The U.S. has been promoting its "New Silk Road" strategy lately, billing it as a means to bring prosperity, and thus stability, to Central Asia once the U.S. starts to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. (EurasiaNet has a story on it today.) But there are also some intriguing geopolitical aspects to the strategy which lurk under the surface of what is presented as a win-win sort of global commerce.
The "New Silk Road," I think, has a common intellectual pedigree with other programs from the mid-oughts to unite South and Central Asia, like the effort to tie together the electrical grids of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to place the Central Asian countries in a new State Department bureau, taking them away from Europe and connecting them with South Asia. What these all have in common is that they attempt to weaken the economic (and as a result, political) monopoly that Russia, by dint of the centralized Soviet infrastructure, has on these countries.
As Marlene Laruelle writes in a new book, "Mapping Central Asia," which includes a great chapter on the revived metaphor of the New Silk Road (on which more later): "The underlying geo-economic rationales of these Roads is to exclude Moscow from new geopolitical configurations." (Laruelle, incidentally, is a fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, chaired by Fred Starr, Washington's biggest booster of the New Silk Road.)
The State Department doesn't say this, of course, and it's possible (even likely) that the people now implementing the strategy don't think of it as such. Clinton even implied that there could be some sort of connection with the Russia-led Customs Union/Eurasian Union now including Kazakhstan and Belarus and perhaps soon to include more countries. As she said in her UN speech on the New Silk Road:
We are very pleased to see Afghanistan and Pakistan implementing fully their historic transit trade agreement. I think this could be seen as a benchmark to extend to the countries of Central Asia. Indeed, several of Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors have already moved to implement similar transit trade agreements to the north.
But that's a pretty meager bone to throw to Russia. Will Russia see this as a threat to them? When I was in Moscow last month I asked around about this, but the plan appeared to be too new for people to have developed much of a reaction to it. Possibly Russians see it as being as unfeasible as most people do, and so not worth worrying too much about. Also, Russia seems less concerned about its former satellites trading with India or China than it is about Europe, which is why the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline was so vociferously opposed by Moscow, while the possibly equally significant Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline was barely mentioned publicly. (For a great explanation of this, see a Foreign Affairs essay from earlier this year, Why Moscow Says No.)
And of course, even a potentially poor Russian reaction wouldn't mean this is necessarily a bad idea: the southern border of the USSR was artificially closed, and all of the Central Asian countries' trade with South Asia artificially routed through Moscow. It makes sense to remove those barriers. But Moscow may be wondering why the State Department, from 7,000 miles away, needs to be the one to make that happen.