US officials rarely visit Central Asia, but amidst the coronavirus outbreak in China, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a stealthy visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan with a bag full of intersecting agendas, primarily to convey that the region remains independent of the malign influence of ‘external actors’, an obvious tug to China and Russia. The visit came ahead of the State Department’s unveiling of the ‘US strategy for Central Asia 2019-25: Advancing sovereignty and economic prosperity’.
Americans are not known for understanding Central Asia well as compared to Europeans who coined the Eurasia and Silk Route phrases and traversed along its various paths. During the Soviet period, only a few American tourists travelled to Tashkent from Moscow. The US struggled to make a workable footprint in the geopolitically crucial Central Asia that prompted the Congress to adopt the Freedom Support Act in 1992. In 1991, Secretary of State James Baker flew to Kazakhstan to denuclearise the Muslim majority state.
Washington’s desire to forge a partnership was constrained by the dilemma confronted by the Soviet-trained residual leaders for defining their destinies. The regional context changed once Moscow signed a special strategic partnership with China. The US then took a pause, waiting for the situation to evolve, while maintaining the posture of supporting the independence and territorial integrity of Central Asian nations. In the 90s, Zbigniew Brzezinski suggested the need to wait for the next generation Central Asians overcoming their inherited, unsure self-ambivalence and orienting themselves towards America.
After 30 years since, Central Asia has changed and Washington seems set to reap the fruit of its investments. The new policy lists $9 billion funding support for democracy programmes, security cooperation, economic governance and private sector-led economic growth. Besides, the US has supported $50 billion in credit and loans to the region. The US private sector invested over $31 billion in commercial ventures and funded over 40,000 student and professional exchanges, among others.
Clearly then, Washington still treats Central Asia as an open book and the last chapter is not yet written. The fresh strategic opportunity assessment defines the region important in its own right, lays out new milestones for strengthening sovereignty, fighting terrorism and helping to make economies attractive to US businesses.
Uzbek leader Islam Karimov’s death in 2016 and Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan stepping down in 2019 opened a window of opportunity that prompted Mike Pompeo to visit Nursultan in Tashkent. New Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyoyev is now a reformer and potential partner for the US, who it believes, has taken steps to initiate reforms. Mirziyoyev’s business offers could spin off opportunities for the US firms.
Pompeo also visited Nursultan to cultivate new Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to profit from his recent political reforms. Pompeo lauded ‘real improvements’, urged Kazakhs to resist excessive engagement with China and instead consider America as a reliable business partner.
Conversely, Kazakhs now see the US as a source of investment, new technologies, education and global standards. After Chevron and ExxonMobil, American Tyson Foods is preparing to enter Kazakhstan’s agriculture sector.
In the C5+1 format, Pompeo pointed to enlarging American influence, by snaring Uzbekistan into its Afghan policy and by exploring ways to counter Chinese influence. Tashkent’s regional plans for improving relationship with its neighbours and efforts to nix the peace process in Afghanistan, impress the US. The critical point is that Uzbekistan endorses the Taliban movement and supports direct talks between the US and militia. It hedges a bet on Washington than on Moscow’s ability to end the Afghan stalemate, crucial for Uzbekistan’s security.
Uzbekistan is becoming a linchpin state in the US success to get the Afghan war to an end. We don’t know the details for the post-Afghan settlement, but the aim would be to avoid the mistake of hastily withdrawing US troops from Syria resulting in Turkey’s military assault against the Kurds. The bigger picture is how the US may be subtly using the Afghan factor as a means to nudge Central Asia into accepting a certain option or use cues to direct them away from overly depending on Russia and China. The US has offered a $100-million aid to increase cross-border trade and connectivity between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.
For the first time, the US told the regional states to push China and Russia out of the region, be wary of predatory Chinese lending, and avoid falling into the debt trap under the pretence of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects. The debt finance impacting sovereignty is acute in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that are unable to repay.
To needle Beijing, Pompeo raised the Uyghur issue in Kazakhstan, urged all countries to join the US in pressing for an ‘immediate end’ to China’s ‘repression’ in Xinjiang and provide asylum for those seeking to flee China. An even bolder step was Pompeo’s meeting with ethnic Kazakhs whose family members are detained in Xinjiang re-education camps. Surely, the meeting wouldn’t have taken place without the approval of the Kazakh authority. Pompeo wasn’t successful in driving a wedge. Kazakhs chose not to make comments on Xinjiang while others remained muted, except Uzbek Foreign Minister Kamilov who quietly put that Central Asia doesn’t want ‘undesirable political consequences’ of big power rivalry. Instead, the region desires to build on good neighbourly ties, he said. China termed it as ‘slander to sow discord that will never succeed’.
To wedge a rift with Moscow, Pompeo urged Kazakhstan not to be a supplicant of any country, offered US solution to develop Kazakh oil industry and tried to play on the irredentist goals of Russia. Kazakhstan too is badly impacted by sanctions on Russia. The US uses it as a means to keep the country on tenterhooks while some Kazakh legal entities are saved from the sanctions by granting licences. The Americans would do well to not move into the region with excessive hope, for they know that the trajectory of reforms in Central Asia has been a kind of one step forward, two steps backward.
They also know how fickle the Central Asian leaders can be. No one can be sure how much they love democracy. Mirziyoyev can, for he is a product of the old system and could also opt for joining the Moscow-backed Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). The question is also whether the US-led C5+1 can match China’s BRI and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union plans. Besides, the powerful Eurasia bloc Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) comprising the Central Asian states are solidly glued together against the American entry into the region. Russia retains its military bases and heads security and trade blocs in Central Asia.
On the face of it, the US is seeking a legitimate place in the region to work on the shared security concerns, but something seems seething beneath. It is unclear which side is trying to entice more. Central Asians would be equally worried about uncertainty entailing if the Taliban comes to power in Afghanistan. Similarly, they would be worried about the Uyghur issue unfolding. Pushing back against China’s BRI in Central Asia sounds logical, but it is enigmatic how the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and a full-blown Uyghur Islamic movement in Xinjiang would bring stability in the neighbouring countries. Thousands of Al-Qaeda and ISIS-trained terrorists from Central Asia and Xinjiang are already back to the region. So, a good game to look forward to.
Far from becoming a stabilising force, the US is likely to heighten the already competitive power relationship in Eurasia. Since the US is geo-strategically not in an advantageous position here, it could rely on its allies, including partners like India, to ensure a success. This could either brighten or worsen India's independent standing in Central Asia.
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