are, his recent rush to bring the rest of the ex-USSR era republics into the fold is understandable. The US’s and EU’s lazy responses to these long-winded developments are not.

China’s signing of the massive 30 year natural gas deal should have been a wakeup call for Western leaders as to how important Russia’s Asian neighbours are in any geopolitical dealings with Putin. Thankfully the situation is still salvageable, and as the old saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and Russia’s other much weaker neighbours seem to invite the comparison. In what can only be described as belated good fortune, the foundations for this new approach were set up nearly eight years ago. An unpopular, mostly forgotten and yet somehow miraculously funded energy project involving Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan that still begs Western attention could prove to be a vital entry point for serious economic influence over prospective members for the new Customs Union.

An idea was first floated at the height of the war in Afghanistan to start bringing surplus electricity from overproducing hydropower reservoirs from Central Asia down into Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of wider infrastructure overhauling efforts. The project, dubbed Central Asia-South Asia (CASA) 1000, has been mostly sitting on the bench as the World Bank and private backers have been unable to deal with the harsh political realities of the ex-USSR republics. To make matters worse, both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have actually lost electricity production capacity in recent years.

There’s a hilariously long list of things that have gone wrong in the region since the idea was first pitched. But perhaps the most important is the US’s abandonment of most infrastructure and projects in the region due to the decreasing presence in Afghanistan, thus depriving it of influence in Moscow’s own backyard at a moment when such geopolitical capital is at a premium. The other main problem is Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan’s own domestic situations. For all the talk of Eurasian Customs unity, the Central Asian republics certainly don’t look or behave like good economic neighbours. This year alone, both state militaries were involved in deadly border skirmishes with each other twice already. The fact that all states through which the planned power lines must pass have to pay a share of the costs, while fair, seems like wishful thinking in the face of rampant corruption by state officials alongside considerable state debt.

As an added bonus, the same local officials who support the project, usually against a majority of their countrymen, almost invariably do so with the condition of more support for pet projects. Some of those are necessary, such as new giant dams to actually produce the now rare surplus electricity for export. Of course those projects bring massive problems of their own, such as the Uzbek President’s, Islam Karimov, not-so joking assertion that putting up those dams would mean war, since they would be upriver while controlling much of Uzbekistan’s water supplies.

And finally there is Afghanistan itself, where the power line would be passing through areas of doubtful security status. A security status that is unlikely to improve once the last American boots have left. Anybody doubting the potential for future instability in Afghanistan should look at the current situation in Iraq as a stark reminder.

So the situation surrounding CASA-1000 might not seem very promising, but Western investment in the region is a necessary requisite before they could ever look promising. And it would be relatively cheap to solve several of these problems. The project and the dams themselves should be financed entirely by economic organisations and private agents on the usual economic reform conditions and probable privatisation. The World Bank has already loaned $550 million towards the project, which is projected to cost a total of $1.2 billion, so the end figure is unlikely to be beyond the capabilities of private backers who might seek a move in to fill in the remainder. Leaving new and existing dams in the hands of private companies would definitely reduce tensions with Uzbekistan, and selling them some of this new surplus energy at package prices would go some more of the way towards keeping the peace. The power lines and infrastructure in Afghanistan would require increased security investments, but as long as such investment focused on creating local jobs it would pay off in both economic and security terms.

Even these policies might not ensure a complete success by normal project standards, but as part of concerted global strategy they don’t have to. This is simply another battlefield on which the West could and should engage Russia economically and force it out of its comfort zone. Despite the notion that Putin’s nation is a worthy rival to the US and EU, that view can only be taken seriously in military terms, the economic mismatch is entirely ridiculous. Simply put, the EU and the US together add up to over 45% of the world’s GDP, while Russia comes in at less than 3%. The CASA-1000 is not an essential project, but it costs less for the West to spend on it than it does for Russia to spend against it. The West needs to stop letting Putin choose the battlefield and take the initiative itself. This would undoubtedly take some extra effort, but it would also be a cheaper and more effective strategy in the long run than the static response we’ve seen so far.

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