Central Asia is a region of the world where the potential for economic and social progress is immense, yet the concrete measures needed to spur development, growth, and productivity have been largely absent. Central Asia was historically the locus for not only amazing food and profound cultural exchanges, but it was also a major theater for both international trade due to its links to the historic “Silk Road” as well as geopolitical competition between Western powers such as Britain and Russia during the historic “Great Game” epoch of modern history.
The most famous historical account of the ancient Silk Road is by the Venetian merchant Marco Polo, who by happenstance became one of the top advisers of the Mongol Khanate in Central Asia during the 13th century. Marco Polo was afforded the opportunity to become an advisor to the “Great Khan” of Central Asia, which in turn enabled him to travel widely and freely throughout Asia and the Middle East and thus the ancient Silk Road. While imprisoned in Genoa upon his return to Europe, Marco Polo wrote a book about his experiences and the splendor of the ancient Silk Road. His book is a classic amidst the body of Western literature that focuses on the Orient.
Control of Central Asia portends control of Asia in its entirety. In turn, control of Central Asia portends control of the world based on the theories of Sir Halford John Mackinder, a British geographer who is considered as the father of modern-day geopolitics and geostrategy. Thus, it comes as no surprise that both Britain and Russia sought dominance in this particular region of the world during the “Great Game” of the colonial era. In addition to the pursuit of empire, the “Great Game” had a proselytizing element to it, which consisted of a rather far-fetched attempt to convert Asiatic Muslims to Christianity in the case of the British, and later atheism in the case of the Soviets. It is perhaps fair to say that this particular aspect of European colonization in Central Asia, namely, the proselytizing aspect, has been a failure for the most part. Based on studies done by Pew Research in recent times, Islam is set to surpass Catholicism as the world’s largest religion by either 2050 or 2075, depending on the circumstances which emerge.
Before the “Great Game” between Britain and Russia overshadowed the economic and social life of Central Asia, the gene pool of Central Asian peoples would largely be altered by the Mongols, whose nomadic conquests would overhaul any semblance of sedentary civilization in this particular region of the world. The sedentary lifestyle of the Turks and Tajiks of Central Asia was essentially overhauled by the nomadic Mongol conquests before the British and the Russians would make inroads into Central Asia beginning in the 19th century. Thus, before the European “Great Game,” Asia was essentially a tributary system of the Mongols.
However, as a result of European industrial power and technological advancements, Mongol clout in Asia would diminish, and in turn Asia would become the playground of European colonial powers until the 20th century when the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union would shape international politics. It is often believed that “Geography is destiny,” and as a result the barren flatlands and dry steppes which confound the people of Central Asia contribute greatly to the relative backwardness of its economic and social conditions, whereas Western Europe’s ability to industrialize due to its relative isolation and then take off into the high seas due to its technological superiority gave Western Europeans the qualitative edge in the geopolitical competition with Asian powers.
In sum, the industrial and technological edge of the West over the nomadic and agrarian peoples of Central Asia meant that the people of Central Asia could no longer resurrect themselves as a global power which once extended into Central Europe. Moreover, the impetus for the “Russification” of Central Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries were the economic and social reforms of a Russian Czar named Peter the Great, who sought to realize the vision of an “Imperial Russia” along the lines of Western European empires beginning in the 19th century. Russia’s expansion into Central Asia in the 19th century coincided with Britain’s colonization of South Asia at about the same time. In order to avoid a head-on clash in Central Asia, both Britain and Russia agreed that Afghanistan would serve as a neutral buffer between the British and Russian spheres of influence in the heart of Asia. Nevertheless, Northern Afghanistan is largely in the Russian orbit even in this day and age, whereas Southern Afghanistan is largely in the Anglo-American orbit. Today, as a legacy of British imperial rule, the Afghan drug trade is the largest business and enterprise in the world. It appears that Amazon and Walmart pale in comparison to the Afghan drug trade.
China has now set the foundation for regional integration in Central Asia through the creation of what is known as the “Shanghai Cooperation Organization” (SCO) beginning in 2001. SCO is largely an economic and security pact between China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, which is aimed at reviving the historic “Silk Road” trade route across Central Asia that was once traversed by Marco Polo. Afghanistan, Iran, Mongolia, and Belarus are the four observer states which seek full SCO membership. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Turkey are the six “dialogue partners” of SCO.
China’s inroads into Central Asia through both the SCO and the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) have a broader aim, which is to integrate Europe and Asia through economic and social linkages. By doing this, China would perhaps be able to exercise both power and influence over Eurasia, which is the largest, most populous, and richest landmass in the entire world. Although it may take decades to fully integrate Eurasia through economic and social linkages, the process of doing so is well underway due to the widespread consensus amongst Eurasian powers for such an endeavor. The United States and Japan are the only two countries who have refused to sign onto China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) due in large part to Washington’s zero-sum approach towards Beijing. In essence, the United States and Japan are isolating themselves from the rest of the world by virtue of their refusal to be a part of this Chinese-led initiative.
Nevertheless, the BBC has reported that China will surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy in 2028 due to the coronavirus, and as a result the advantage will perhaps rest with Beijing in realizing an economically and socially integrated Eurasian landmass, as opposed to the United States whose aim is to prevent such an outcome by any means necessary. America’s sole foreign policy aim at the moment is to prevent China from dominating Asia, let alone Eurasia. There is also a philosophical difference between Washington and Beijing towards life in general which is hard to reconcile. The former looks at economic and social life from an individualistic and self-centered perspective, whereas the latter sees things through the prism of collectivism and group dynamics. One would have to seek recourse to the origins of human life and human history to understand which system is actually intrinsic to the human condition.