Central Asia, though off the radar for general Western audiences, is today an integral part of the globalized world. There are considerable economic opportunities as well as great security perils in the region. The 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union have proven that the local regimes learned well how to capitalize on the former, but not how to effectively tackle the latter. Key external stakeholders in Central Asia — Russia, China, and the United States — all aim to impact the region’s political, military, and economic realities. With Donald Trump at the helm of the new U.S. administration, questions regarding the U.S. policy in Central Asia arise.
It would be premature to speculate about Washington’s regional game plan, in particular given that the Central Asian blueprint is to a certain extent a function of the relations the United States has with Russia and China. However, an attempt could be made to examine the history of U.S.-Central Asia ties and draw relevant insights and review recommendations for the host of the White House.
The United States cannot ignore and be ignored by Central Asia. This could be the quintessence of the relationship between Washington and the region. Although the United States lacks the geographical access to Central Asia, it is still an important partner and an attractive alternative for the landlocked countries of the region.
In the wake of the dissolution of the USSR, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were reborn to the outside world. Washington expressed a limited interest vis-à-vis the region in the 1990s, primarily focusing on the issue of non-proliferation. By 1995, due to U.S. efforts and the cooperation of Moscow, Kazakhstan became a nuclear-free country.
Strobe Talbott, then-U.S. deputy secretary of state, said in 1997 that the United States had no intention to pursue a modern version of the 19th century Great Game. The region, until the terrorist attacks of 9/11, remained a curiosity rather than a priority across the Atlantic.
As a result of the September 2001 attacks, the region evolved into a strategic outpost for Washington. U.S. engagement in Central Asia has over the years concentrated mainly on security. All local regimes participated in Afghan transit operations and two of them, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, hosted now-closed U.S. military bases. Other objectives, including democracy promotion, energy, regional cooperation, or drug and human trafficking, were of secondary importance to security issues.
Today, security matters still tend to dominate the U.S.-Central Asia agenda. Yet with the reduced military footprint in Afghanistan, Washington has been forced to rekindle its regional policy. The U.S. Silk Road initiative announced in 2011 was a misfire. Poorly financed and too Afghanistan-oriented, the strategy did not bear fruit. In 2015, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry initiated yet another platform bringing the United States and Central Asia closer together – the C5+1 format. It is difficult to imagine how the talkshop could compete with the mammoth military presence of Russia and large-scale Chinese economic infiltration in the region.
Policymakers in Washington, before crafting scenarios for Central Asia, should address a number of questions: what are the genuine U.S. interests in the region and how to prioritize them? How to engage in a productive dialogue on democracy with the local regimes? And what should be the correlation between the security assistance provided by Washington and continued human rights violations in Central Asia?
Recommended Game Plan
Central Asia will never be put at the heart of U.S. global policy. Apart from security concerns, there are no strong economic ties with the region and democratic changes are encouraged — if at all — inconsistently. The region could, however, constitute a focal point for Washington’s broader Eurasia scheme. Thus it is in the interest of the United States to keep Central Asia secure and stable.
The new U.S. administration should realize its advantages and shortcomings in Central Asia. It would be recommended, next to the military involvement, to focus on areas where tangible progress is possible (education, health, and environment). If Washington wishes to pursue democracy promotion in the region it should seek for like-minded partners (the EU, Japan, South Korea) to exert more pressure on the local elites.
The United States should also highlight the role of private sector development. It could follow a model successfully implemented in Kyrgyzstan, where U.S. aid facilitated thousands of microloans. In this respect, it would be advisable to revitalize the U.S.-Central Asia Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. Kazakhstan, at the latest meeting of this format in early 2016, proposed to add a practical component and joint projects to the initiative.
While devising a new concept for the region, U.S. strategists should take into account that half of the Central Asian population, according to the World Bank, is under 30. Specific youth-oriented projects aimed at education and culture should be carried out. This could also play a supportive role in limiting radicalization, to which the young generation is particularly vulnerable.
When reasonable, Washington should not pursue its own initiatives, but rather look for synergies with the existing Central Asian projects. The CASA-1000 — a regional electricity transmission system — might be a good case study of a multi-party cooperation, which includes governments as well as international institutions.
As far as the most recent developments are concerned, the C5+1 format should be continued; however, it is important to forge closer bilateral relations between the United States and individual countries of Central Asia. In the past quarter-century, regional cooperation has failed to generate satisfactory outcomes. Bilateral ties, particularly in security collaboration, prove to be more goal-oriented and effective.
Finally, the U.S. government should convey a positive message for Central Asia inclusive of both Russia and China. Currently, any cooperation between Washington, Moscow, and Beijing in the region is doubtful. However, the three players share objectives on counterterrorism, research and education, as well as environmental issues. These areas of convergence should be developed, and the United States should keep the channels of communication with Moscow and Beijing open.
Central Asia has two main features: energy deposits and its geographic location at the Eurasian core. The region is beset with security, economic, and social challenges, yet it has been able to find a delicate balance between stability and prosperity. The latter pertains mostly to ruling circles, leaving the majority of societies uncertain of the future. Thus far, there has been no willingness on behalf of local authorities to accommodate other economic and political interests than their own.
The region seems to enjoy its strategic position and the perks offered by it. Being at the nucleus of interest of Washington, Moscow, and Beijing, makes Central Asia unique in terms of global interconnectedness. Under Donald Trump, a new order in Eurasia is at hand, and Central Asia will be a vital part.
Michał Romanowski is an expert on Eurasia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.