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UK Foreign Secretary’s Visit to Central Asia and Mongolia: An Urgent To-Do List    

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UK Foreign Secretary’s Visit to Central Asia and Mongolia: An Urgent To-Do List    

David Cameron is on a six-nation tour of Central Asia, underscoring the U.K.’s reinvigorated engagement with the region. 

UK Foreign Secretary’s Visit to Central Asia and Mongolia: An Urgent To-Do List    

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron visits the Hazrati Imam Complex in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Tuesday, April 23, 2024.

Credit: Stefan Rousseau/Pool Photo via AP

U.K. Foreign Secretary David Cameron arrived in Uzbekistan on March 22 as part of a five-day tour of Central Asia and Mongolia. He started in Tajikistan on April 22, followed by Kyrgyzstan as he discusses expanding U.K. cooperation with the countries of Central Asia.

The visit serves a dual purpose. First, Cameron will underscore the need to minimize sanction circumvention by dual-use materials that may end up in Russia via Central Asia. Second, he seeks to further explore regional and bilateral engagements as well as expanding commercial relationships with key export partners in the region: Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. 

Cameron’s trip will see him become the first British foreign secretary to visit Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan and the first to visit Uzbekistan since 1997.

Echoing the strategic rivalries of the 19th century’s Great Game, Central Asia and Mongolia are once again at the epicenter, surrounded by competing powers such as Russia, China, Iran, and Afghanistan, each vying for influence in the region.

It is, however, important to move beyond the outdated notion of a “Great Game” — known in Russia as the “Tournament of Shadows” — a term that harkens back to the 19th-century rivalry between Russia and the U.K. over control of India. Such a narrative oversimplifies today’s complexities and undermines the sovereignty of the Central Asian states and Mongolia, portraying them as mere pawns in a geopolitical chess game dominated by external powers.

The reality is markedly different. These nations are active participants with their own strategies and goals, playing a critical role in the balance of power among many competing global influences.

In a series of visits with foreign ministers, presidents, and other high-level officials across the region, Cameron has been signing memorandums of cooperation and pushing for a “new level” of cooperation with the states of the region. Cameron’s first stop was Tajikistan, whose economy is highly dependent on migrant remittances from Russia. He visited the Nurek Hydro Electric Project, the second tallest dam in the world, and met with Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin, as well as Tajik President Emomali Rahmon.

An intergovernmental agreement between Tajikistan and the U.K. was signed. As part of that agreement, the opening of direct flights between London and Dushanbe was proposed. In a speech, Rahmon referred to the United Kingdom as an “important partner in Western Europe.”

Kyrgyzstan was Cameron’s second stop. Upon arrival, Cameron paid his respects at the Ata-Beyit memorial for victims of Soviet repression. He went on to sign an intergovernmental agreement with Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Jeenbek Kulubaev on expanding economic, educational, and sustainable development. He also met with Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov and reportedly discussed the importance of democratic values. 

On Tuesday, Cameron visited Uzbekistan and signed a memorandum of understanding with Uzbek Foreign Minister Bakhtiyor Saidov. As part of the MoU both sides committed to working together on regional security, education, climate change, bilateral trade, and development of business relations. Cameron also published an op-ed with, the Uzbek state-owned media agency, highlighting his commitment to working more closely with Uzbekistan and Central Asia more broadly, and take their relationship “further.”

In his article, Cameron highlighted three areas of cooperation, of which the first priority was to combat illegal sanction evasion; the establishment of Central Asia’s first SME private equity/venture capital fund to invest in high potential firms in the region; and increasing funding for education and English language teaching in the region.

For Central Asia and Mongolia, having viable and strong diplomatic options is key. Previously, the U.K. had not offered the level of commitment and trade partnerships that could rival those of Russia or China. However, this tour indicates that the U.K. is finally making long-awaited changes. Indeed, in November 2023 the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee published a report with clear recommendations and stated directly that the U.K. government should jumpstart its engagement with Central Asia. Following the report, in January 2024, officials from the Sanctions Directorate of the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth and Development Office alongside lawyers from FieldFisher traveled to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, and Armenia to hold sanctions consultations. 

Russia and China continue to play a large role in Central Asia and Mongolia, largely because of their geographical position. Sharing the same neighborhood with such powers results in a shared geopolitical reality and intertwined economies. But this should not serve as a reason for others to give up on engaging with this large area.

Against this backdrop, the U.K. is presented with a window of opportunity. With the young population of Central Asia and Mongolia growing, there is an increasing desire among the younger generations to forge connections with the West. It would be a missed opportunity for the U.K. to dismiss these countries as “off the beaten track” or too complicated, simply saying “let’s just leave it alone.” In reality these nations are eager to engage more with Western discourse, and, in some cases, are actively striving to move in that direction. Mongolia and Central Asian countries together form one of the largest territories on the planet and occupy a strategically significant geographic position. 

Frankly, what the region really desires are options, particularly Western ones. These countries are eager to forge a different path; at 34 years young – since shedding the Soviet yoke – they are not inclined to simply fall under the influence of another. Each country, and the region as a whole, prefers not to be defined by its neighboring powers. They aim to create their own identities, foreign policies, and alliances.

Cameron’s visit marks a crucial turning point. The reality is that Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Mongolia are at a stage where they actively desire and welcome the U.K.’s involvement. As the dynamics of Central Asia change, the U.K. has finally begun calibrating its foreign policy in this area and seems ready to become a major, proactive player in the region. About time too.