Donald Lu, the U.S. assistant secretary of State for South and Central Asia, is traveling to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan from November 6-11. It’s Lu’s second trip to Central Asia this year, with an earlier voyage through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan in May and follows a wave of increased engagement with an increasingly important region.
Lu’s trip, the State Department said, aims to emphasize “our shared goal of a prosperous, secure, and democratic Central Asia.” Lu is expected to discuss a range of bilateral issues in each country, as well as launch a new $25 million economic initiative in the region.
The current trip comes amid heightened focus on Central Asia, relative to its position bordering both Russia and China, which the recently released U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) characterized as posing “different challenges.” In delineating those challenges, the NSS stated that Russia “poses an immediate threat to the free and open international system” while China “is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective.” Put differently: Russia is the challenge of the present and China the challenge of the future; Central Asia borders both.
U.S. strategy toward Central Asia remains framed by a strategy unveiled in early February 2020 by the Trump administration’s State Department. The strategy, with the then-still aspirational withdrawal from Afghanistan in mind, sought to reframe the U.S. approach to engagement with the region beyond the war in Afghanistan.
At the time of its release, Alice Wells, then the principal deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asia, told The Diplomat that the strategy’s central mantra — U.S. support for the region’s “independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity” — is “basically the holy trinity of U.S. policy in Central Asia.”
While much has changed since early February 2020, the U.S. strategy toward Central Asia has only become more relevant. There’s nothing particularly novel about emphasizing “independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity,” but the Russian invasion of Ukraine pushed discussion of these basic features of the modern state system back into the limelight. (Hear that? It’s the sound of a million IR grads whispering “Westphalian sovereignty” into the night.)
In any case, as noted above, the announcement of Lu’s November trip once again featured mention of the “holy trinity,” noting that Lu’s visits would “reinforce the United States’ commitment to each country’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.”
The Central Asian region’s democratic credentials are weak, but U.S. geopolitical concerns are not. While coalition building with other democracies is a feature of the Biden administration’s overarching foreign policy, the NSS all the same noted that “many non-democracies join the world’s democracies in forswearing” behaviors stemming from the layering of “authoritarian governance with a revisionist foreign policy.” The NSS highlighted “waging or preparing for wars of aggression, actively undermining the democratic political processes of other countries, leveraging technology and supply chains for coercion and repression, and exporting an illiberal model of international order” as behaviors even non-democracies are concerned about. Indeed, in the great sorting between autocracies and democracies, the Biden administration carved out a space for “countries that do not embrace democratic institutions but nevertheless depend upon and support a rules-based international system.”
Central Asia fits into the gray area between revisionist autocracies and Western-style liberal democracies. As a relatively young region of independent states, hemmed in geographically by large powers, there’s long been appetite for diversification — of partners and trade routes, especially.
The war in Ukraine has also heightened attention to and awareness of Central Asia. Given the region’s economic integration with Russia, international sanctions on Moscow trickle down into Central Asia through various avenues, amplifying difficulties for the landlocked region whose major trading routes traverse Russia. There have been upsides — such as the relocation of some businesses from Russia to Kazakhstan — but also significant downsides as the states of Central Asia try to avoid secondary sanctions and adapt to future limitations on their economic and trading options. With both Russia and Iran under sanctions, Central Asia has a dwindling number of neighbors through which it can trade: Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and China.
In light of these difficulties, and following a successful ministerial C5+1 meeting in September on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, the United States announced the launching of the Economic Resilience Initiative in Central Asia. A State Department spokesperson told The Diplomat that under the initiative the U.S. will provide $25 million in finding for sustainable development in the region.
“The Economic Resilience Initiative will support the development of the region’s trade routes and capacity, educate and train a skilled workforce, and attract international investment to Central Asia,” the spokesperson said.
As a part of the initiative, the United States plans to launch what it has dubbed “C5+O.N.E. or Opening Networks through English” — a program that will invest $5 million to support regional efforts to build a “21st century workforce and attract foreign investment by prioritizing English language training for young professionals in critical sectors.”
The economic piece is particularly important for Central Asia’s governments as the war in Ukraine drags on and sanctions on Russia persist. The focus on English language learning, and a “21st century workforce,” however, are not part of immediate relief efforts, but rather a long-term strategy to cement the English-speaking world as an avenue for future economic, social, political, and cultural development. Remember: Central Asia borders what the U.S. considers both its immediate challenge — Russia — and the great challenge of the future — China.