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The West Is Eying Closer Relations With Central Asia

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The West Is Eying Closer Relations With Central Asia

It’s been a busy year for Central Asia, with numerous Western diplomats swinging through the region or welcoming Central Asian delegations in their own capitals.

The West Is Eying Closer Relations With Central Asia
Credit: Official White House photo

An interesting development is occurring in Central Asia. Over the past year, leaders from Western states have visited the region to meet with representatives from the five Central Asian states. Others welcomed Central Asian delegations to their countries.

These events occur at a time when there may be a power shift in the region. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has worked hard to maintain its influence in Eurasia. It has done so through economic and energy means. In the case of Central Asia, these countries have relied heavily on trade with Russia. To date, Russia is Central Asia’s second-largest economic partner. Central Asia is also “intimately tied into trade networks that stretch” across the region.

Outside these economic relations, Russia is also attempting to strengthen its energy market within Central Asia. The most recent proposal is establishing a gas union, with Russia keen to boost its exports to the region and Central Asian countries in need of energy. If this proposal were to be successful, it would further strengthen Russia’s energy market while diminishing the markets within Central Asia. Finally, Central Asia is well-known for its vast resources. From rare earth elements and grain to hydropower and gas, the region is rich in natural materials. Russia understands that if it were to gain access to these resources, this would only further empower its position on the international stage.

Recent developments, however, have seen Russia’s influence wane. When Moscow launched its full-scale military incursion into Ukraine, the international community imposed stiff sanctions on Russia. These penalties have hurt the Russian economy. Furthermore, Russia’s failed war has undermined “economic development as access to key markets have been cut off.” Poor performances on the battlefield have also damaged Russia’s image as an invincible superpower. As a result, several of Russia’s allies chose not to rush to its aid when the Russians sought assistance in its invasion. Instead, these countries opted to slowly distance themselves from Russia while attempting to build new partnerships with other countries. This has presented an opportunity for others to try to step in and fill Russia’s power vacuum.

The most obvious candidate is China, as Central Asia also has strong economic and energy relations with the Chinese. During the first half of 2023, trade increased between China and Central Asia. Leaders from these countries met in May and discussed ways to boost Chinese investment in the region. As for its energy relationship, China is Central Asia’s largest gas consumer. To date, China imports “more than two-thirds of its pipeline gas” from Central Asia.

Despite these relations, the Chinese appear reluctant to fill Russia’s gap. According to a Eurasianet report, the Chinese hesitate to “assume regional hegemony” in the region as Russia’s role diminishes. The feeling is mutual for residents within the region. In a 2022 article published by The Diplomat, research found that Kazakhstanis, Uzbekistanis, and Kyrgyzstanis had a less-than-favorable view of China. This would make it harder for the Chinese to spread their influence in the region.

Amid these unexpected developments, Western countries are enhancing their cooperation with Central Asia. First, the United States. In February, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. During his visit, the secretary said that the United States was committed to helping the countries of Central Asia “develop the strongest possible capacities for their own security.” The United States then built on these topics at the first-ever C5+1 Presidential Summit in September. During the meeting, U.S. President Joe Biden met with the leaders of the five Central Asian states and discussed how the region could strengthen its energy independence, economy, and national security. The session concluded with the leaders stating that they would pursue stronger diplomatic engagements between the United States and the Central Asian states.

Other Western leaders took notice of this success, and adopted similar patterns. Later in September, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz welcomed the leaders from the five Central Asian states to Berlin. During the meeting, the German leader reiterated the need for Central Asia to strengthen its national security. Scholz also signed a joint statement with representatives from Central Asia, highlighting the importance of the region’s territorial integrity.

Then, French President Emmanual Macron traveled to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in November to discuss economic and political relations. France is a large foreign investor in Kazakhstan, and the French leader urged the region to diversify its partnerships while also promoting “greater economic openness.” 

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has pursued its own strategy to strengthen its relationship with the states of Central Asia. The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee recently published a report in which the authors advocated for the U.K. to deepen its engagement with the region. The committee argued that enhancing cooperation with Central Asia would defend the region’s independence from large and assertive neighbors such as China and Russia, and that the U.K. should offer assistance to the region to help the countries tackle corruption and money laundering. The report also called for the U.K. to host a summit in 2024 with the leaders from Central Asia, where they could focus on topics such as democratization and renewable energy.

Finally, on a larger scale, the European Union has started to make its mark. This October, officials from the European Union met with Central Asian representatives to discuss how they can enhance their relationship. During the session, the participants highlighted the need to strengthen cooperation in security challenges, economic and trade negotiations, and energy matters. They also discussed how the EU could enhance its trade relations with the region.

Overall, there appears to be a shift in power in Central Asia. Russia’s influence has declined and China remains hesitant to fill the void in Central Asia. This has presented the West with an opening. Western leaders have recently frequented meetings with their Central Asian counterparts, and both parties seem keen on enhancing these relations. These are promising signs, but it remains to be seen how this dialogue will materialize.