A new US strategy for Central Asia was released on February 5 in a launch event at “The Heritage Foundation” in Washington D.C. The strategy was published after the annual summit of the “C5+1” initiative in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met just few days ago with representatives from the five Central Asian republics – i.e., Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
In the past few years, the Western world re-focused on the region, which since 2013 has been considerably integrated into China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). The US strategy, in fact, follows the example of the EU, whose strategy was released roughly a year ago.
Considerable similarities emerge from the EU and the US strategies. For starters, both the EU and the US look at Central Asia as an autonomous block, detached from other great powers in Asia such as China and Russia. The US remains particularly vocal in offering the region an alternative to China’s investment system in an effort to give Central Asia different options of engagement. Although the EU and the US strategies do not mention the BRI extensively, both texts clearly hint at China’s growing presence in the region, aggravated by the convergence of interests between Beijing and Moscow. The latter in fact still has the upper hand in shaping the political, cultural and security landscape of Central Asia. Along with the principle of independence, the US sets at the core of its strategy the concepts of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Conversely, the three poles presented by the EU revolve around the notions of resilience, prosperity and cooperation.
Interestingly, the EU and the US both skim over the area’s energy issues, while prioritizing security, especially the Afghan peace process and the permeability of regional borders. Both strategies place Afghanistan under the spotlight, despite conveying contrasting messages. On the one hand, the EU continues to approach Kabul as a “special case”, which is in need of a specific policy, despite looking beyond security as an exclusive geopolitical concept and including objectives of human security. On the other, the US adopts a more inclusive line that aims to exploit the historical, cultural and ethnic connections between Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia, de facto turning Afghanistan into a fully integrated Central Asian state.
It is interesting to note that the EU and the US set as the baseline for their new strategies the political changes experienced by the region in the past five years. The EU identifies the demise of Islom Karimov in 2016, Uzbekistan’s thirty-year-in-the-making leader, and the processes of opening up launched by his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, as important drivers of regional change. Indeed, Western powers interpreted Mirziyoyev’s aim to reduce tensions with Tajikistan as a sign that a new renaissance for Central Asia was slowly approaching. As Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia of the US Department of State, Ambassador Alice Wells, put it: “You can play now in Central Asia”, thus underlining the US willingness to be actively involved in the region. So far, the US strategy has not sparked the reaction of the other actors involved in the area – namely, China, Russia or the EU – although discussions on the strategy’s ability to innovate the international approach towards the region already broke out in the academic and policy domains.
Although the EU and the US strategies come at a favourable junction, they stand on principles that are not entirely new, nor do they fully exploit the “revolutionary” spirit that has been characterizing Central Asia in the past years. Furthermore, both strategies (and the US’s in particular) do not present a clear implementation plan. This vagueness surely made it easier for these strategies to be passed , yet it also makes them look more like “declarations of intent” rather than objective-driven strategies. As noted by Jos Boonstra from the Centre for European Security Strategy, the EU’s is in fact a flexible document that aims to “guide European policy towards Central Asia over the coming decade” by identifying the priorities of EU engagement with the region.
The main risk in putting forward two distinct (and potentially competing) strategies for the region is that they might not be enough to counterbalance China and Russia separately. Although Central Asia is striving to emerge as an independent region, it still largely depends on the revenues of Central-Asian migrant workers in Russia as well as Chinese-funded infrastructural projects on site to develop. At the same time, Moscow remains a political and cultural reference to Central Asia, and education thus is the sector to target in an effort to boost a different form of soft power. Both the EU and the US indeed included cultural and education dimensions into their strategies.
Moreover, Beijing and Moscow maintain the major advantage of having established a varied cooperative architecture that ensures that exchanges between all parties are frequent and political messages frequently reiterated. Conversely, with the “EU-Central Asia Forum” and the “C5+1”, the EU and the US rely on two separate mechanisms that are left with little room for cross-cooperation, the interactions within which run the risk of being too few and far between to make a difference.