The American filmmaker Woody Allen said, ““Eighty percent of success is showing up.” If he is correct, America is not succeeding in Central Asia.
But the rulers of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and China, Xi Jinping, leave nothing to chance: Xj has visited every one of the republics and has been to Kazakhstan four times and Uzbekistan three times; Putin has visited Kazakhstan twenty-seven times (the countries share a 7,644-kilometre border), and has been to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan at least a dozen times each.
And showing up pays off. In a 2022 survey in Uzbekistan by Central Asia barometer, 70% of respondents had a Great Deal or Some confidence when asked “How much confidence do you have that China’s investment in our country will create jobs in our country for our citizens?”
National leaders must make decisions based on an unemotional consideration of the national interest, but face-to-face meetings can quickly resolve problems or make clear a leader’s concerns that can be muddled (or sabotaged) by functionaries. And what is clear to the Central Asian publics is that that Xi – the leader of the world’s biggest country – visited their countries, but no U.S. leader has ever bothered to visit the region.
That may start to change if U.S. president Joe Biden meets the leaders of the five Central Asian republics in an “inaugural C5+1 Leader’s Summit on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, which will be held in September,” according to The Diplomat, which notes the meeting will be “with Russia and China in mind.”
Well, of course: the U.S. has problems with Russia and China, so now it’s all hands on deck.
The official U.S. policy objective in Central Asia is to support “Central Asian states’ sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.” In day-to-day practice for U.S. officials, this means:
- Limit Russia’s commercial activity and energy trade in the region.
- Limit local participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative in favor of Western projects such as the not-fully-funded Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment.
- Unseat the Taliban and install a complaisant government in Kabul.
All well and good, but what’s in it for Central Asia? The region lives between Russia and China, borders Afghanistan, and feels the tremors of events in Iran and Pakistan, all of them “neighbors forever.” What sounds like a good idea in far-away Washington may falter once on the ground in Central Asia because the five republics have less margin for error than Washington, which has weak neighbors and is comfortable behind the Atlantic and Pacific moats.
Despite their long-standing links, the Central Asian republics are trying to create some daylight between themselves and Moscow and, in response, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited all five republics in 2022. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have voiced support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia, and have also supplied non-lethal aid to Kyiv. And Tajikistan’s President, Emomali Rahmon, in a recent face-to-face meeting with Putin, demanded the Russian treat his country with respect.
Though the U.S. is likely concerned that the republics’ trade with Russia is supporting Moscow in the NATO-Russia war in Ukraine, the region’s trade is diversifying. The EU region is now the region’s main trade partner, accounting for about a third of its overall external trade. And China is a top bilateral trade partner of the republics, ranking Kazakhstan (#2), Kyrgyzstan (#1), Tajikistan (#3), Turkmenistan (#3), and Uzbekistan (#1), though often Russia and China trade the #1 spot.
Washington will have to make fine calculations about the economic health of Russia’s neighbors, that both rely on the Moscow trade and want to hedge their bets by deeper links with the U.S., Europe, China, Turkey, Iran, and India. One way Washington can do so is by coaching Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan through the World Trade Organization accession process. Both countries have created a WTO Working Party to ensure orderly progress, and the U.S. should provide needed technical assistance to help them succeed.
Another way the U.S. can help the region is backing regional interconnectivity projects. Projects like the Trans-Afghanistan Railway to connect Central Asia and South Asia; the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway; and the Middle Corridor trade route are of keen local interest. The leaders of the republics feel they will rise and fall together so attempts by Washington to stymie a project just because someone in Iran or Afghanistan will make a buck will convince them that Putin and Xi are correct about American intentions.
What will the Americans want from the republics?
Probably too much, and the republics will resist U.S. efforts to appoint any country, notably Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, its “deputy marshal” in the region, as that act that will compromise the leaders (unless that is the plan.) Being anointed as the U.S. deputy sure didn’t help the Shah of Iran so if Washington learned a lesson from that sorry episode it should apply it here.
In addition, America’s abandonment of its $2 trillion dollar, two-decade Afghanistan project is fresh in everyone’s mind and the republics will want front-loaded benefits as they will doubt Washington’s staying power until it proves otherwise.
Tashkent cannot ignore the physical risk that may come from Afghanistan. In July 2022, the border city of Termez was subjected to a missile attack from Afghanistan. The Taliban apprehended who they claimed were the Islamic State (IS) commandos, and claimed IS was behind a rocket attack on Termez in April. Uzbekistan has recently concluded investment deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and Russia and China, and does not want its relationship with the U.S. to endanger the third party investments along with the political complications if foreign nationals are killed in attacks from Afghan territory.
The Uzbeks also don’t want a repeat of the Summer 2004 bombing campaign by an Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan splinter group that hit the U.S. and Israeli embassies, and the office of the Uzbek prosecutor-general. The attacks left 33 militants, 10 policemen, and four civilian dead.
A U.S. blueprint for Central Asia may succeed as Washington is influential yet geographically removed. But first Washington must produce a post-Afghanistan strategy for the region and not the boilerplate “we will continue to support the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Central Asia” from the current National Security Strategy, in which Central Asia is only mentioned twice and in passing.
The people of the region admire much about the U.S., but Washington will have to respect local culture and social organization, which has survived czars, commissars, khans, and satraps before achieving independence in 1991. For example, China declares it is a Socialist country but it doesn’t try to export Socialism. Can the U.S. exercise such self-restraint?
As the republics will probably take a “wait and see” approach, Washington should:
Institutionalize leader-level engagement between the presidents of the U.S. and the republics. In May 2023, China hosted the first C+C5 meeting in China, and the next meeting will be in 2025 in Kazakhstan. Will the U.S. agree to a similar format or will the upcoming meeting at the UN be a one-time photo op? Offer technical assistance when needed, making a priority of WTO accession. If it really feels the Belt and Road Initiative is a trap, ensure local infrastructure projects have alternative financing options.
A wise Washington will allow the local governments – that will suffer the consequences of bad choices – to set the pace of regional integration and achieve balance in their foreign relations. The Americans must understand that their friends in Central Asia are not ready to reject relations with Russia, China, Iran, and Afghanistan, which are not foreign interlopers but part of the rich history of the region.
The post-9/11 “You are either with us, or with the terrorists” attitude or the Biden administration’s yearning for a struggle between “democracies and autocracies” are counterproductive. It may be time to reflect on the words of the late American president, John F. Kennedy, who declared, “We must recognize that we cannot remake the world simply by our own command… Every nation has its own traditions, its own values, its own aspirations. Our assistance from time to time can help other nations preserve their independence and advance their growth, but we cannot remake them in our own image. We cannot enact their laws, nor can we operate their governments or dictate our policies.”