Filling the power vacuum in Central Asia

PART III: This is the third of a four-part series dealing with key issues of the Caspian Sea Basin. The final article will focus on geopolitics and pipeline placement. Parts I and II dealt with Caspian geology and reserve potential, and ethnic issues. The series is a summary of the James A. Baker Institute's Caspian Basin Policy Study.

Geopolitics in the Caspian Basin

PART III: This is the third of a four-part series dealing with key issues of the Caspian Sea Basin. The final article will focus on geopolitics and pipeline placement. Parts I and II dealt with Caspian geology and reserve potential, and ethnic issues. The series is a summary of the James A. Baker Institute's Caspian Basin Policy Study.

Independence after over 80 years of direct rule by Moscow has created a strategic power vacuum in Central Asia and the Caucasus that has unleashed rivalries among large neighbors and distant superpowers. A multitude of countries has shown commercial interest in the region, especially its natural resources. They include:

  • Neighbors: Russia, Turkey, Iran, and China
  • Nearby countries: Pakistan and India
  • Distant powers: United States, Europe, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and even Israel.
For the regional powers, interest extends well beyond commercial considerations. Historical factors play a role. For Russia, the region represents an area of traditional dominance. For Turkey, it holds the cultural attractions of "Pan-Turkism." The reemergence of Islamic practices in the region is a magnet for attention from both Saudia Arabia and Iran in their rivalry for leadership of a broader Islamic revival.

Regional powers also seek to reach into Central Asia and the Caucasus to help control ethnic movements in their own hinterlands. A number of major powers view the region in terms of a broader contest for spheres of influence. For this reason, the future of Central Asia and the Caucusus matters on an international level.

Through long-term project developments and reform packages, Japanese industry leaders hope to secure a presence in Central Asia. This would alleviate some of Tokyo's energy import dependence on the Middle East while yielding mutually beneficial relations.

Major power views

Potential oil supplies available from the Caspian Basin in the next 5-10 years are moderate. This will likely dictate that no substantial US national resources or US diplomatic efforts should be applied to garner these supplies on the basis of energy security policy.

Russian leadership is sensitive to the West exploiting what is considers a temporary weakness in the Caspian Basin. China, too, will view foreign involvement through a geopolitical prism. Xinjiang province, which borders Kazakhstan, is reportedly the locale for much of China's nuclear testing.

In 1996, China unveiled a plan to meet one-third of its future energy needs from exploration and acquisition activities abroad. China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) is involved in two major energy development projects in Kazakhstan. China is seeking additional projects in eastern Russia and is involved in pursuing exploration projects in Iraq.

Chinese activities in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Russia are not yet integrated. But, by building transportation corridors from Kazakhstan and Turkmentistan to northern Iran to reach the Persian Gulf and then forging another connection to Russia, China would create a geo-economic space with potential for future aspirations.

In the 21st century, the rising dependence of China's economy on Middle East oil supplies and its vulnerability on energy security issues will influence US-Chinese relations. China may seek an alliance with Russia as a counterbalance to Western involvement in Caspian Basin energy development and Western dominance in the protection of Middle Eastern oil supplies.

China could view the activities of the US and Russia through a balance-of-power perspective. US-Russian competition in the region may encourage Beijing to form new alliances to enhance its own geopolitical power on the world stage.

US view

The individual countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus are unlikely to become a US priority for major economic assistance or security guarantees. American interest in stability is likely to be case-specific and part of a broader focus relating to stability in Russia, China, Turkey and the Persian Gulf.

In American foreign policy terms, the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus are geographically remote from the US, militarily insignificant, sparsely populated, and economically disadvantaged. Its energy sector will create significant commercial opportunities for American firms. Development of the region's energy resources is an important goal for the diversification of supply.

Russian concerns

Russia's leadership is beginning to pay more attention to the negative consequences of instability in the region. Military conflicts or ethnic separatist movements in the southern Caucusus could spill into contiguous Russian areas. The prominence of ethnic issues in Russian politics is mounting. At the same time, populations are increasingly sensitive to the heavy economic and social burden of caring for immigrant and refugee populations.

Russia must concern itself with an arms buildup in the region that could be financed with emerging oil-export revenues or oil-transit revenues in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Such concerns will likely need to be addressed before Russia can take a relaxed view of providing transit corridors for large-scale exports of oil and gas from the Caspian Basin.

Other concerns

Other less visible problems have an affect on Russian and regional stability. These include: narcotics production and traffic, arms trade, disruption of communication infrastructure, increased corruption and criminality, and ethnic violence.

Internal divisions within Russia's current political makeup and its own domestic problems are likely to create contradictions and inconsistencies in Moscow's Caspian policy for the foreseeable future. Some inside Russia believe the country's interests will be served through integration with the West.

Others would like to see Moscow reassert control in its periphery. Influential industrial groups argue that Russia cannot afford a disruption of its economic ties with Central Asia without collapsing whole branches of the national economy. Communist factions would like to preserve ties to the periphery as a means to restore the Soviet legacy.

The view from inside Russia's oil sector also seems to point toward an aggressively integrationist approach. To date, Russia has attempted to retain influence over Caspian oil developments via three main policies:

  • Maximizing the role for Russian companies
  • Controlling transport out of the region
  • Preventing unilateral development using the uncertain legal status of the Caspian Sea.


Russia should be supported in its efforts to refine multilateral mechanisms to assist in conflict resolution in the area. Other issues that need attention in the region include poverty, environmental crises, disease, malnutrition and electric power shortages.

Participation of international organizations in conflict resolution, regional arms control, humanitarian assistance, and cooperation on a broad range of economic issues should be a cornerstone for devising constructive, multilateral policies toward the Caspian region.


"Unlocking the Assets: Energy and the Future of Central Asia and the Caucus, A Political, Economic and Cultural Study," James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy, Rice University, Houston, 1998.

Copyright 1998 Oil & Gas Journal. All Rights Reserved.

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