Centrality Re-Examined: Central Asia and Fluctuating Spheres of Influence


The concept of center has been pervasive in the discourse of human thought from when the Chinese named their country “中国 (zhōng guó)” (literally middle kingdom) to when astrophysicists began the quest to determine the convergence point of the universe. Yet in every instance, each viewer’s reference point has dictated his or her understanding of the middle, which highlights the relative nature of “center”. In the end we believe we are the centers of our own universe.

Thus, it is often difficult to understand events on a global scale when confined by the limits of one’s own perspective. For many people in the United States (including me), Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia lie at the forefront of our thought. This is logical, as these regions are intrinsically connected to the affairs of our country and thus our lives. However, every region of the world eventually affects domestic affairs in this age of interconnectedness and globalization. This phenomenon is particularly relevant, though often overlooked, when considering the “stan” countries between the Caspian Sea and Western China, customarily denoted as Central Asia (namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan). This blog is aimed at demystifying the region while also keeping up with the developments of a dynamic area, hopefully offering new perspectives for both the reader and writer alike.

Though Central Asia may not exhibit geographic centrality, its location truly designates it as a hub of convergence, absorption, and plurality. Influences from East Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe historically bombard the region. This resource rich land faces unrelenting political turmoil as the multitude of diverse countries surrounding the area all try to render Central Asia a marionette in order to tap into its extraction market. The area’s scattered political infrastructure doesn’t help maintain sovereignty either, as ineffective regional governments readily implement abusive policies. These unique political, geographical, and social elements demand a heightened level of discussion of Central Asian affairs.

Though all five Central Asian countries relatively recently escaped the hold of USSR dictatorship, the shift in Central Asian resource exportation from Russia to China in recent years highlights the area’s fluidity and vulnerability to the powers that effectively control it. These changes in power dynamics serve as a pertinent example indicating larger regional trends of fluctuating spheres of influence.

Chinese President Xi Jinping recently concluded a visit to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan that had definitive energy and infrastructure focuses, as newly signed agreements aim to funnel greater amounts of Central Asian resources in the Chinese direction. China is sending credit toward Turkmenistan to aid development of the Galkynysh gas field (already the second-largest in the world) in exchange for Turkmenistan’s promise to increase its gas supply to China from 40 billion cubic meters to 65 billion cubic meters. The China National Petroleum Corporation also obtained an eight percent stake in the Kashagan oil field development project in Kazakhstan. This investment compliments the planned increase of oil supplies from Kazakhstan to China through the Atasu-Alashankou pipeline. Exports are scheduled to increase to up to 20 million tons per year through this agreement. Scores of similar negotiations emphasize China’s relentless siphoning of Central Asian resources to fuel their breakneck econo-industrial development.

An oil well in Kazakhstan (Courtesy of Creative Commons)
An oil well in Kazakhstan (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

China’s growing influence in effect ousts Russia’s previous grip on Central Asia. Trade volumes with the region topped $46 billion in 2012, a hundred times higher than those during Soviet dominance. While Russia still has a strong hold over energy exports in the area, its abusive policy of utilizing Soviet-era pipelines to export marked-up Central Asian oil has driven the region toward Chinese investment. While the countries’ bilateral relationship barricades extremely escalated tensions, slipping control over Central Asian resources continues to put Russia on edge – especially when the country is faced with the threat of plunging into another recession.

As Russia’s clout over Central Asia disperses in light of growing Chinese influence, Sino-Russian relationships tense while Central Asia is offered more independence in natural resource exportation. The region’s rich natural resources mixed with a plethora of divergent political interests create a unique atmosphere unparalleled in other areas of the world. A shift in America’s center of attention towards this emerging region may be warranted as changing influences dictate alternative political structures and allegiances. Central Asia’s importance in global relations must not be devalued in an age where the actions of the “center” may very well have world-wide consequences.

Josh Feng ’17 is in Timothy Dwight College. His blog covers China and Central Asia. Contact him at josh.feng@yale.edu.