Decoding America’s Central Asia policy - Hindustan Times
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Decoding America’s Central Asia policy

ByHindustan Times
Oct 05, 2023 01:38 PM IST

This article is authored by Pravesh Kumar Gupta, associate fellow (Central Asia), Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.

The outcome of the recent maiden United States (US)-Central Asia summit was expected to be highly significant, yet the meeting appears to be more symbolic than yielding tangible results. On September 19, 2023, US President Joe Biden met with the presidents of five Central Asian nations: Kassym Zomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan, Sadyr Zaparov of the Kyrgyz Republic, Shawkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan, Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan, and Serdar Berdimuhamedov of Turkmenistan on the sidelines of 78th session of United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York. The summit’s silver lining was that leaders focused on cooperation on commerce and investment, transit corridors, climate challenges, human rights, and Afghanistan rather than the US’s preferred security issues.

Statue of Liberty(AP Photo)
Statue of Liberty(AP Photo)

The Russia-Ukraine conflict, which started in February 2022, has continued for over a year. Since the conflict began, Central Asian countries with tight economic and security relations with Russia have been in the limelight. They have neither supported nor denounced Russia but have been attempting to diversify their foreign relations. As a result of the Ukraine crisis, there are indications that Russian influence in Central Asia is waning, and China stands to benefit the most from the current situation. China is the dominant player in the region and this has several apparent repercussions. From becoming a significant economic partner, China is now expanding its security cooperation with the region, formerly the key component of Russia-Central Asia relations. The Central Asian leadership is aware that an excessive reliance on China will be harmful in the long-run.

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Against this backdrop, Central Asian nations are looking for new prospective partners to support their economic growth and initiatives related to transport and transit routes. In August of this year, they hosted a summit with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members to explore regional partnerships. Since Central Asian countries became independent in 1991, the US has not paid much attention to the region. Nonetheless, it has long been seen as a potential partner for Central Asian countries. The region gained importance for US strategy following the 9/11 events. Subsequently, the US attacked terrorist hideouts in Afghanistan. Central Asian countries provided assistance to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). At the same time, Chinese penetration in Central Asia was gradually increasing. The newly independent Central Asian Republics (CARs) needed investment for economic development which was offered by Beijing and received well by CARs. The Central Asian countries have been receptive and accommodating to China because, unlike Washington, Beijing has not highlighted the concerns of human rights and the rule of law in these authoritarian States. As the Chinese grip consolidated in the region, US influence gradually vanished.

Recently, with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and China’s growing regional and global influence, the US has shown interest in revitalising ties with Central Asia. Though there already has been a framework for the C5+1 ministerial meeting, the US-Central Asia leaders’ summit is relatively started off late. In the last two years, Central Asian countries held leaders’ summits with almost every significant power including India, Russia, European Union, China and the GCC. The first summit between the US and Central Asian presidents was, therefore, expected to be of considerable importance.

The inaugural US-Central Asia Summit was not particularly impressive in terms of results, but it did give the US-Central Asia relationship an entirely fresh lease on life. A shift in focus from enduring security concerns to more current and pervasive problems like energy security, climate change, and the growth of trade and commercial linkages and transportation routes is a positive indication of mutually beneficial cooperation. The Central Asian countries are aware that if the region experiences security problems, the US will not help them out militarily, nor will it make major investments there. Still, the ideas put out in New York can potentially reduce Central Asia’s reliance on its neighbours, Russia and China. Furthermore, if the US continues to pay similar attention to the region and the agenda remains the same, then there is a possibility of great power competition.

The discussion also focused significantly on economic relations. Biden emphasised the significance of enabling trade and private sector investment with US firms. Two of the major economies of central Asia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, have launched multiple reforms to reform their economic and political structures. They are eager for more significant investment and have pushed for more prominent, ostentatious projects to attract global capital. In his remarks, Biden announced that USAID will host a “C5+1 Regional Connectivity Ministerial in Central Asia in October” to discuss ways to promote sustainable economic growth. This shows that economic links will continue to be a priority for Central Asian-US diplomacy.

Surprisingly, Biden emphasised the importance of civil society activism for women’s empowerment and disabilities rights while remaining mute on human rights problems. This is likely a result of recent attempts by Central Asian nations to adopt democratic changes. These issues (if not human rights) are less of an immediate concern for the governments of Central Asia. Additionally, President Biden suggested starting a C5+1 Critical Minerals Dialogue. Essential minerals, including chromium, copper, and lithium are required to make renewable energy technologies. Though being energy-rich region, in recent years, Central Asian countries have been facing energy scarcity. Green energy and hydropower have also been highlighted in speeches from Central Asian leaders. An increased partnership with the US will also reduce their reliance on China.

Since this is the first leaders’ summit between the US and Central Asia, it marks a good beginning of the upgrading of the relationship. The C5+1 did open the ground for a new era of engagement between the US and the Central Asian countries, even if no significant accords or political agreements were announced as a result of the summit. However, the ball is in the US court. Washington must continue its current level of attention to the region as Russian influence declines. It would lay a lot more emphasis on successful economic and commercial partnerships, as the primary cooperation areas were trade, transport, and the energy industry.

This article is authored by Pravesh Kumar Gupta, associate fellow (Central Asia), Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.

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