Crossroads Asia

The US Prefers China to Russia in Central Asia

State officials are quick to mention Russia’s economic troubles, ignore the EEU, and compliment China.

The US Prefers China to Russia in Central Asia
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/CIA

Although his June 2 remarks at the Washington International Business Council focused primarily on India’s regional leadership, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard E. Hoagland had a number of things to say about Central Asia that are worth examining. While he certainly read from the Department of State’s standard book of lines in reference to the region, Hoagland notably omitted any reference to the Eurasian Economic Union, and had some kind works for China.

While Hoagland commented that “Central Asia is not a monolithic region – it’s a diverse group of states with diverse sets of national interests” his remarks nonetheless focused on the region as a whole. He said that the United States is “very focused on a regional strategy of greater connectivity, among the Central Asian states themselves, but also with their neighbors in South Asia, Europe, and East Asia.”

Our efforts are concentrated on improving north-south energy markets, trade and transport infrastructure, customs and borders procedures, and business networks. The region is very welcoming of this work, which we think will open up new opportunities for U.S. businesses to better access growing markets in Asia and beyond.

To increase that likelihood, we’re also promoting a level playing field, working with governments to create institutions and regulatory frameworks that meet international standards.

Examples of this that Hoagland cites are Kyrgyzstan’s membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), Kazakhstan’s plans to accede this year, and the CASA-1000 project. These are light examples. Kyrgyzstan has been a member of the WTO since 1998, Tajikistan joined in 2013, and Kazakhstan formed a working party in 1996 to work through the negotiations–this year it may finally complete them. Uzbekistan started down the WTO road earlier, forming a working party in 1994, but as of 2005 has only held three meetings. In 2013 there were some reports that Uzbekistan would reform the working party and move forward. Also in 2013, Turkmenistan expressed an interest in applying, but it has yet to form a working party.

Noticeably absent from Hoagland’s remarks is any mention of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which includes Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and most recently Kyrgyzstan. Certainly the Washington International Business Council–which is an “information and advisory service for American-based corporations”–would benefit from hearing how the EEU will impact American business interests across the region.

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The closest Hoagland comes is noting the link between the economies of Central Asia and Russia: “They’re dealing with the impacts of Russia’s economic downturn right now, especially when it comes to falling remittances.” He still says that there’s “some real momentum” in the region–though recent World Bank economic outlooks for Kazakhstan and Tajikistan seem to disagree.

While the region’s relationship with Russia is cast only in a negative light, China’s increased interest in and engagement with Central Asia is viewed favorably by Washington. Hoagland said in his latest speech that Washington thinks “some of China’s efforts in Central Asia can be quite complementary to our own.” While China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea is viewed with a skeptical eye in Washington, its energy and economics push into Central Asia is seen in a rosier light.