US interests in Central Asia can be summarized in three simple words: security, energy, and democracy. Washington needs to refine its regional policy in a way that allows for the continued diversification of US energy supplies, the effective defense of its security interests and the promotion of democratic and free-market values.
In going about refining a strategic blueprint, American policy planners must take care not to inflate the importance of one interest to the detriment of the others. Because the three priorities have the potential to clash, finding the right policy balance promises to be tricky.
The Caspian Basin is a significant alternative source of fossil fuels. The region has a projected peak production comparable to that of Iraq and Kuwait combined. Yet, to keep things in perspective, the Caspian Basin's capacity is much smaller than the overall total of Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) member states.
Production levels in the Caspian Basin are expected to reach 4 million barrels per day (bbl/d) in 2015, compared to 45 million bbl/d for OPEC countries over the same timeframe. Beyond pure production, access to Central Asian energy is hindered by political and geographic conditions, including continued Russian influence, restricted access to waterways beyond the Caspian Sea, and a limited export infrastructure.
At present, Russia controls the majority of oil export routes for Central Asian energy. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. However, viable alternatives have started to appear, most notably the Western-backed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) route. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. These developments may help to break the Russian energy-transit monopoly. At the same time, however, they may open the region to intensified competition from energy-hungry economies, especially China. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In recent years, Russia and China have been cooperating to keep US influence in Central Asia in check. It's reasonable to assume that the larger China's economic presence in the region becomes, the greater Beijing's leverage will be to contain US economic and strategic penetration into Central Asia.
Another complication is Central Asian leaders' authoritarian practices, which have in effect pitted Washington's energy priorities against its democratization desires. While Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have been the most flagrant rights abusers, Kazakhstan, Central Asia's key energy producer, has also faced questions about its democratization practices. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In order to develop more nuanced policies, American planners and lawmakers alike should reassess how energy issues fit into wider US strategic interests in Central Asia. The aim should be enabling the United States to stay engaged where necessary, while distancing itself from the less savory aspects of regional regimes. To accomplish this goal, the following needs to happen:
The US National Security Council must better coordinate Central Asian-related activities by the State Department, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and other American government agencies. Also, American foreign policy should continue to encourage the governments of India, China, and Pakistan to create alternative export routes that challenge the existing Russian energy transit monopoly. Washington, likewise, should encourage multinational corporations to push for the diversification of transit routes to mitigate risk.
Washington should seek to become a more forceful advocate of economic and legislative reform in Central Asia, in order to attract and protect foreign investors and to spur development. The US government should coordinate reform activities with international financial institutions, as well as with programs administered by the European Union and its individual member states.
The US Defense Department should strengthen military-to-military, intelligence, anti-terrorism, and law enforcement relationships, while the State Department should enhance democratic and civil society institutions through programs administered by the National Endowment for Democracy and non-governmental organizations.
In dealing with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, two countries that are not amenable at present to close cooperation. American officials should emphasize common security interests. The Department of Energy should at the same time encourage energy cooperation, including private-sector investment projects and transit projects that expand the hydrocarbon supply to global markets.
Politically, the State Department should support secular or moderate Islamic democratic opposition parties or figures without openly pursuing regime change. American foreign policy should also examine and encourage the potential for stability-enhancing dialogue between existing regimes and democratic and moderate Islamic opposition groups, aiming to facilitate the gradual opening of political systems. The American government should engage, where necessary, in public information campaigns to criticize existing leaderships and expose their abuses.
The fact that the United States and Central Asian nations do not see eye-to-eye on many issues should not prevent them from working together to attain shared goals, including energy development, the containment of Islamic radicalism and nuclear non-proliferation.
The United States should remain as engaged as possible in the region. Given recent tensions concerning values, preferred economic models, and political systems, such engagement will be complex. Continuous dialogue with regional players, as well as with Russia, China, the European Union and its key members, Japan, and India, is required to coordinate policies and prevent crises. This will demand give-and-take on all sides, and the United States may find that getting concessions requires making concessions. As the greater power and stronger player, Washington may also find it necessary at times to make the first move.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at The Heritage Foundation.