The United States strategy for Central Asia 2019-2025, which was unveiled after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and the 5th meeting of the C5+1 format (the five Central Asian nations and the US) on February 5, 2020, is seen as the beginning of a new stage in the US foreign policy on Central Asia in competition with China and Russia in the region. According to the new strategy, the United States government will cooperate with Central Asian states to strengthen their independence from malign actors, and pursues six objectives: support and strengthen the sovereignty and independence of the Central Asian states, reduce terrorist threats in Central Asia, maintain support for stability in Afghanistan, encourage connectivity between Central Asia and Afghanistan, promote rule of law reform and respect for human rights, and promote United States investment in Central Asia. This strategy has focused on supporting the sovereignty and independence of the Central Asian states, which had been mentioned by Pompeo ahead of his trip to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Pompeo had stressed that the Central Asian countries “want to be sovereign and independent” and said Washington had “an important opportunity to help them achieve that”. He also acknowledged “a lot of activity (in the region) – Chinese activity, Russian activity”.
Although the US been paying attention to such important region ever since the Central Asian states declared independence and has experienced various stages of cooperation with them so far, the US’ foreign policy on the region in the new stage, when the atmosphere of competition in the international system has intensified and China and Russia are at the center of this competition, raises this question: What purposes does the US’ new foreign policy pursue in the Central Asia considering the region’s integrity with China and Russia?
There are three definite stages in the course of the US foreign policy on Central Asia: first from the independence of the states in 1991 until September 11, 2001; second from 2001 to 2015; and finally from 2015 until now.
The main feature of the first stage of the US foreign policy is the plan to establish ties with the Central Asian states and export the Western values and democracy. During the second stage, the US developed a security outlook after the September 11 attacks. In that stage, the US took control of bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, as a major portion of the logistics amid the war that the US and the coalition forces had launched against the Taliban was provided through that region and in cooperation with Russia. This stage has at the same time another feature, which is American support for the Color Revolutions that started in the Caucasus and became clear in Kyrgyzstan as well. On the other hand, the US’ attempt to extend NATO’s influence in the region is a righteous matter of concern for Russia and the regional states, which culminated in the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. At this stage, the US’ attempts at Westernization of the regional governments encountered Russia’s harsh reaction, as coordination is replaced by rivalry and confrontation. Another feature of this stage is that China begins to take a more significant role in the United States strategy. The US has become further aware of China’s growing power in Central Asia after the strong Chinese presence in the economic projects in the region, its investment in the production and transfer of hydrocarbon resources, its advantage of geographical integrity, and cooperation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
The third stage has started in 2015 with the first meeting of foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and the United States within the framework of the C5+1 negotiations. The 5th meeting of negotiations was held in Tashkent in February 2019, attended by the US secretary of state. Thereafter, the US’ new strategy on the region was unveiled. This strategy includes various issues, one of which is protection of the regional states against destructive powers. The remarkable point is that the strategy has included Afghanistan in the list of Central Asians, a plan already called by Americans as the “Greater Central Asia”.
But what region are the Americans really facing and to How achievable are the purposes of their strategy in Central Asia?
The first obstacle the US is facing is the difference between its value system and those of the regional countries. The society, politics, culture, and structure of power in the Central Asian countries are significantly different from the American and Western value system, so that it would not be easy for the US to carry out its plans in the region. The US has paid more attention to this issue recently. Mindful of this fact, the US is trying to impose a plan to propagate the American values through soft diplomacy in the long term. At the beginning, the US has made interaction with the regional governments a priority. The Central Asian governments are well aware of this issue, and have sought to take advantage of the US policy to create a balance vis-à-vis the Chinese and Russian powers with a pragmatic approach.
The second factor is Russia, which has gotten through many weaknesses after dissolution of the Soviet Union and is closely monitoring the region that is deemed to be its vital sphere. The economic, political, security, and popular bonds between the Central Asia and Russia are so strong that would not easily allow the US to carry out its policies in the region for countering Russia. Russia is currently the most important actor in the region in terms of security and economic policies within the framework of bilateral relations, collective security regional organizations, the Eurasian Economic Union, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. According to the latest figures, the value of trade between Russia and the Central Asian states in 2019 stood at €26.8 billion, more than 10 times higher than the €2.6 billion in total trade between the US and Central Asia. Accordingly, one can say that the US has acknowledged such Russian advantages and is trying to form economic bonds, particularly in the energy and transportation sectors, in order to reduce the regional countries’ dependence on Russia and ultimately take control of the regional initiatives by creating a gap between them. As a result, the US has focused on the link between Central Asia and South Asia through Afghanistan and India and the link with Europe via the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus.
The third factor is China. The stances the US has taken in recent years and the abovementioned remarks from the US secretary of state about China reveal that the main purpose of the new American strategy is to constrain and restrict China in Central Asia in the form of strategic rivalry between the two countries at the global level. Energy and the issue of Xinjiang Muslims are two major challenges for China on which the US has focused intensely in Central Asia. On the other hand, China is the major economic partner of the Central Asian states, as Chinese investment in Central Asia totaled $14.7 in 2018. The figures released by the European Union indicate that China is the second-biggest trading partner of the Central Asian states with €29.5 billion in trade behind the EU with a trade value of €31.8 billion. Besides that, the close stances of China and Russia and their cooperation with the Central Asian states in the form of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is highly significant for all parties in terms of security, have given China an upper hand, though there are also challenges. The US is interested in those challenges for security reasons, given the Muslim population of China in the regions bordering Central Asia. Pompeo’s meeting with Uighur Muslims of Kazakhstan is a sign of that policy.
On the other hand, although the main purpose of the US strategy is targeted on Russia and China, it is keeping a wary eye on the presence of other regional powers, including Iran, in Central Asia. The volume of Iran’s economic and political relations with Central Asia is hardly comparable with China and Russia’s interaction, but Iran’s capacity and potential for cooperation with the Central Asian states in the form of bilateral ties or within the Eurasian Economic Cooperation Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is not something ignored by the US.
This strategy’s success depends on various factors. Economically, although the US has made great investment in Kazakhstan’s oil sector, it cannot easily compete with China in the region. The pivotal role of China and Russia is also prominent in the other economic and security fields. Moreover, Russia has already proved in Georgia and Ukraine that it would not by any means tolerate the US hegemony in the sphere of its vital interests. Considering an intensification of the US sanctions on Russia, which is coupled with a cultural and soft war against Moscow, any provocative move by the US could trigger a harsh reaction from Russia. As mentioned before, the Central Asian states are also aware of this issue and have proved that they seek to take advantage of such rivalry rather than paying the price for it.
China has always tried to avoid confrontation with the US, as the Chinese officials have announced recently that China does not intend to replace the US in the international power system. However, the US’ aggressive behavior and imposition of a series of actions and restrictions on China point to the fact that the geopolitical competition between the two powers has entered an irreversible stage. Thus, Central Asia is currently a piece of the puzzle of geopolitical competition between China and the US for a larger share of power in the future international system. The final point is that the US considers a special position for Afghanistan and the connection between Central and South Asia via India in order to achieve the goals of its strategy. Such plan could overshadow China’s colossal Belt and Road project. The US had already referred to the plan as the New Silk Road.
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)