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Geopolitical struggle over Central Asia’s rare-earth reserves

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Central Asia, encompassing Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Mongolia, holds vast untapped reserves of rare-earth minerals. Recent global developments have thrust these resources into the spotlight. The increasing importance of rare earths in technology and clean energy, exacerbated by disruptions in supply from China due to geopolitical tensions, has shifted focus to Central Asia as a potential alternative source (Data.gov, October 29, 2023; Usgs.gov, accessed June 13).

Governments in the region view the development of rare-earth sectors as pivotal for economic diversification beyond oil and gas revenues. This has spurred a geopolitical competition involving major powers like China, Russia, and the West, reminiscent of the historical “Great Game” in the region (Forbes.kz, April 8; Eurasia Today, April 11).

China, historically dominant in rare-earth processing, has aggressively secured mining leases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This move aligns with Beijing’s strategy to dominate global rare-earth markets and expand its influence in Central Asia, despite facing local opposition at times (Eurasianet, September 11, 2014; UN Trade and Development, accessed June 13).

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Simultaneously, Western powers, awakened to the strategic importance of Central Asia’s rare-earth reserves, have intensified diplomatic efforts and investments in the region. This new dynamic has prompted Russia to cautiously balance its interests, wary of potential market disruptions and Western influence (TASS, June 6; Vzglyad, June 11).

The development of rare-earth resources in Central Asia offers economic opportunities but also risks internal instability and geopolitical tensions. Variations in resource distribution among countries could exacerbate regional disparities and challenge central governance structures, particularly in Tajikistan and neighboring states.

As the competition for rare-earth resources unfolds, Central Asia finds itself at the center of a complex geopolitical game with profound implications for regional stability and global supply chains.

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