Whoever rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; Whoever rules the World-Island commands the World?
The statement above is a century-old, yet it finds its relevance in the contemporary world. 21st century geopolitics, evolving around great power politics has entered the regional sphere of Central Asia, which is fraught with its geo-economic and geopolitical challenges. The geographical importance of Central Asia remains imperative as Sino-US rivalry has gained impetus in this region along with which the EU has its stakes, thus opening the regional chessboard for each player to play its pawn auspiciously.
Halford Mackinder in his seminal work, the Geographical Pivot of History, analyses the geopolitical shifts that have been observed overtime. He described the heartland, central Eurasia, as historical pivot but with the disintegration of USSR the pivot has shifted. The pivotal change has enhanced the importance of three regions: Central Asia, Central Caucuses and Central Europe (modern day East Europe).
To open Mackinder’s theory to the 21st-century reality, a new boost to studies of regional structuralization principle for the geopolitical and geo-economic sphere is observed in the post-soviet era, which steered towards new geopolitical realities. The changing patterns didn’t dwindle Eastern Europe’s importance, but it increased the significant position of Central Asian economies viewed as a transit between Asia and the Middle East. The disintegration levitated the importance of Central Asia due to the pivotal change as per Mackinder’s theory, thus increasing the geopolitical significance of Central Asia.
Moreover, former United States National Security Advisor Brzezinski’s tarnation over the future of Eurasia has pointed out that the geopolitical interplay in Central Asia concerning great powers has expanded the policy orientation of power politics – Russian, China, and the US – in the region. This stance was hinted at by the statement from a former PLA General who regarded Central Asia as the “thickest piece of cake given to the modern Chinese by the heavens.” This highlighting the Chinese urge to maintain its influence in the energy-rich region is long hence adding complexities to regional demography by expanding its regional role.
To untangle the growing animosity over geopolitical positioning of the US and China in the region, which will be the next considerable debate amid the pandemic while understanding the diminishing role of the US in Central Asia concerning Russian reassertion over Eurasian landmass and the growing cooperation between Russian and China in the form of SCO to shape the future of these middle-income economies.
America’s Strategic Tryst with Central Asia was once very significant when she wanted to keep American bases in the region to keep an eye on terrorist activities. But the pivotal positioning of Chinese interest in the region and the dangling position of the US leading towards a geopolitical rift. This, as a result, has allowed central Asia states to become less hospitable to the US influence. Washington’s disengagement from the region results from its reductionist approach, thus allowing China to expand its reach in the region. However, such a reductionist approach forfeits the growing importance of Central Asia in American geopolitical calculations vis-à-vis global peers such as China.
EU’s policy orientation vis-à-vis Central Asia is a market with a shared interest to expand the Tran-Caspian pipeline and relevant gas projects. At the same time, there is a lack of trust due to authoritarian regimes in the region. Therefore, the geopolitical interest remains to be less viable because, for the EU, there exist many other driving principles to cooperate with Central Asian economies. The Russian cannot be sidelined concerning any cooperation. Still, at the same time, any collaboration between the two regions will be observed under the umbrella of shared animosity with Russia. Similar to this thought, there exists a lack of influence by the EU because neither Russia nor China is willing to open ground for a third player against Sino-Russian terms.
Moreover, China’s BRI plan in Central Asia is expanding the Chinese market by incentivizing the modern-day pivot highlights that China seemingly holds the credential to stand on Mackinder’s theory. Furthermore, the expanding reach of BRI as China’s Trojan horse and its growing cooperation with Pakistan to expand collaboration with these economies hints towards a power transition in central Asia which was once a strategic backyard of the US.
The current Post-Covid geopolitical scenario, with Chinese investment in the face of BRI and Covid diplomacy, has allowed Central Asian states to redefine their role in the strategy as well as the economic calculus of the US policies in the region, which are subject to changes amid pandemic. The growing ante over the solution in Afghanistan and the Chinese urge to fill the vacuum that these economies have felt due to Covid’s catastrophe and Trumps reluctance to concede Washington to take a dominant role of a “savior” in the region has hinted towards a pivotal shift in the geopolitics of Central Asia.
Conclusively, the old feeling of mistrust and alienation to the emergence of the renewed great game has brought the three players – EU, China, and the US – to a point where economics and diplomacy are to act as the striking decider of the future. As there is no free lunch in the market, so is the case with Central Asia, which was once a strategic backyard of the US, but the changing dynamics with fraught relations are jolting the regional chessboard, creating grounds for China to hold the regional stage amid the troubling scenario of pandemic-linked contests.
Mohammad Ali Zafar is a columnist based in Islamabad, Pakistan. He is a student of International Relations at National Defence University. He consistently writes news articles. His work primarily focuses on matters pertaining to the Middle East, Pakistan, and CPEC. In addition, the author has a keen eye for Arctic affairs.